Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Paul Taylor's "Wapsi Square"

Monica is a buxom young anthropologist who, one strange and fateful day, reanimates Tepoztecal, the Mayan god of drunkeness, from a clay figurine. Suddenly, Monica and her friend Shelly are caught up in a world of gods and demons that's filled with more questions than answers. Why are Egyptian markings appearing on Pre-Columbian artifacts at the museum where Monica works? What is the nature of the three immortal drunk chicks Tepoz conjured into her apartment? And what does this all have to do with the Mesoamerican predictions that creation will end on December 21, 2012?

Paul Taylor's Wapsi Square is a slightly venerable webcomic with an intimidating 7+ year strip archive. It's also a remarkable example of how writers and artists can improve with time in the online public eye. The first few dozen Waspi strips are little more than a dry run; those looking to dive into the epic would do best to begin with the "Aztec Curse" storyline, in which Monica first encounters Tepoztecal. And for a couple of years, Wapsi suffered a webcomic identity crisis. Was it a romantic comedy? A series of amusing anecdotes featuring a single group of friends? A tale of the supernatural?

In 2004, Wapsi underwent a stylistic reboot. Although the look, feel, and continuity remained the same, Taylor significantly tightened his art and consistently added backgrounds to his panels. And, in "The Golem Girls," he finally reigned in the overall plot, bringing Wapsi's supernatural elements to the foreground.

There's a lot to like about Wapsi Square. The similar facial designs of Taylor's female characters are at times confusing (I occasionally mistake Monica for golem girl Bud and Shelly for the serpentine Jin), but his art has become quite strong and energetic over the years. And he takes some laudable risks with Waspi's aesthetic, frequently blending his light and happy look with darker, Gaiman-inspired figures. His main cast is filled with strong, likable women, and some intriguing minor characters I'd like to spend more time with (lesbian folk singer Heather Mills and Jacqui's tattooed, Marcie-esque sidekick Luci). And more recent arcs have revealed that the Wapsi continuity exists as part of an eons-long time paradox, setting up possibilities down the road that could be both heartwrenching and deliciously sci-fi.

But the series hasn't yet lived up to its full potential. Part of my disapointment with Wapsi stems from what I perceive as missed opportunities that might have fallen by the wayside before Taylor had a clear vision for the series. Initially, Monica has every reason to believe that the otherworldly goings on in her life aren't real, and Taylor could have spent months or even years questioning her sanity and playing with his readers' perceptions. Instead, her friends too blithely confirm and accept what Monica sees.

Wapsi's more enduring problem is the utter lack of tension between the major characters. In a series that features sexually abused immortals, the undead, and girls as interested in maintaining a love life as saving the world, you'd think we'd be in for some cataclysmic personality clashes. But most of the women have been granted generic insecurities in lieu of actual character flaws, and minor conflicts are averted with neatly wrapped conversations and a general sense that strong, intelligent gals should all just get along. Consequently, the main plot is typically advanced by Wapsi's more omniscient characters, who tug and nudge the rest of the cast into place.

But there's plenty of room for genuine conflict peeking over the horizon. Shy girl Katherine may finally force Monica to confront how her recent discoveries could destroy her anthropology career. The revelation of the time paradox means we may glimpse another version of the universe where everyone isn't so agreeable. And given how much human sacrifice plays into Wapsi's mythology, it's likely that someone, sometime has got to die. In the meantime, there are more than enough subplots -- both fantastical and mundane -- to keep the characters occupied until 2012.

[Wapsi Square]

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