Because I’m going to be fairly critical I want to start by stating flatly that Scott Kurtz’ Player vs. Player (aka PVP) was my favorite comic, web or printed, for years. Kurtz’ has a wonderfully developed sense of humor and comes from a Gen X background similar to my own, which is to say that we share many of the same cultural touchstones (Star Wars, Star Trek, Dukes of Hazzard, etc.). He’s not just brilliant in the comic format, either. If you’ve not heard him on the audio podcast of his Advanced Dungeons & Dragons quest with Wil Wheaton and the guys from Penny Arcade, you have seriously missed some of the best improvisational comedy to hit the web in recent times.

Further, I have been a huge fan of PVP for a long time—before the turn of the century. I have all books, including a signed Awesomology. I have the comic books. I have the DVD. I have been, in short, the type of PVP fan that creative content producers drool over: the guy who will buy virtually anything Kurtz produces.

All of which is why it kills me to say that PVP has jumped the shark, a phrase that Gen Xers know all too well from that horrific Happy Days episode where the Fonz, literally, took a waterskiing jump over a shark. As it heralded the creative end of an iconic ’70s TV series, so too have relatively recent changes to PVP left it a shadow of what it was, and left me—a long-time and vocal proponent—uninterested in its future.

Classic PVP
From the beginning, one of the resounding successes of PVP has been the artwork. Go back to May of 1998 (I’ll wait). They’re simple lines in scenes devoid of background, but the personalities are there and for all its early simplicity it’s a great basic comic already. Flash forward two years to May of 2000 and Kurtz has evolved the characters—particularly Cole and Troll, but everyone’s improved as, presumably, Kurtz’ drawing skill advanced. The backgrounds are still blank, but as Kurtz himself noted in How to Make Webcomics, the lack of background is actually something of a Shakespearean framing device allowing readers to mentally project and fill the background themselves. In other words, it’s a plus, and less than two years Kurtz has found an artistic form that, however spare, perfectly suits his humor. It is, for lack of a better word, cartoony. Here’s an example:

Note how Papa Smurf blends perfectly into the style of PVP at this point. Not only is it a funny as anything punchline, it’s virtually seamless stylistically. Kurtz would refine his style somewhat, but even early PVP is Classic PVP—an era which arguably ran roughly until mid-2007. As the comic evolved, Kurtz began to use lighter lines and to offer much more contrast in the artwork, a move that while not strictly necessary in terms of selling a joke, surely improved the visual appeal of the strip. The following comic is from December 2006:

Notice the lighter lines for the hair, faces, and props. As I say, it’s an evolution of style and not an essential one, but I find it a perfectly reasonable one as an artist matures. The art, though different, continues to enhance and in no way compromises the jokes. If you like this style and humor, let me highly recommend the PVP Awesomology to you. It’s a $100 book, but it encapsulates almost all of the Classic PVP era and it’s brilliant.

By mid-2007, Kurtz was drawing many secondary or tertiary characters with lighter more detailed lines, the backgrounds were frequently present and sometimes quite detailed, and he had begun to more frequently incorporate an over the shoulder perspective into some panels of the strip. Individually or used in moderation these changes wouldn’t have been a big deal. As it turned out, they were to spell the end of the Classic PVP era as he took them to their logical conclusions.

This strip from March 2008 illustrates, no pun intended, some of the issues:

Nothing shows better the transitional mess PVP suffered than Max Powers in the fourth panel. What in God’s name is that cartoon character doing in this otherwise illustrated strip? His head fits in with PVP circa 2000 and it could even work with PVP of 2006, but by March 2008 Kurtz has abandoned the very style that brought him Internet fame and fortune. Perhaps as a secondary character Max didn’t get enough “screen time” to be reworked like the other regulars, but the contrast here is so jarringly distracting that it kills an otherwise decent joke.

This more illustrated style is the crux of my objection to the newer PVP. It enhances nothing and frequently distracts because what we’re talking about here is a comic and comics like this one should be, well, comedic. Could an illustrated style work in PVP? Absolutely, the same way that it frequently did in Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes: Normal comics are drawn in a standard comic style, flights of fancy (Spaceman Spiff, etc.) a drawn in a more illustrative, detailed style. Consistent tone is crucial, and by changing the reality of the PVP world, Kurtz set long-time readers adrift.

One can reasonably argue that PVP was never the same after Brent and Jade tied the knot. Marriage is, after all, one of the common ways in which various series “jump the shark.” But for me it was January 2009 when Brent got a chin. I don’t know what happened in that Dr. Who Tardis to give Brent a facial makeover, but it was to my mind an unmitigated disaster, wiping away the last of the comic-ness that Brent retained. Here’s a recent—January 2010—comic:

Look at the artistic detail here: Color, extensive background, shading, detailed props, light lines, and different perspectives. The strip and the characters look nothing like they did 5 years ago. Perhaps the “glass half full” crowd will see these changes as improvements, but in comedic terms what does all this art give you that you didn’t get from PVP in 2006? Easy. Nothing. In fact, it’s a huge problem. The joke’s great—Kurtz was and continues to be an excellent joke writer—but is there anything added by the various over the shoulder shots, Brent’s eyes (ugh!) over his glasses in the first panel, the detail of the background? No. In fact, only the last panel which uses a more traditional comic frame has the right comic “feel.” Everything else looks like a storyboard to a sitcom, and that’s a not meant as praise.

What kills me is that for someone who’s been as successful as Kurtz, I can’t believe he doesn’t see how he’s distorting the PVP reality through his artwork. I have to conclude that he either disagrees with my assessment (fair enough) or would rather draw pretty pictures than funny ones. The irony is that since PVP is a comic frequently about alternate realities, be they AD&D, video games or what have you, Kurtz could easily accommodate his desire to include more detailed drawing in his strip the same way that Watterson did.

There are other issues, of course, like Brent’s lack of snark since marriage and the return of a completely redrawn Max Powers (reminding me somehow of Ted McGinley) with an aura of Zen that completely saps the strip of conflict. Question: Who is the antagonist in the 2010 edition of PVP? Skull’s cat, Scratch Fury is as good a guess as any, and he’s hardly a main character except at Christmastime. Understandably, it’s hard to get excited about a story without conflict.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to say exactly when PVP jumped the shark, but in thinking this through and writing it out, I’m not even sure that’s the best analogy. It’s more accurate to say that Classic PVP was The Matrix and what’ve seen in the last couple years are the sequels. It’s a shame to have experienced such a high only to be followed by such a let-down, but at least in this case I can always hold out the faint hope that, Dallas-like, Jade will wake up, Brent will come out of the shower without a chin, and “new PVP” will have been a dream.