Saturday, February 21, 2009

Traffic Hell is Gorgeous, But Purgatory for Readers

Husband and wife team Dawna and Daniel Davis describe their webcomic Monster Commute as a "Traffic Novel." It's a clever play on words, but an inaccurate description of the largely gag-a-day comic about a demon and a skull ghost-powered robot on the literal commute from Hell.

The Davises own and operate Steam Crow, a company that primarily makes monster-themed art, t-shirts, and toys, on top of a few short-form books. Monster Commute uses Steam Crow's well-honed visual style, blending the retrofuturist aesthetic of 1960s advertising with a grimey, washed-out palette and overshadowed by towering steampunk fixtures. It provides a critique of the consumerist, 9 to 5 culture that creates these interminable traffic jams in a way that is amusing rather than soapboxing. Add to that the gleeful cynicism of the setting -- a bleak underworld ruled by apparent president-for-unlife Lincolnstein and littered with Clown Bites, a fast food franchise that's more Pennywise than Ronald McDonald -- and you have the potential for something truly dark and funny and weird.

When I first heard the setup for Monster Commute, that a pair of beasties are stuck in a purgatorial commute that never ends, I was admittedly charmed, thinking this would be the perfect afterlife road movie -- a sort of No Exit meets Kneller's Happy Campers mixed in with that one episode of Doctor Who. But Monster Commute fails to deliver on the promises of its intriguing pitch and lush art. Commuters Beastio Wand and Chadworth Machine stave off boredom with lame jokes (when told not to sing, Beastio laments "My heart is song!" and Chadworth, after a pause, retorts "My heart is a model 775 Brindlehurst.") and obvious observations on highway life (Beastio tries to order eggs on a stick from a drive-thru, but the cleark is unable to understand him). Occasional vignettes feature characters with gorgeous designs who perform depressingly mundane functions. A satanic radio DJ magically appears in the van, harrasses Beastio and Chadworth with his morning drive banter, then abruptly vanishes. In a later set of strips, a policebot catches Chadworth in a traffic violation, but merely accepts the robot's bribe and flies off. There are no probing conversations, no inane adventures, no insightful commentary to keep us company during the ride.

It's a shame as the Steam Crow team has such an obvious flair for design and the visual aspects of worldbuilding. As it stands, Monster Commute is a potentially wonderful webcomic in desperate need of a writer.

[Monster Commute]