Reviews: El Goonish Shive

Not bad, but not my bag, baby

Warning: Contains unmarked spoilers.

El Goonish Shive starts out terribly. The writing is the typically cringey "bad but self-aware of it" that you see in a lot of "comedy" webcomics, the art is mediocre at best, and the first "storyline" is the two male main characters trying to get the main female character to wear a bikini in the hopes that cheesecake will attract readers. It took me four or five tries to get into the comic because the beginning was awful, and yet I kept hearing raving about how good it was.

After a while, though, the quality starts to improve. Coherent storylines start actually going places, characterization is less one-dimensional, and Shive actually sets up some decent worldbuilding for an intriguing urban fantasy setting. The humor is actually funny, and balanced well with the more serious stories.

Unfortunately, things have started backsliding in that regard recently. The humor seems forced on the rare occasion that it appears, and lots of unresolved plotlines seem to have been completely abandoned. Of course, that's to be expected given how complicated the story has become. Much like the Lernean Hydra, whenever one loose thread gets tied up, two more spring up in its place.

Then there's the LGBT content. While I can't say that representing sexual minorities is a bad thing, it can get taken too far. As an example, one of the more recent subplots involved Elliot having to effectively brainwash himself into identifying as female, because that's the only way magic would stop giving him spells that are humiliating to cast. There's also the fact that a lot of it was played pretty fetishisticly earlier on, so some of it, notably Tedd being revealed as genderfluid, feels kind of retcon-y.

Overall, if you're a fan of incredibly complex storylines, gender politics, and urban fantasy, you'll probably like EGS. For me, it falls firmly into "I can see why people like this, but I'm not a fan."
  • Roo
  • 19th Sep 17
  • 0

Most Improved Webcomic

El Goonish Shive started out as not-very-well-written-or-drawn, with the gender-change stuff coming across as fetishy (in a PG kinda way) more than anything... but I checked in with it from time to time because it was at least readable, compared to a lot of other webcomics out there, even if it dragged a lot... the "birthday party" arc covers one single evening but took over a year in real-time to tell.

But, and this was really gradual, somewhere along the line it became, well, good. The artwork went from awkward and amateurish to downright pleasant to look at, and the characters got a lot more nuanced and developed — most notably Susan, who started as a one-dimensional Straw Feminist, but developed into one of the most complex and sympathetic characters in the comic.

The gender-change shtick got a lot more nuanced as well; what started out as a fetish thing got more about character exploring — the moment I noticed that it was growing out of the "fetish" stage was with Justin during the birthday party arc. He was clearly the most uncomfortable about the temporary gender change, and it was during the party he basically said he kinda wished he was comfortable being a girl, because then nobody would care that he was crushing on boys. But he knew he would never like having a female body because it wasn't him. He was a gay guy, not a straight girl.

That was when I discovered that the comic was becoming something more than just PG-rated fetish fuel. Too many other webcomics I could mention would have treated Justin becoming a girl as a solution, of the "yay, I'm a girl, now I can sex up all the men I want" kind (which, to be fair, was his reaction in a previous filler comic that was since Ret-Conned) but this reaction felt a lot more real, and this was when I discovered that the comic was actually trying to say something about gender and sexuality.

It wasn't perfect, but it kept improving. When Tedd discovers that he's genderfluid, and becomes first all shocked that "there's a name for it" and afterwards all happy and giddy because now he knows... followed by a more solemn and almost depressed reaction when he realises his father won't understand his situation and that he doesn't want to tell him... I was stunned at the emotion put into the comic. This was pretty powerful stuff, especially for a comic so fundamentally light-hearted as EGS.

Is it the best webcomic ever? No. But it is at least a serious contender for "Most Improved Webcomic."

