A Farewell to Stubby Little Pink Arms

No liveblog today, since I’m at a convention.

Yesterday, Michael Taranto’s Brawl in the Family ended. Six hundred strips over six and a half years is not at all a bad run for a webcomic, and the timing makes poetic sense: the comic’s most obvious inspiration, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, was released in the U.S. two months before the first comic, and Brawl‘s sequel, Smash Bros. For 3DS, comes out in the U.S. the day of BitF’s last comic. The era of Brawl in the Family, in other words, is the era of Brawl.

From the start, though, the title has been true; what brawling there is to be found here is contained within something else, something for which family is as good a word as any. Right from the first strip, the very notion of combat, of rivalry, is rendered absurd: Brawl creator Sakurai’s most famous character, Kirby, faces off with his rival Dedede. “I’m going to get you, Kirby,” announces Dedede. Kirby responds, as is his wont, by eating his foe, and in so doing becomes him. “I’m going to get me, Kirby,” he says.

Three panels, twelve words, and already there is a warm silliness here, a playful attitude that rejects any sense of angst or serious violence. It is, in fact, much like the experience of playing Brawl as it is designed to be played, with strange items and stage hazards constantly interrupting any attempt to turn it into a serious competition, pushing it instead into the realm of slapstick. Most of these early strips are variations on the same simple gag: Kirby eats something, and is transformed in a strange or amusing way.

As the strip goes on, its cast grows, but its attitude remains consistently light, fun, and silly. Captain Falcon struggles with a tendency to shout his actions as he performs them–“Captain Pray!” at church, for instance. Mario dives into a pile of raked autumn leaves and sprouts raccoon tails all over his body. The Pokémon Trainer loses his Squirtle when Mario mistakes it for a Koopa. This is carnival without rebellion; frequently grotesque, but never disturbing or challenging, simply honest, entertaining, and oddly sweet.

The reason why slowly becomes clear in the second hundred comics, as characters from different worlds interact more frequently. In the comic’s third multi-part story, “Turnabout Kirby,” Kirby is placed on trial in the Phoenix Wright courtroom for being all-devouring. One by one, characters from the Smash Bros. franchises invade the Phoenix Wright world, replacing its own characters–Phoenix himself is never seen, having been replaced by a shrieking, banana-devouring Diddy Kong from the start, while Prosecutor Edgeworth is soon eaten and replaced by Kirby himself. Yet despite Kirby’s obvious, blatant guilt, Kirby is found innocent, because, as Meta Knight explains to a frustrated Dedede, “You and Kirby aren’t all that different, but where he has childlike optimism, you have untempered malice.”

That’s as clear a mission statement as the comic ever gives, and it ties directly into its namesake. Part of the heavily implied, though never outright stated, premise of the Smash Bros. series is that these characters are not “really” fighting each other, but rather their battles are being acted out by an unseen child playing with Nintendo-themed dolls. The grotesque and carnival, here, are not attempts to upend the world’s power structures; they are the excess of a world without consequence. This is not violence because there is no pain; there is only joy and endless mutability.

Which is not to say that this is shallow. The comic hints at its true potential with the strip “Prodigal Son,” which celebrates the return of Dragon Quest to a Nintendo console by depicting a tearful reunion between Mario and a Slime. What truly makes this strip, however, is that Mario elects to hug the slime using a standard Dragon Quest menu interface: the language of games, in service to real emotion. The comic evokes simultaneous joy and sorrow, intimately bound with memory–nostalgia, in other words.

Nostalgia can be a toxic thing. It is frequently an enemy of progress, and can trick people into lionizing the past. Brawl in the Family deploys it in a subtly different way, however. Rather than expressing some notion that the past was better, it instead celebrates the way in which the past shapes the present. “Prodigal Son” is not about missing the old Dragon Quest games; it is about the joy that Dragon Quest is coming back.

Later in the second hundred comes the strip’s first major formal experiment, “A Metroid Adventure,” which pokes gentle fun at recurrent elements of the 2D Metroid games while using a variant of infinite canvas to let the comic mimic the exploratory structure of those games–each panel is a room, and the reader/player has multiple choices of where to proceed next as they journey through the comic.

