Out There by R.C. Monroe

I don’t know who was using the old will-they-won’t-they plot before Al Capp, but Capp’s Li’l Abner–nearly forgotten today, but in its 1940s-50s heyday probably the most popular comic in existence–raised will-they-won’t-they to high science.  From 1934 to 1952, nearly every storyline in Li’l Abner hinged on the big question: will Li’l Abner marry Daisy Mae?  Al Capp’s cruelty was raised to a high science, as well: the circumstances that led Abner and Daisy together time and again grew increasingly complicated and seemingly unstoppable, only to be foiled at the last second by some bizarre occurrence that allowed Abner to once again slip the noose.  Even after Capp finally gave in and allowed a real wedding to take place in 1952, he had one parting shot in the pistol: Abner, counting on a “miracle” to save him at the last minute, like always, is forced to save the newlywed Daisy Mae Yokum from being run down by an out of control coach from Miracle Bus Lines.

Li’l Abner is will-they-won’t-they raised to a high art, consciously poisoning reader hopes and dreams year after year via a healthy mixture of pure sadism and pure entertainment.  And Li’l Abner works because will-they-won’t-they is such an easy trick to pull off.  Will-they-won’t-they taps into basic human drives–the will to be totally accepted, the desire to see true devotion between people get its reward.  Placing two magnets on a table and forcibly holding them apart is an excellent way to experience tension; the same is true in will-they-won’t-they narratives.  Unfortunately, not everyone is as fiendish as Al Capp, and not every will-they-won’t-they is as enjoyable on its own lunatic terms.  Which is why will-they-won’t-they, when caught unadorned in the wild narrative rivers, is nearly always thrown back.

That’s my biggest problem with R. C. Monroe’s Out There: so far, much of its narrative drive is propelled (for me, anyway) by the big will-they-won’t-they of John and Miriam.  The entire six-month journey of impulsive, neurotic Miriam and the serene hitchhiker John to rendezvous with Miriam’s internet boyfriend is kept afloat largely by sexual tension.  Where will John sleep when the two share a motel room?  What will happen when the two are isolated in the wilderness?  What happens if Miriam’s boyfriend–whom she’s admittedly never met–isn’t up to snuff compared to John?  It’s a simple plot, and one that’s overused, and I hate that Monroe is so damn talented, because his will-they-won’t-they gets me every time.

As will-they-won’t-they plots go, this one is dynamite.  Appropriate obstacles are placed in the potential lovers’ path–the aforementioned Internet boyfriend, Miriam’s weirdly indecisive nature, John’s seeming indifference to Matters Sexual–all of which make us start to think “Nah, he’s not going to try and get them together; thank God”–and then we all start secretly wondering how Monroe is ultimately going to get them together.  What’s more, the plot doesn’t restrict itself to raw will-they-won’t-they alone: the characters, Miriam in particular, are well-rounded, alternately sympathetic and frustrating, and invariably entertaining.  (The jury is ultimately out on John: I’m intrigued by him, but I haven’t gotten much in the way of dimensionality from him, besides “serenity.”  But then this comic has only been around for what, six months?  So I’m sure there’s time.)  The other characters have so far been somewhat limited, since all they’ve had to do for a while is wait for Miriam and John to show up, but I get a good sense of personality from all of them, and once the plot abandons the narrow road for the sprawling city, I’ve no doubt that they’ll have ample room to spread their wings.

What’s kept the strip moving, aside from the constantly ratcheting sexual tension, is Monroe’s no-nonsense, no-guff storytelling.  Every strip has a punchline–a funny one, to boot–and the art is stripped-down, but still completely evocative of real places and real people.  Both of these things seem very simple and both are nearly impossible to do with anything like Monroe’s consistency.  The “cheesecake” panels, too–an essential component of any will-they-won’t-they worth its salt–are particularly well-done: even when Monroe has blatantly drawn Miriam sprawled in a blanket or Sherry toweling off after a bath, the drawings have a clarity, simplicity, and even innocence that makes me feel guilty for thinking Dark Thoughts about the characters when I know damned well that Monroe wants me to think them.  This, too, is an essential component of any will-they-won’t-they.

I’m against will-they-won’t-they plots in general because (1) they’re overused, (2) because they tend to flatten the complexity of real male and real female characters, (3) they typically substitute real drama for manufactured Romantic Tension, and (4) because they make me feel completely manipulated.  But in the case of Monroe’s Out There, (2) and (3) simply don’t apply: the characters are real; their flaws are real; their drama is real.  (4) doesn’t either: Monroe is skilled enough that I’m not even sure that this ultimately is a will-they-won’t-they (although if it isn’t, what a waste!)  The only complaint I have left is (1): that this kind of plot is overused.  But anything that’s overused is overused for a reason, and I suspect that R.C. Monroe understands exactly what that reason is: that he understands exactly how to keep a comic memorable, day in and day out, and how to reach for interesting perspectives and interesting interpersonal dynamics at the same time he’s torturing his readers, god damn him.

-- John Thornton

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