Why is there so much hatred

I'm just going to be honest and say that I love EGS. Part of why I love it is just how much it has improved. At the start EGS had some serious problems, the art was sub-standard, the plots seemed to be built around the jokes, rather then the jokes fitting into the plot. The characters weren't much to look at either, the whole things was basically a gag comic, no real importance placed on the story. I like to think of this as EGS' baby years, the setting up of the world and the frameworks that would support it's later improvements. Next came it's adolescents, the art began to improve while the storytelling grew at a slower rate. Dan tried new ideas and themes, fantasy/science-fiction and bigger emphasis on action. The characters stared growing bit by bit. Now we've hit were it stands now and man has it improved, the art and storytelling has reached pure beauty in my opinion, the focus is now on the characters, their emotions and problems. The action and fantasy elements are still there but now they feel comfortable, they fit really well. The comic has reached what I kind of think as it's adult stage, not that it can't keep improving but it's finally found it's rhythm, the balance it needs between all it's parts to leave behind the, 'awkward teenage years'. But man do some reviewers still hate it.

Not that I've seen on this website, everything I've read is in good taste, even if I don't agree, and thoughtful rather then spewing pure hatred. On other sites, however, some reviewers I've read hate Dan's comic with an unholy passion. Here's some of the things they hate: The gender bending and furry characters (that's the one that produces the most hate spewing), the earlier plot problems, the pacing and speed of new pages. Here's how I view things.

Gender bending/furry, maybe the jokes aren't everyones cup of tea but they aren't offensive, the worst of the sexual humour really isn't all that much. And please, stop saying Dan should keep his fetishes out of the his comic, it doesn't make you sound smart and honestly, like I said, there's nothing particularly offensive in there. Plot/pacing, a fair point, but in it's latest form these problems really aren't there anymore. Updates, have been like clockwork since I started reading.

Dan's comic has grown up, sadly some reviewers aren't mature enough to do the same.

The curious case of EGS

It's painful to write "El Goonish Shive." It's sophomoric (at best), belies a fundamental unease on the author's part, a lack of a clear concept, and it hardly rolls off the tongue. So when this comic launched a decade ago, the title was a perfect fit. Of course, awkward comics like this were (and are) a dime-a-dozen; the difference is that, for the most part, those other have all fallen by the wayside when their authors either gave up or moved on to better projects (and usually a bit more respect.)

EGS stands out because it's still here. Even though the comic was more hole than boat in over the first half of its existence, Dan Shive kept paddling on diligently. The amazing thing is that somehow it not only survived, but thrived.

It's certainly not perfect (especially if you're taking the aforementioned baggage into account), but it's evolved into one of the most solid webcomics out there.

In the most bizarre turn of all, Mr. Shive's initially scattershot work has built its recent excellence on things that were almost entirely absent in its early stages, namely: pacing, insightful characterization, and sound, effective, and expressive character design. (Yes! Really!!)

Of course, no matter how strong the most recent strips are, that doesn't rescue you from the trauma of having to read the first several years of updates to appreciate them... except, amazingly, you don't have to! Dan Shive has been meticulous (Even pedantic! In a good way!) about linking to every single reference or call-back since 2008-2009ish, meaning that you only need to endure small exposures to appreciate the absurd amount of well-executed brick jokes.

Now the caveat: as always, shape-shifting and all the associated tropes are still extremely prolific, so if that's a deal-breaker, you'd better stick to Gunnerkrigg Court (well, read that regardless.) The good news is that it's handled with much more tact, and you'll be too busy caring about the characters to mind too much.

There's plenty of quality work to be enjoyed if you're smart about it, so my parting advice for those who find themselves on the fence is to start with the Hidden Genesis arc, where both the plot and the art style enter the 'bearable' stage of development.

El Goonish Shive

EGS is a unique comic to say the least. It has a host of problems, such as unresolved subplots like Lord Tedd, and sometimes unnecessary side trips of the main arcs. However, this comic is a shining example of characters and story writing. The overall story has matured in several unique arcs, never once becoming boring through repetition. Even a chance to continue the main villain Damien's role wasn't taken, and instead went a completely unique to EGS route, the main villain of the story died. The characters are all unique and believable personalities, and they change realistically as well, from Grace's maturing, Susan's loss of cynacism towards a happier personality, and Tedd's change of character from stock mad scientist to a well rounded person make EGS stand out. Ellen is perhaps the most interesting of characters, at first being a duplicate of Elliot, with all the same personality traits, and then a move toward her own personality as the story progressed, to the point where she became as different from Elliot as from any of the other characters. The humour never detracts from the story and vice versa. Either the comic is light in tone for an intentional rest from the dramatics, or it is less humerous and more serious for a refreshing change in tone. I look forward to seeing how EGS progresses in the future, especially in the story as well as the side characters, such as Justin, Chaos, and Catalina.

