Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book Review: "Problem Sleuth Volume 1: Compensation, Adequate"
I think it's safe to say that MSPaintAdventures has hurled itself to the top of the webcomic world faster than just about any other comic. 2 years ago Andrew Hussie had little more content than two frenetic, abandoned stories called "Bard Quest" and "Jailbreak." Taking their narrative developments from reader suggestions, the stories had little cohesion and were not that much fun to read.

But then he started writing a third story, Problem Sleuth, and he used a little more discretion in deciding which suggestions he would use to advance the plot. The story exploded into a year-long epic and MSPA has been going strong ever since. The plot follows a detective, Problem Sleuth (really his title but functionally his name) and his two compatriots, Ace Dick and Pickle Inspector, as they attempt to leave their office building. Jumping in and out of "reality," acquiring new weapons and skills, duplicating themselves, dying, going back and forward in time, and dealing with all sorts of Weird Puzzle Shit, the story is complex, to say the least. It takes the form of a text-based adventure game, with a command for a character at the bottom of each panel. Online, the reader clicks the command and the next page shows the consequence of that action, with a new command underneath that. Repeat 1700 times.

There are, of course, two ways to read the story online: In real time, a panel or two a day, stretched over a year, or all at once. The two are quite different, as I am realizing - I personally jumped on the MSPA bandwagon after PS was over, and I've been reading the current story, Homestuck, more or less in real time for the last year. PS, though, I went back and read all at once.

The main difference, I think, is that these stories are full of incredible detail. If you are reading a particularly long scene, for example, it may stretch over several weeks (remember that the final boss fight of PS is the entire second half of the story). If reading the story is something that you do a few minutes a day for months, you are liable to forget some of the details as large chunks of the rest of your life happen in between installments. Reading all at once, with only a few breaks, that's less likely to happen. Hundreds of panels ago may only be an hour or so back.

About a year ago, I spent a while looking around online for some site that had all of Problem Sleuth in one long, long page. I wanted to be able to load it all up and then read it over a long train ride, not knowing what else to do with that time. It occurred to me then - before I had read it - that a book might be the perfect format for this story. All the panels are about the same size, and you could just put a panel on each page. Yes, it would be a 1,700 page book, but it could be done. No? But then I started reading the thing, and I realized that putting it to the page would be a formidable task, not just for length reasons.

But PS's popularity remained strong enough that people decided a book would be a good idea, though not all in one installment as I had amusingly imagined. Volume I, "Compensation: Adequate" takes its name from the first chapter of the story and includes chapters 1-5 (there are a total of 22 chapters in the story). That gives you the introduction, where we get to know the world and the mechanics (as well as the main characters) and a few early boss fights. The book ends just as PS and AD reach some surly mobsters, just before the whole story does a high dive into the pool of crazy.

So how does the story work after it makes the jump from screen to page? For the most part, quite well. I'll talk about the positives first, since there are more of them. As I wrote above, this is a story that benefits from reading all at once. Say what you will about ebooks and reading online, I think most people will have a more pleasant time reading a long story on a printed page, all other factors aside. It's also faster to read this way, since you never have to scroll around for the next command to move ahead and wait for it to load. No internet connection is as fast as just looking a few inches over. In short, it feels less like a text-based game, the genre it is emulating, and more like a graphic novel. I think it does the story more justice this way and makes for a better read.

One thing I had just assumed they would do is print all the panels equally sized - as they are online. But I was wrong, luckily. As I said above, most pages have four panels, and that's good: the pace is kept brisk that way, since most of the panels are just barely advancing the plot. The panels that are important - the ones that deserve more emphasis in the rhythm of the storytelling - they get a full page. Like this one, or this one. Occasionally a large block of text means that a page only gets two or three panels, but it is always done intelligently. Like any good breaking up of rhythmic elements, the fact that you don't notice it means that it's been done well.

Unlike online, the chapters are noted in the text, with each one getting its own title page. I like this, and not only because the title pages have cool drawings that are a sort of more advanced take on an image from that section. Dividing them up explicitly gives the book a better sense of structure. You can feel closure at certain points, and know at others that a climactic moment is coming up.

Lastly, the book is printed nicely. The colors look good, the commands are in gray so they still feel different, and the panels are legible while still retaining the faux-MS Paint charm that the original had. In addition to the main text, there are a few pages extra Obnoxious Notes (a la this) in the back, and Ryan North wrote as fawning and toady a forward as we were all expecting (not a bad thing) (except, I usually love everything Ryan North does and quite frankly I didn't like this as much. I wonder if he really does love MSPA too much to write a good forward? think about this later).

Most pages (maybe 3/4) also have short notes by Andrew Hussie at the bottom about those panels. These I didn't like as much. Most felt unnecessary and pointless; the vast majority just make fun of the logical or artistic flaws in the story. Quite frankly, most of them felt forced into the book to give it some extra content. There are some interesting ones - a lot - that give insight into the story and the process of creating it, and I wish Hussie could have added more of these.

