So, tell me if you've heard this one before: there are three slacker best friends who are obsessed with science fiction, the 1980s, comic books, and video games. One's an overstimulated underachiever with an inability to grasp normal social rules. Another is a shrimpy ubergeek with an inch more sensitivity and a mile more success with the ladies. And the third is an unrepentant alcoholic who frequently wakes up in his own vomit can't let go of a joke. They sit around, watching cartoons, killing virtual zombies, and making geeky references until Character #1 (in this case, a giant rabbit named Lolo) receives a letter telling him that he's inherited his late uncle's haunted mansion. So they pack up and move into their strange but luxurious new digs, where they proceed to watch cartoons, kill virtual zombies, and make geeky references.
With me so far?
Zac Gorman's Montgrave certainly isn't the highest concept webcomic around, and I admit I initially found myself rolling my eyes, wondering if there weren't enough comics out to capture the Atari-nostalgic demographic. But Montgrave has one key attribute that too many similarly themed comics lack: it doesn't take itself too seriously. With a candy-colored palette and character designs that mix the anthropomorphic and the monstrous (Lolo, the aforementioned rabbit, is more Harvey than Frank; Dug is a cross between Peter Parker, a gopher, and Kenny from South Park; and Bixby's blue, trollish appearance and pronounced underbite make his overestimation of his booze tolerance more comical than disturbing), Gorman creates a world that's fast-paced, absurd, and stuffed with dark-tinged fun.
Yes, there are geeky jokes aplenty, but don't expect diatribes about George Lucas or the Watchmen movie. Instead, the references here are much more affectionate. Bixby opens a model fridge to discover it contains the demonic universe of the gatekeeper Zuul. Lolo and the crew discover an army of Fraggles living beneath the mansion who've gone Communist, cut ties with their Doozer pals, and started manufacturing their own Doozer sticks (not that Lolo et al. comprehend any of this). And when Dug's father arrives on the scene, he goes by "Dig" and strongly resembles the underground warrior from a certain 1980s arcade game. On top of that, Gorman is an unpretentious pop culture omnivore, name checking Friends and The Hills amidst mentions of Terminator and Dune.
Admittedly, the approach is a bit hit-and-miss. When it works, the results can truly inspired. When it doesn't, it feels slightly obnoxious (The next person who makes a "Come with me if you want to live" joke in a storyline not about killer machines gets it in the groin. Seriously.). And occasionally, I get the sense that Gorman is telling the wrong joke -- as in the incredibly promising story arc that casts Ikea as a classic fantasy labyrinth, but is truncated by a still funny (but not quite as funny) owlbear chase.
Even when Montgrave doesn't quite reach it's potential, it's still goofy and satisfying fun. Gorman has an awesome sense of timing and knows when he's pushing the envelope -- and when to push it even further (it's heavily implied that the cartoonish behavior Montgrave characters engage in -- binge drinking, Fraggle hunting, stabby stabbing -- can actually harm them). And with each arc, he gets a better sense as to where he can prod his characters and their universe (the latest arc finds one of our heroes in a coma, which plays out in his mind like a perverse high fantasy epic). In the end, Montgrave comes off as a somewhat Simpsons-eque pleasure; smart but accessibly so, attractive but vulgar, shocking but not horrifying, progressive but free to take shots at whomever it chooses.
Plus, whenever it turns up in my reader, I smile, which is my personal litmus test for any comic. Let fun reign.