The First Few Arcs From The Point Of View Of A Newcomer

The Good: The artwork is good, and the characters are likable. The characters feel fleshed out, not so much in the sense that they have deep back stories and complex psychology that only a psychiatrist can understand, but in the sense that they don't feel like archetypes. They feel like real people who don't easily fit into one definition. A sense of continuity makes me feel smart when I see and recognize characters that were only seen a few times before, as well as make me feel invested in the outcome of the story lines.

The Bad: The early artwork, despite lampshade hanging. The teen angst and drama does not appeal to me at all. The nonsensical nature of the plot makes you feel as though the writers are making it up as they go, and some elements ( such as the TF Gun) pop straight out of nowhere, which is jarring to logical people like me. Archive Panic and Continuity Lockout are not necessarily inherent problems that are the fault of the creators, but a daily series with continuity will inevitably have these problems.

The Furry: EGS is an insanely strange story, which is very YMMV. The first coherent storyline I could identify was that Elliot and Tedd made some sort of goo monster in science class, then they killed it, making a girl named Grace, a squirrel/human hybrid who escaped the bio-weapon project that created her, come to their house and begin a relationship with Tedd, whom she hopes will help turn the other bio-weapon shapeshifters, that are evil by the way, back to normal humans. Yeah, that totally happened.

The anthropomorphic animal Grace is Ms. Fanservice, and that is all that will be said on the matter. She's also a Mary Sue, but I like her nonetheless. The gender-bending mildly creeps me out, especially considering that the main characters are children, but I am relieved to know that (at least so far) it's being played for laughs and not something else...

A real mixed bag.

EGS is a weird case. It has its good points, but it also has some serious flaws.

  • Plot: 8 Teenagers change shape, gender, and species. Comedy, drama, and angst ensue.

  • Content: It's a transgender comic with some furry elements. You do the math.

  • The good:
    • The artwork in the later strips.
    • The Sister, Night Out, and Painted Black arcs. Also the first half of the Birthday Party.
    • Does a good job of covering both the comedy and drama aspects of transformation.
    • Generally does a good job with comedy, such as the Demonic Duck.

  • The bad:
    • The myriad typical webcomic problems. The main two problems however:
    • Cerebus Syndrome / The Chris Carter Effect. Dan seems to have a major obsession with constantly introducing new subplots without resolving any of the ones already in motion. The Lord Tedd subplot is especially bad, as it's been in the background for years, as Shive keeps adding more and more new plots. He needs to resolve at least some of what he's got going on before he does anything else. In addition, most of these subplots are currently unrelated to the main characters. Chaos might be cool, but it hasn't done much of anything involving the leads. Not to mention that the current arc(s) is dramatic in nature, and the occasion jokes seem rather out of place.
    • Dan's apparent perfectionism. The comic's release regularly gets delayed because Dan "isn't satisfied with how it looks". It's one thing to do this on occasion, but it happens so often that his three-day-a-week schedule turns into one comic and a filler per week. Not many would fault him for just posting 3 a week, even if the art isn't quite perfect. It's impossible to get it the way you want every single time. There's also the matter of his constant art experimentation. It goes from portait to landscape to grayscale to color to grayscale again, etc. causing even more schedule problems. He needs to pick an art style and stick to it. Another problem is the fan-pandering. If anyone questions even a minor design element, the next comic will often include the characters explaining it in-story. When said element is not story relevant (boots), it just wastes story space.

Overall: EGS has tremendous potential, but it has some serious flaws. However, if these flaws are addressed, it could be an excellent comic.


