Bite-Sized: The Sinfest Effect

For the uninitiated, Sinfest is a webcomic that started in 2000, and its basically been continuing one strip a day ever since. The format is in the style of old newspaper comics (kind of like Sluggy Freelance) whereby the first 6 days of the week are 4 panel single strips, and the Sunday strip is in full color. The plot started off as some kind of supreme American satire, with its respective ‘normal’ main characters duking out its various matters with a whole host of archetypes like God, Satan, Buddha, a religious fundamentalist archetype, Uncle Sam etc…

If you go and look at any kind of review online though, you’ll know what the main deal with Sinfest is.

I’ll just quote TV Tropes since it describes it a whole lot better

“However, in October 2011, Sinfest began a huge shift in theme and focus with the introduction of the Sisterhood. This was the first step in the comic ditching almost every aspect of its old nature and turning toward a radical brand of second-wave feminism. In the current setting, society is brainwashed by a Matrix-like Patriarchy controlled by the Devil, and the comic’s world is connected to an alternate reality where greed, lust, and other traits fueled by the Patriarchy are the norm.”

So kind of like Dave Sim, except that while Sim went crazy and started to espouse heinous reactionary views against the mainstream in favor of things like misogyny and mysticism and all that, Tatsuya Ishida went, instead, to take the mainstream extreme of espousing radical feminism. And many claimed the change was so sudden that they felt alienated by what the artist was doing, and they also felt he used too many strawmen in setting up his cases, and of course Ishida did not help by supposedly attacking the detractors by accusing them of not upholding egalitarian ideas and that kind of stuff.

Now I’m basically a non-standard reader of Sinfest, in that I like to take lengthy breaks rather than follow a strip day-by-day, so that I can get the full rush of reading multiple story arcs at once without anticipation, so it was probably about 2-3 years since I read the last strip, and only caught up with the whole thing now. I think that’s the best way to read it, because really when you have a daily strip like that, and when it’s fully self-created without any backing from a major newspaper and editors and all that, you have one of the most organic styles of art you can find out there. You get to experience day by day shifts in mood, changes in art style, subject matter, all that kind of thing.

So Sinfest is interesting to me because it represents how an artist adapts and accommodates new visions within himself, and how he reacts to the world in opposition to him.

It’s quite interesting because David Foster Wallace spoke about the easy and cynically destructive qualities of satire, and tried to make a manifesto calling for new forms of sincerity, and Ishida lives up to the task completely. He shows us what it’s like to be brutally not-funny and preachy and trying to live up to some ideal after spending several years laughing everything away with excessive amorality. How many satirical cartoons or whatever you’re seeing nowadays have ever even tried to stake a claim on some sort of belief at the cost of alienating everyone who just wanted the laughs and the quick and easy critiques without any resolution? No matter how wrong or extremist you think the stand is, its quite a thing to do in this day and age.

By 2015 I feel that Ishida has pretty much full control of his vision and has quite frankly a CRAZY BEAUTIFUL art style Now every single Sunday strip is just an exercise in pure mood. His Sunday strips are usually tied to the plot, but they can also set up a single atmosphere just within one strip:

And it never fails to be beautiful even while he’s espousing the most radical of his views

That’s probably what happens when you draw a script reclusively every day for 15 years.

At the bottom of it all, to probably appreciate Sinfest at its finest, you probably have to realize that the main character of the story isn’t any of his archetypes or any of his strawmen or whatever, but its really Ishida himself. Although the way he’s fine tuning his characters per strip, making them more rounded, less straw-like, more empathetic, while also using the Sunday strips as emotional punctuation to develop their character further, makes me genuinely interested in their stories. In fact I don’t get why people levy that his pacing is off, but then again not only did I read the whole thing in bulk, but I also read it in such a way that my speed was fully controlled, so any place that felt like a drop in the story, I was quite okay with going through it at quite a fast pace. I guess that’s the great curse of being a daily artist, in that people are never able to see the broad strokes you’re painting out because they experience things so minutely.

Anyway the great narrative of Sinfest is Ishida’s Osamu Dazai level male angst towards himself hidden behind all of his character arcs and political messages. Because while an abrupt shift into feminism is jarring from a narrative point of view, you have to read the respective epiphanies behind it. I wouldn’t say something like Sinfest is Ishida’s strangled cry or something stupidly interpretative like that, but when you have a work that is built day by day over the gradual changes of a personality, then how can you not have the artist put himself fully into a strip? The whole shift is like Kanye West levels of interesting.

In fact what Ishida is seemingly doing to himself per strip is kind of amazing and beautiful. Destroying the various relationships of his characters and re-orienting the comic away from the males to the female characters wholly opposite of his main sensibilities, and mixing satire with stuff that looks suspiciously fraught with personal grief (like the whole Uncle Sam going to strip clubs of ‘oppressed countries’ and indulging in ‘XXX Imperialism’ on his computer), yet despite all that still trying desperately to retain heartwarming and warm character moments everywhere with his new artistic capabilities. Most of the male characters are locked up in this horrible cage of sexual self-devastation (which may possibly be Ishida’s own), while the female characters are desperately trying to carve a spot for themselves in a world where they have to receive the excess brunt of the pent-up rage, and they’re the main ones who are getting any genuine friendship or romance or calm heartwarming moments.  There’s a whole struggle behind it that we aren’t seeing and quite frankly, in my opinion, it all the more reinforces the now radically feminist message of the comic, because while the arguments, on a logical level, are quite superlative, the strife of depicting the amount of self-loathing a man can do to himself is wholly real.

And so that’s Sinfest, one of the greatest male psychosexual internal dramas you’ll ever read on the web in your life.