As an aside, a lot of the expository author's notes remind me of those from the Achewood book, in that they are the author, speaking seriously about the work we're reading. They are sort of the textual equivalent of a director's commentary on a DVD. They are interesting, but I can't help but think that there's something lost when the reading of a work is constantly being interrupted by the author telling you about it. You never get to experience the work, alone. On a DVD, of course, you just turn the commentary off, but you can't do that with a book, and skipping the comments altogether seems like a shame. Something to think about.

ALRIGHT, this review has gone on long enough already. Let's get to the serious problems and we can all go home.

As expected, a major loss in the book is the lack of animations. This is, of course, inevitable, but there are certain ways to get around it. The way Hussie chose was to either ignore the animation in some cases (where it was minor and not particularly interesting) but in the important ones, he splits up the frames and shows you all of them. So here's a comparison of one panel online and its print equivalent.

And how it looks in the book (with a little lens flare from my camera in the lower right corner):

Another one:

And how we see it now:

The fact that the notes below these sections always apologize profusely for the stacity of the image (i made that word up but it's good so whatever) only makes it more irritating to think that you are missing something. Luckily for now, the animations aren't too critical in chapters 1-5. But who knows what later chapters will need? I assume Hussie &co understand what they have to do and have a good plan.

One might wonder what the author could reasonably be expected to do, short of not produce a book at all. I think the best thing, though it would have been much more work, would have been to rework the story slightly and not hew so strongly to the original animations. Change the dancing, for example, to a new panel showing the same thing. If the art is created to be still, you can add details you wouldn't need if it was made to be animated. It would have made the story a little different from the one online, yes, and some purists (I assume there are MSPA purists) would have been annoyed. But the reader would benefit.

Other small notes: I was surprised that there were no page numbers. I was hoping for panel numbers, so that one can more easily cross reference the book with the online edition. Short of that though, I figured the pages would at least be numbered so you can remember where you left off (given that so many images are so similar). Not happening though. Also there are some typos and other small mistakes, that is unfortunate. I am sure the second edition can take care of these.

My final recommendation would have been to make one of the front pages a map of the Problem Sleuth world, like many fantasy books have. It could have been a nice place for some new art (not that there isn't plenty of new art spread throughout) but more importantly, it could have made a complex story far easier to follow.

(update: People point out that there is a map, thought it's not part of the story, but a more polished version of that is very close to what I meant)

"Problem Sleuth Volume I: Compensation, Adequate" is fun for the same reasons the online version of Problem Sleuth is fun. The story is good and told with humor, and the art adds to the strange tone of the whole thing. It's an easier story to follow on paper too, though some animated details are lost. There are those people who will love MSPA no matter what, and I don't think they will be disappointed by this. But the people who will be best served by this are those who tried to read the story online and didn't have the stamina for it. It goes faster and makes more sense in print. If you've been trying to get into MSPA, this is the easiest way to start. I look forward to seeing how the rest of the story works in book form.


  1. Personally I don't understand the deal with MSPA. What's so great about a whole comic based on nothing but "lol so randum"?

    Taking reader suggestions sounds like a great idea, but when your spot in the limelight is maybe three words in one panel, you tend to go the tried and true tactic of "make the most bizarre suggestion possible, present it as a joke and imply undermining the concept in this way is humorous" (this is the reader's thought, that is). Nobody is gonna try to make insightful social commentary or whatever when you have a line of text at most, and even that probably won't be selected. You can't have a joke that makes you think, because if it did it would be complicated and need explanation, and you don't have the room for explanation, as said before.

    So the result is, everyone tries to out-weird each other with one liners and then you have a whole "story" made from those attempts, loosely linked to each other. Sure, absurdity is funny, kind of, but when you have nothing but absurdity it gets old quick.

    For me anyway.

  2. I'm pretty randome mahself... PANCAKES LOL!

  3. What the f is this? This sucks worse than xkcd. I came here to laugh not induce a seizure.

  4. Jimbobbowilly (Max W Gore)May 21, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    The epileptic cuddlefish needs to stay away from sites with GIFs.

  5. "Personally I don't understand the deal with MSPA. What's so great about a whole comic based on nothing but "lol so randum"?"

    If it was all just non sequiturs sure. MSPA builds on the foundations of insanity. It follows up on them with a kind of frantic demented logic and the momentum builds and builds and builds right up to the conclusion.

    There are a few bits which *are* just random and dumb, but you get the feeling that the author is trying to craft as much as possible into something incredible.

  6. you huge dumbass

    1) Why would you embed a flashing animation 1 line under text we're supposed to read?
    2) There is a PS map that he drew.

  7. uh carl could you just link to the slug gif

  8. P#1: there is something he calls a map, but it's not at all. It's just a weirdly laid out table of contents. It doesn't show you any of the spaces where the story takes place, laid out in a meaningful way. Unless there's something I'm forgetting?

  9. Theres this for a map:

  10. Carl: , no?

  11. Ah man I have enjoyed HS so far but the updates that he posted all at once this week made me annoyed/despair about how ridiculous it is. I mean babies. WTF?