EGS, what's there to say about it? Generally this is a bad series with low-quality execution of it's ideas. The art is generally passable, but could improve. A series like EGS with it's HS-focus and manga-like plots would do better to adopt either an animesque style or go to full-on manga styles. Western art just doesn't work for that. There's a few reasons this series generally fails. The level of failure I am talking about is that this webcomic is bad to the point where I read it just ironically.

This series is hugely, hugely creepy. Let's think about that for a second: We have the existence of Ellen, a female duplicate of Elliott who is now in a relationship with Nanase, a domineering redhead. We've got with Ellen alone undertones of fantasies of wanting to be a girl, sissy fantasies and a fantasy of being dominated. Rhoda and Diane are implied to have such another relationship but thankfully unlike ellen and nanase's relationship there's not been implied S&M between the 2 in this comic yet. These are 2 of the more 'normal' characters in this comic. It gets worse from there.

Moving on, we've got Tedd and Grace. This 'graces' us with furry fantasies, transformation obsession and Dan Shive awkwardsly trying to work out his issues with his sexuality(Tedd's struggling with being attracted to guys at times when he's female). Grace is basically one of the kinds of women that Shive would find his ideal(Hr either wants a bitchy ice queen or a submissive, kind girl who wants sex ALOT and shares common interests). Honestly, if or when Shive gets help for his mental issues and comes to terms with his sexuality/fetishes I suspect Tedd and Grace would be put on a bus.

The rest of the cast is honestly too whitebread and boring for the most part. Susan is the only character who comes close to being well written and her relationship with Catalina is the most realistic. Elliott is so obviously a mary sue for Dan Shive. This makes ellen even creepier.

Also, the storylines are incoherent and suck. Shive should wrap them up instead of constantly adding more. .

Honestly, if Shive just stopped taking himself so seriously, stopped trying to have EGS be 'respectable' and put in more sex/weirdness it'd be far, far less creepy. The fact that EGS is Serious Business makes it that much. Live a little, Shive and stop being such a prude.

Flawed, but enjoyable

The most important thing to realize, I think, is that El Goonish Shive is an old webcomic. It started out humble, amateurish (some might say, poor) art, little story at all. Where other artists might have moved on to new, more ambitious projects as they learned their trade, Dan Shive chose to stick around and continually develop the world that he created nine years ago, trying to fit new idea after new idea together with it all. The result of this struggle with a flawed approach is a proper shambles.

And yet, it is a pretty unique and enjoyable shambles to read. Starting with goo simply coming to life during chemistry class and the cast consisting of aliens, wizards, ki-using martial artists, pretty much everything can happen here, and does. The characters themselves manage to come out believable and sympathetic, despite the confusing story-network that has been building up around them in these nine years of a constantly growing storyteller. And it does try to have everything: Humor, relationship drama, and fighting action with scum and villainy and the occasional tragedy. If you like that kind of thing, you might enjoy El Goonish Shive.

Of course, not everything clicks just fine. We are talking about an evolving hobby storyteller working without an editor, mostly writing for his own enjoyment rather than critical approval. So there will be a good amount of misses. Points at which you go "...Yeah." and, if you're smart about it, click the "Next" button and see where it will continue to go, which you can be pretty sure is "somewhere else entirely". I tend to not read the comic for half a year at a time and go back to it to take in the recent plot all at once instead of at page-per-page, which is a good way to read most any MWF updating comic that are made up of chapters, like Gunnerkrigg Court or The Meek.

Final rating: I enjoyed this. I should have given you some sort of idea of my basis in enjoying it by now. (If you go ahead and read El Goonish Shive and find yourself violently disagreeing with my assessment, it's a good bet that you should not rely on my opinions about other works either (handily, I have not given any yet). After all, reviews are about helping others make their decision on whether to invest their time in a particular work, and if our tastes are too different, I won't be capable of helping.)

A published brainstorming session

Dan Shive has some really fascinating ideas for an urban fantasy webcomic. Deep characters, a twisting plot about magic and government conspiracies, plenty of personal drama, and just enough of the everyday to keep things fresh.

