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How often have you watched or read a story about teenagers that presents the same old character archetypes (the queen bee, the cool loner) and plots (the wild party, the makeover) without variation? If your answer is "too often," Penny and Aggie may be for you.
Writer T Campbell delights in subverting, deconstructing, and otherwise playing with staple teen dramedy elements. The queen bee, from the start, has a strong conscience and sense of compassion. The cool loner isn't always "cool," and isn't that happy being alone. The ugly duckling's makeover reveals an inner self that isn't so pretty. But apart from playing with such tropes, Campbell remembers always to write his characters as human beings, as teens view themselves, rather than through the often-trivializing lens of adulthood. At the same time, he avoids romanticizing or idealizing any aspect of teen life.
The writing isn't without flaws. Several story arcs have problems with inconsistent or otherwise inappropriate pacing. The comic rarely gives the full context of a scene, instead showing snippets of conversation and action. Sometimes this works well; other times, readers are left confused and in need of clarification from the author in the comic's forum. Campbell's love of experimentation with story structure and even genre succeeds in some cases (a tightly-structured kidnapping plot that combines elements of police procedural with psychological thriller and moving character development) better than in others (a farce which runs too slowly in this medium to allow for suspension of disbelief).
The art, originally by Gisèle Lagacé, starts out simple and cartoonish (targeted as it initially was for newspaper syndication), but gradually grows in realism and detail, reaching its apex in her final arc, "The Popsicle War," while retaining occasional exaggerated, "toon" elements where appropriate. Jason Waltrip, her successor, has a simpler style, but one that's mostly faithful to the comic's established look. However, he lacks Lagacé's intuitive, natural eye for teen girls' fashion, an important element of the comic. Instead, his outfits veer between plain "tee-and-jeans," and mismatched or otherwise garish pattern fills, although there's some improvement over time.
In all, Penny and Aggie is a superior, at times genuinely literary, series, worth multiple reads.
I liked this comic for a really long time, but I eventually got sick of it. I can only add up it's postitives and negatives.
Some excellent, well-rounded characters- many of them were amazingly well-done, and I could read them argue and do stuff for hours. People never turned out to be standard cliches (The Libby was fairly nice, and the heroine was kind of a bitch). Some of the jokes were pretty funny. Sara's Coming Out Story was very well done. Under Gisele, the strip had the best art in webcomics, especially by the end. Many of the supporting characters had surprising depth, and were very interesting (the Good Christian Girl Katy-Anne, the brooding weird artist Jack). The Fanservice was always nice (and was pretty all-inclusive for a while- men & women at once). I REALLY liked Nick as a "Father" character, averting "Dumb Ol' Dad" while still being a bit clueless about teens.
Once the comic got CRAZY with kidnappings, rape accusations, near-death experiences, etc. I just lost interest- it was WAY too goofy, poorly-done, and didn't fit the strip's theme. It went from "Mature Archie" to "violent psycho-drama". The "Everyone turns gay" thing just ended up being silly to me- Penny & Aggie NEVER geled to me as a couple, and giving a half-dozen minor characters gay twinges felt forced and goofy. Way too many side-characters were given insane focus- I never cared for Charlotte. I REALLY didn't like Lisa (people like that annoy the shit out of me in real life, and she was way too pushy), but I found her a good character for others to play off of dramatically, so I'm torn. The art suffered under Jason Waltrip, but was still better than MOST webcomics- he just wasn't up to covering Gisele. T Campbell has a VERY big problem with clarity as well- certain arcs were just a mess to read (Sara's Hollywood Story is the worst), and he almost seemed addicted to never letting you REALLY get into a character's head to find out WHY they did certain things (people just tended to DO things, leaving you to guess why- which works in small amounts, but many things were left unknown), though this improved as time went on. Certain things were never explained until later, as well.
All in all, a very good webcomic marred by some unfortunate problems. I'll probably give it a re-read, and it may read better when it's all in one go.
Let's see if I can do this in four hundred words. Well, I guess if you wanted a high concept, how about "Riverdale meets Degrassi. And Lisa's in it."
When Penny and Aggie works best is when T lets the characters breathe. Even some of the most dramatic and bizarre plots can bring out the most intelligent character moments. Characters have surprisingly depth and when the writing lets them shine, even the craziest of plots work. Even a plotline about a kidnapping and murder attempt ends up completely deconstructing the darkest depths of two cast members to the point where you realize there is no other way for this to have ended up given what we already know of these two people. The comic's best moments always come out of realizations like this. T clearly knows them inside and out and there's a reason even the one-shot characters have die-hard fans.
Now I come to the lows. There's issues with pacing all over - plots seem to start and stop, especially after the Popsicle War ends, and there's a great deal of time the actual main characters aren't even in the strip. The Popsicle War itself pulls into such bizarre heights as to defy how much a group of angry teenagers could actually get away with without a single adult intervening Then there is an issue with the titular ladies. Penny and Aggie are intended to have both good and bad points, but Penny often comes off so sympathetic that the flaws just round her out. Aggie spends the majority of the comic as a self-righteous angry character with no rationality to her emotions and a mean streak. Which is a shame because the times she works best are when she lays her soul bare like a human being and we can read into her insecurities and fears with honesty. There's also the sudden swerve where a great number of the main cast is either gay or bi, and it even plays out "the coming out story" more than once, which makes it feel old. Yet even that doesn't fall flat all the time - Sara's journey to find herself can honestly be related to by anyone regardless of sexuality. Frankly, if there were a comic just about Sara, I'd read it faithfully.
So should you read it? Absolutely. Honestly, with the end written and time to reflect, Penny and Aggie is a quintessential comic where frankly the highs outshine the lowest lows.
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