  12. Ah, that map is very close to what I was looking for. I'll add it to the post. In my defense: It's not in the story, and I hadn't read many of the fan requested panels.

  13. One word: Pornogr- er, wait... Flipbook. Yeah, that's what they should use to make the animations not suck. Attach a little mini flipbook (or animations in the corners and just use those as a flipbook.

  14. Mark... if you're complaining about how Homestuck has ridiculous plot points, you're very much a year too late.

  15. I've been able to deal with most of it by saying heh thats a zany plot point. BUT THE BABIES ARRGGHHH

  16. Later editions will cover animation by using those 2D holograms which change the image depending on how the light hits them. I have it on good authority- my imagination. It has not failed me yet, and on those instances in which it has I have simply continued to go through life as though it hadn't. All it takes is faith and trust, and a little bit of fairy dust.

  17. Actually, a while back, Hussie closed the suggestion box, and, though he said something about opening it when the 4/13 animation came around, is now saying, "actually, . So I don't think I will be opening the suggestion box anytime soon. When it becomes an inhibition to the story, why should I keep it?"

    Long story short: actually Homestuck's not run by suggestions anymore.

    But what do you have against babies? How else are you going to create paradox clones of yourself???



  19. he's just doing this so he can get free stuff, anon

  20. 6:40
    I was under the impression that the whole point of this blog was "Listen to Carl's opinions about webcomics, especially xkcd!"

  21. Whoa whoa. I thought this blog was about having a community where everyone's voice was heard equally and taken into consideration, especially by such paragons of respect and tact like Rob, in order to facilitate an improvement upon those things in which we feel have been slipping.

    No, you're right, it's just a place for Carl to ejaculate onto his own face. AND I LOVE IT FOR THAT.

  22. death of the author

    let's kill carl

    captcha: worserat


  24. Less reviewy, more posty about new comicy.

  25. I didn't think anyone here seriously expected to influence Randall's "work" through this blog. And hey, it sounds ridiculous when you put it like that but Carl's opinions are entertaining to read (those about xkcd, anyway), and they are the reason I started following the blog.

  26. Because those dudes are straight-up talking about watching porn in front of each other, I have no choice but to assume that they're homosexual swingers who are in a gay relationship and also dating other people simultaneously.

    I also have no choice but to assume that Randall has completely forgotten what constitutes humor.

  27. In this comments section, people assume that Problem Sleuth is totally constructed from suggestions by the reader (which is not the case, in case you honestly still believe that), presumably because they didn't do any background research on it at all. And I laugh. Oh how I laugh.

  28. Well yeah obviously Andrew Hussie got creative with the consequences of actions, and selectively decided which suggestions to use, so what?

  29. Femalethoth, not everybody has the same restricted comfort zone as you. Some heterosexual males sit on the couch together watching porn on the television while masturbating.

  30. I personally don't go that far, but yeah I talk about porn with my friends, exchange porn stars, and can comfortably say "brb fap".
    You silly conservative silly

  31. ScottMcTony, I think you're missing the point or rather did not do the research. It isn't a case of him being especially selective with the suggested commands, although he is, it's a case of him using his own commands which he made up himself to move the story along 90% of the time.

    People don't seem to have realized that. Do some research next time or you come off like an ass who doesn't know what the hell he's talking about as apposed to just an ass.

  32. No he only did that in the last like 20% of it, and it still usually wasn't made up commands(although it was sometimes) it was just the very frequent "next"s while commands were generally just incidental comedy things, although the consequence is still the same so I don't know why I bothered to type that.
    The important thing is, that was only late Problem Sleuth.

  33. I'm a big fan of MSPA, but I have to agree that the introduction of the babies is pretty tenuous.

    I fear that the second wind that Homestuck seemed to pick recently may be wearing out.

    and w/r/t Andrew not taking user suggestions, I don't really care too much. I still find the most interesting premise of MSPA to be the prolificity of it.

  34. The only reason Andrew isn't taking user suggestions right now is because, when he started Homestuck, he planned to finish it within a year like Problem Sleuth did. As it turned out it became impossible, so he decided to do a grand flash animation for 4/13 and control the plot himself until it got there. As it turned out again, fate would have its way with Hussie and he couldn't get the animation out.

    He has yet to do the 4/13 animation, and I assume that once he finishes the 4/13 animation and gets the plot to where it needs to be he'll reopen the boxes again.

    And what does everyone have against babies?

  35. Just realised that with the introduction of babies Homestuck jumped the shark. You all know its true.


  37. I'd have to say, when I first started reading Problem Sleuth a long time ago, I was kind of put off by the randomness. But when I read through it, all the tying together of the random events started pulling it into an awesome story.

    "Pose as a team. The world is real."

    As per Homestuck, I like the story. Not as random, but it constantly pulls me in, making me wonder "what's next about this story? Why is this completely seemingly random thing important?" and when I find out, its awesome.