The problem is that none of this is in a particularly coherent order, and this is ultimately the comic's downfall. There's little sense in what the comic is trying to accomplish, as it veers back and forth between arcs with no meaningful end goal. From fantasy to romance, and from romance to humor, and from humor back to fantasy, the comic staggers back and forth between genres, instead of weaving them smoothly together.

Given the nature of the topics that pop in The Rant, coupled with the obvious lack of buffer strips, my conclusion is that Shive himself has no overarching goal for the story. He just throws out whatever he currently thinks is cool/awesome/funny/heartwarming, and only stays with that until the next cool/awesome/funny/heartwarming thing comes to mind. A good example of this would be the "school uniform" arc, which had several strips of build-up, only to be abruptly ended in a single strip. Clearly Shive had moved on, and was just getting the ending done so he could move on.

In conclusion, the whole strip is a giant chain of ideas of varying quality. While it can be fascinating to get some insight into the evolving mindset of Dan Shive (which is probably why the comic remains fairly popular), the question remains: when is he going to actually take these ideas and weave them into a genuine story? Sadly, the answer will likely be never. It's the sort of comic that begs for a Dumbing Of Age style reboot...a reboot that certainly won't happen any time soon.

Take the bad with the good

After seeing an entry for this comic on just about every page on this site, I thought I'd give it a look to see what all the fuss was about and read it from the beginning. This may have been a mistake. EGS left me with a horrible first impression - while some of the gags were amusing, the art was awful, the characters felt flat at best and unlikable at worst, and overall, it felt incredibly cheesy.

Then I saw the end of the Sister arc, and something clicked. I was suddenly getting some real emotion out of this comic, which was very preferable to everything that had come before. By the time I finished Painted Black, I was hooked. The characters got interesting enough that I started to care about what happened to them, the writing felt more consistent, and the work overall started to seem more solid. I also liked a fair amount of the much-reviled birthday party arc, mostly the part that explores the cast's issues and how they try to work through them. In my opinion, the high point of the story so far has been Sister II, a Nanase-centric arc that concludes with what may be the most powerful moment yet seen in the comic.

If you've read the comic, you may have noticed that my praise is mostly directed at the serious bits of the otherwise-wacky story. This is a good segue into my complaints, and there are a lot of them. First off, out of the three major pairings, two seem fairly forced. Elliott's and Sarah's relationship troubles are brought up at random and dropped suddenly, and Grace's attraction to Tedd strikes me as blatant wish fulfillment by Shive. Sarah in particular has barely received any kind of character development aside from her A Cup Angst. Many of the transformations seem tacked on, and a few are more than a little bit disturbing. On top of that, I just plain don't care for most of the humor. It got to the point where I tend to flat out skip most of the Q&A pages and try to get back to the plot. Unfortunately, there are so many running subplots that they begin to slow the pacing to a crawl, and there are no signs of answers to any of our major questions on the horizon.

Is EGS the best webcomic out there? No, far from it. Much of what it does simply fails on some level. But the things that it does right shine through clearly enough for me to recommend it.

El Goonish shive: From a Fan's Perspective!

Most of the reviews so far have been Negative for this Awesome Webcomic. In my opinion it is among the best of the best of the webcomics around. The characters are amazingly hillarious and Character development is a selling point for this Webcomic. In the beginning of the comic it was drawn poorly, but this Comic shows examples of Art evolution at it's finest! The newer comics are drawn quite well and the arcs are generally well thought out. Dan shive does a great job with this Comic and is doing a great job story wise. The characters are well thought out and the setting is great. I really enjoy this comic and if you are looking for a comic that is funny, has a storyline to it and is full of Win, look no forward then El Goonish Shive. But then again: YMMV with this comic, So if you have a chance, Check it out!

Deceiving Quality

While it is no secret I hold a healthy dislike of El Goonish Shive, even having dedicated a whole live blog to it, I decided to try and at least attempt a somewhat fair review of the series.

