Originally published on the defunct pop culture site Nerd Underground. Text pulled from Wayback Machine, but images lost to time.
I don’t know if I still agree with it.
Hey! This is the first of a series of themed comic reviews I’ll be doing, each one posing a driving question or issue, then discussing how one series either answers it or gives us a viewpoint through which we can examine it.
Let’s start with the perennial favorite of whether or not a protagonist has to be likeable. It’s one of the most debated topics in lit; no idea why, though, since the conclusion’s always the same: “Nah, just compelling.”
What makes a character compelling? It’s not morality, since some of the most popular titles of late have intentionally vile protagonists. In most of these stories, the writer presents us with the bad guy, and as the show goes on, has them do more and more of the kind of dirt you’d want to see a real person executed for, but challenges you to keep liking this fictional one, or at least understand their reasons and stay with the story. And it often works.
But what about when it’s not that cut and dry? So, let’s look at a series whose lead sits in a gray area: Meaty Yogurt.
Ever been in a bad relationship? Chances are it started out fine. Maybe you noticed they had a shitty streak, but the good times always made up for it. The longer you were together, though, the more the good-to-shit ratio shifted, until eventually, you found yourself buried neck-deep in the latter, wondering why it ever looked so appealing in the first place.
Meaty Yogurt is an indiesque slice-of-life webcomic that follows Jackie Monroe as she bounces from hobby to hobby, life goal to life goal, Homer Simpson-like, in a futile quest to escape the small town she seems fated to live in forever. And being aggressively unkind to most of the people she meets along the way.
Like your theoretical ex, Jackie isn’t evil, just kinda shitty. And she’s tolerable at first, but as the series presents you with dick move after dick move, it becomes hard to care about the outcomes of her misadventures. Until, eventually…
What, if you’re not still in that relationship, finally caused the breakup? I can’t say for certain, but I’ll bet they crossed “the line.”
In the Smile Time Cosmic Farm Co-Op arc, Jackie tries to infiltrate a local cult to get a good story for the town paper where she works, but ends up making genuine friendships with its members and discovering her preconceptions about fringe groups might be wrong.
That is, until they commit mass suicide. Turns out they really were the scary death cult everyone thought they were, so score one for our prejudices. And their method of doing it? Take one guess; it’ll be right.
Granted, the several pages afterwards depict grief fairly well. For a moment there, Jackie seems genuinely changed. But no: soon enough, everything’s back to normal and it’s all just erased. I know this is an American comedy, so Status Quo is God and no sadness can last for more than a minute, but come on.
Then, as if to rub it in, that arc’s followed by another that does the same thing: Jackie thinks she’s pregnant. Is she?
Wait for it…
Wait for it……
Wait for it………
Nothing’s changed, no one’s learned anything, and no hard choices had to be made.
Often, when a show has a morally icky lead, it’ll balance them out with someone more “likeable” on the opposing team. If you hate Heisenberg, Light Yagami, or The Suicide Squad, you might like Hank, L, or Batman, so you’ll at least find someone to root for, and a conflict to become invested in.
Here, however, there are no major conflicts yet, aside from Jackie’s struggles with her own self-imposed failings, and the other characters mainly exist for her to use (or in Moira’s case, pedestalize), only occasionally treating like humans. No antagonists, no foils, no one to call her out in any meaningful way, and therefore, no struggle, no growth. The closest we get is her harried roommate Saffron, a great character, but one whose cries of reason are always ignored.
Up until now, that is. The good news is that author Megan “Rosalarian” Gedris is fully aware of Jackie’s flaws, and has at least written her a drunk moment of self-awareness.
She’s also commented that Jackie’s many failings throughout the first book are to show that in reality, unlike in fiction, people often take years of repeating the same patterns before they begin to change. Even more promisingly, she’s expressed an interest in moving towards “backstory, character development, and overall story arc stuff, and less of the ‘distraction of the week’ type of stories that we had in book 1.” And sure enough, the current arc’s already bringing the series’ supernatural aspects, at least one of which seems to be out to get Jackie, to the fore.
All well and good, but we’re still left with one glaring problem. The line. You’re familiar with the concept, I’m sure, but video reviewer Bennett the Sage explained it in a way that bears repeating.
“There’s a sort of…moral event horizon that unlikely heroes have. They need to have bad qualities in order to be considered an unlikely hero, but if they go too far, then you lose your audience and you’re stuck with an unlikeable asshole for your protagonist.”
Was it crossed at the Smile Time Co-op? For the longest time, I was convinced it was, and that no matter how much character development she undergoes, she’ll always be the person who forgot about the deaths of tens of her friends in like a week. And adding insult to injury, several pages later, she’s making fun of them with Saffron as if they were a one-month boyfriend she’d just dumped via text, then running off to start her own cult. With predictable results.
But then I had to admit, she’s far from alone in doing this: I know the ability to shrug off PTSD is the first thing they teach you in protagonist school, and that it’s often necessary to move a story along from a tragic arc. In fact, to Rosalarian’s credit, she least made a good attempt to depict grief where many comic writers don’t even try.
And it could have well been a pacing issue, not a story one: it was only after a re-read that I spotted the author comment explaining those several pages are meant to represent several months.
In fact, maybe the fact that I’m still debating this a year after I first read the series (and drafted a much more scathing version of this review) shows that Rosalarian’s succeeded in toeing the line, creating a jerk that—just like the ones I’ve known in real life—I can spend years trying to figure out what to make of.
Despite all this comic’s flaws, I still like it a lot overalI. The writing’s very funny and clever, and all the side characters are great. Will I ever like Jackie? Probably not. But if the goal was to keep us coming back to see what’ll happen, she’s accomplished that..
And maybe, what I’m complaining about is exactly what makes for a compelling jerk. A car crash we can’t help but stare at. One who infuriates and intrigues us at the same time. One who keeps the fans and critics pissing, moaning, and threatening to quit reading, but secretly coming back every update for more.