These two threads of formal experimentation and sincere nostalgia come together in the two hundredth strip, the groundbreaking and comic-redefining “Ode to Minions.” A “musical comic,” it couples an unusually lengthy, full-color comic with an original song written and performed by Taranto. This song humanizes the countless minor enemies game players destroy in their adventures, waxing elegiac about their personal lives and negatively judging the “heroes” who destroy them: “Do you remember the piranha plant you killed in World 5-1/and were you there when his family received the news about their son”; later, “genocide is typically frowned upon/and yet Samus disagrees.” Yet before the reader–and presumed game player–can truly face the potentially horrific notion of minor video game enemies as thinking, feeling beings, the song is deliberately and quite funnily undercut by the reveal that it was being sung by perennial Mario Bros villain Bowser to an audience of his own minions, and this had actually been propaganda all along.

This is typical of the comic’s use of humor: where it strays toward possible commentary, the humor serves to blunt it rather than make it more incisive. This is not, however, a flaw by any means! The whole point of the comic is to be warm, funny, silly, and safe–it is in the Family, and that always constrains the Brawl. 

Another strong example of the comic pushing itself, its medium, and its subject matter is the 101-panel epic “The Captive Princess,” which follows Princess Peach of the Super Mario Bros. series as she languishes (for what is implied to be the first of many times) in a cell in Bowser’s castle, unaware of what he is doing to her kingdom or that Mario has set out to defeat Bowser and save her. Slowly she finds ways to cope with isolation, to recover hope, and finally to escape, all on her own–until just as she is leaving the castle, she sees Mario defeat Bowser, so she goes back in and thanks him for saving her as in the game. 
There are layers and layers of interpretation here, since Peach’s motivation for her deception is never stated. Is she thinking politically, that a hero is needed for morale in the process of rebuilding her kingdom? Does she believe Mario deserves a reward for trying? Is she playing up the captive princess role because she believes it will attract him? And how–if at all–is this interpretation affected by a later storyline that reveals Mario and Peach attended “hero school” together?
One final example of Taranto’s approach, my favorite of his comics: “Prodigal Robot,” another musical comic that celebrates both BitF’s 500th strip and the announcement of Mega Man as a playable character in Smash Bros. For. Set to a medley of some of the best-known background music in the Mega Man series, arranged and performed by Taranto, it follows the rising and falling fortunes of the character by depicting parties thrown by other video game characters to celebrate the completion of each of his adventures. As his popularity rises, the prominence of the characters present and scale of the parties increase; then as his franchise becomes more repetitive and passé, the parties wither. Ultimately Mega Man is left abandoned and homeless, begging for a chance to be in a video game as his creators, Capcom, ignore him. At last he hits rock bottom–only for the tone to shift triumphantly to first hope and then joy as the most prominent Smash Bros. characters invite him into their game, reframing the trailer that revealed his presence in the fourth game to be from his perspective.

Again that combination of sadness, joy, and memory we call “nostalgia” is at the emotional core of this comic, but even moreso it is about doing what the hand in Smash Bros. does: bringing life to the lifeless, infusing playthings–whether they be figurines or game characters or minor minion sprites–with emotion and personality and energy. This is the final reveal of the comic’s climax: that Taranto is that hand, but not the only hand. That everyone who has ever touched these characters, creators and players, fan artists and writers, is the hand, and the unseen child is all of us.

Because in the end, that’s what creation, any kind of creation, is: a form of play. Yes, there is social responsibility. Yes, there is expression. But at least as important is the need to play, to have fun, whether one is making a webcomic or a blog, a video game or a song. Taranto is moving on, to focus on his burgeoning career as an indie video game designer and composer. If he continues infusing his music with half the emotion, energy, and fun he did his comic, he will do well.

And like an old favorite game, Brawl in the Family will remain–Taranto has stated he plans to leave it online indefinitely. Dedede will forever try to “get” Kirby. Kirby will eat weird things and transform in bizarre ways, have adorable dates with Jigglypuff, or get up to nonsense with Diddy. Bowser, Peach, and Mario will continue their curious dance of kart races, kidnapping, and kisses on the nose. Waluigi will be bizarre and unlikeable, Eario a weirdly heartwarming variant of the buttmonkey.

Games come and go. Toys break or are replaced. But play? Play is forever.

0 thoughts on “A Farewell to Stubby Little Pink Arms

  1. I don't read this comic, I've played the game like twice at most, but this sounds adorable. And the essence of play as a fundamentally good thing is something that I've always thought was important and undervalued in society, but never really comprehended until I had a kid. It's absurd how we're stripping play out of kids' lives, when everyone – adults and kids – needs it.

  2. Precisely. People need unstructured time and opportunities to be ridiculous. The “Puritan work ethic” is one of the most toxic parts of our culture. (Then again, every part is one of the most toxic parts.)

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