Reasons to read this series:

  • Fanservice: If you like lesbians, gender benders, furries, or transformation stuff, then without a doubt, you will like this comic.
  • Characters: It can be fairly easy to get wrapped up in the characters. You have a huge cast of females and males, and most of them get at least one point to shine, more or less.
  • Plot: El Goonish Shive is a Fantasy Kitchen Sink, and when it's not caught up in highschool drama, Shive can pull off some pretty impressive scenarios. The highlight of El Goonish Shive is easily Shive's willingness to make use of Alternate Universes. Unfortunately, it has yet to be used to its full potential.
  • Readability: It's been going on since 2002, and Archive Panic is a very fear when going into this, but DAMN is this thing easy to binge.
  • It Gets Better: No, really, it does. If you aren't sure if you'll like it, skip to past the Painted Black arc, and see whether you can tolerate the art and plot handling then.

Reasons NOT to read this series:

  • It Gets Better: ...but it's based off of the old badly done plots, resulting in a lot of complicated retcons, and attempts of making deep characters that were made of superficial origins.
  • Fan Service: For those who do NOT like fan service, some might find it laughable the great lengths Shive goes to convince you his series is squeaky clean, and any type of bikini-clad girl is just a 'joke'. No. Really.
  • Shive can't do Cerebus Syndrome: Shive recently prefaced his newest arc with "We're Bringing Silly Back." While a light hearted series is fine, the fact that he is purposely avoiding the realistically darker moments tend to just lead to Angst What Angst.
  • Pacing: Nine years of comics, and the plot moves at a snail's pace.
  • Shallow Characterization: Many characters have one trait to their name, mostly to clumsily show Shive's supposed 'progressiveness' which is really mostly tokenism.
  • Double Standard s: AKA sexism, on BOTH sides.

Clint Eastwood

The Good:

Nanase, Susan, Ellen, Tedd, and Catalina have all clearly grown as people. Nanase has begun to acknowledge her sexuality, taken steps to gradually become more open as a person, and stop being so arrogant. Susan has gone from a one-note straw-man feminist to a more realistically damaged and cynical character struggling over Catalina's affections for her. Ellen has developed a personality that's separate and distinct from Elliot, considerably less serious and less dominant than him. Tedd has become more assertive and comfortable with himself, though he appears to be harboring other issues (again, with his sexuality - a recurring theme). Catalina has gone from an obnoxious cliche to someone struggling with an attraction to Susan.

The Bad:

Justin, Sarah, Grace, etc. haven't really been utilized and often lack depth. Justin is barely present, and when he is just seems to be a token homosexual. Sarah is bland and has seen virtually no conflict, personal desire, etc. since the party. Grace has gradually grown a bit less naive, but still remains a bit of a Purity Sue given her back story and how her relationship with Tedd has been portrayed. In fact, at times the other side-characters appear to be more interesting than the main cast! For example, Tony obviously has some degree of homosexual attraction to Tedd. This is played for laughs, but I honestly find a subplot involving him to be far more interesting than anything involving Susan or Grace. Ditto for Diane, Rhoda and Lucy who appear to have lesbian undertones to their relationships with each other. In fact, Rhoda's attraction is even implied, mockingly, by Lucy in the EGS: NP strip...

The Ugly:

There's far too many subplots. Since 2002 Dan has presented us with an impending invasion from an alternate universe warlord (Lord Tedd), a race of hostile immortals, various teen angst arcs, and more. None of these have been resolved whatsoever. In fact, in some cases they appear to have been put on the back burner indefinitely. Chris Carter has nothing on Dan. In addition, the transformation and furry/TG elements can just be gratuitous and nonsensical, adding nothing to the story. At their worst when coupled with the other themes, they come off as symptomatic of this weird sexual repression in the author. And then there's the mood whiplash. I find all of this is to be very off-putting.

Good for casual

Doesn't update frequently. However, something for everyone. Yes there are a lot of Angst issues, and bizarre (and occasionally disturbing) transformations, but it has a rather deep storyline. Your Mileage May Vary on most of the humor though. Best to just check back every month or so to see the updates, as with most webcomics, it's more satisfying to read a whole arc at once rather than waiting on each randomly posted strip. Not the best Webcomic ever, but certainly not Furry/Gender Bender devoted. Those aspects are supposed to be played for laughs. And the most recent storylines seem to have abandoned them anyways.