Freefall is a veteran in the world of web-comics and one of a cluster of early web-comics I stumbled across around 1999/2000 that often cross promoted each other, did guest strips or referred to each other.
Some of those web-comics finished or were just abandoned. Some kept going but, while they started out pretty good, the author ran out of material and, in my opinion, they got dull and repetitive so I gave up reading them. Freefall is the only web-comic from that cluster that I still read today and I enjoy as much as when I first stumbled upon it some 15+ years ago. Re-reading it for this review was a pleasure; I’ll have to do it again in another fifteen years.
The characters and comic concept
Sam Starfall, a joyfully larcenous and immoral alien land squid in an exo-skeleton/space suit, has a dream; a dream to become a famous spaceship captain - and get rich while doing it. He has a ship he bought at a “bargain” price and he has his trusty robot companion Helix (he can pick things up and put them down again!). What he needs is an engineer to bring his ship up to flight readiness.
Trained as an engineer Florence Ambrose is a Bowman’s Wolf, a genetically altered life form and one of only 14 created as pilot group. Florence is hard working and determined to do her best at whatever comes her way so when she is “accidently” delivered to Sam instead of the research mission she was intended for she assumes there’s a good reason for it and makes the best of it.
Freefall is a comic that is delivered very simply; it’s delivered as a single 2-4 panel strip usually structured very much like you’d read in your Sunday paper but its ideas, jokes and characters have quite a bit more depth than you’d initially expect and have kept it interesting.
Sam and Florence are not overly conscious of it but they both share an outsider status in the culture they live in. Sam is the only alien on an otherwise human world and he can never return to his home. He wants to be a success in a human context; rich and famous. Raised by humans but, like Sam, visibly not human Florence wants to fit into human society and longs for human acceptance. Both are a part of and yet also outside human society which puts them both in a observational position to the world, culture and events they find themselves in.
Beyond that the characters are polar opposites in their values and outlook on life; naturally a fair bit of humour comes from the culture clash between the two.
There’s a lot of outright silliness and fun in Freefall; some of the story lines and events don’t make a whole lot of sense but it was never trying to. There are also serious moments, though they don’t stay serious for long. The humour generally ranges between observational, farce and slapstick – Benny Hill would approve.
While re-reading Freefall I had cause to remember an old quote, and this will sound much worse than it actually is so read to the end of the next paragraph or you will get the wrong impression, which said something like “All jokes are funny. As long as you share the prejudices of the person telling them.”
Which is not to say Freefall is full of what you’d think of as prejudice! But there are plenty of jokes in there about lawyers, politicians, middle management etc. which are generally riffing off (negative) stereotypes of the groups in question.
All of which I found quite humorous; but then there was a joke about climate scientist’s data gathering techniques and my knee was hitting the underside of the table. I have no idea about the authors thoughts on climate change, ultimately he’s just making a humorous observation. Which you could certainly argue is flawed but then you could do the same for all the lawyer/manager jokes and really a lot of jokes in general.
Anyway it just made me think that our reactions to jokes generally say more about us than it does about the person telling the joke (of course there’s a line somewhere where that stops being true).
I’m not sure how much of Freefall’s story was pre-conceived and how much evolved overtime but there are a couple of major story arcs. The first story arc, which covers Sam’s bid to become a famous spaceship captain, starts a little slowly, the jokes/writing doesn’t quite gel as well as it does later in the series but it hits its stride by the time you hit the 100th strip.
But then there is a second story arc that Florence sort of stumbles into around the 1,270th strip which mostly becomes the main story up until the present day. The second story is the more involved of the two and, though Sam is pretty close to being my favourite character (2nd equal to Florence – always a good sign when the two main characters are your favourites!), the second story is a more satisfying and substantial.
Pacing wise the comic does get bogged down in quite a lot of character discussion but equally this discussion, often in the form of debate or explanation, is a large part of what makes Freefall interesting to read.
Some of the topics covered within the comic are (but not limited to) engineering, IT, terraforming, sociology, morals, management, nurture vs nature, artificial intelligence, religion and identity. However the writer generally uses a light touch on all of these topics; the comic is an easy read regardless of your background and I don’t think anyone would find the jokes going over their head (as opposed to, for example, some of the math jokes in the much beloved XKCD).
Ultimately whether you enjoy Freefall will come down to two things and do you find it funny, do you find it interesting; I certainly found it to be both.
The art is simplistic, cartoon style drawings but you get plenty of personality and character coming through. It improves as time goes one but there isn’t a huge difference from where it starts and where it is now.
The art was black and white up until about halfway through the run at which point it's coloured albeit in a fairly basic way.
Author, publishing and timeline
Freefall is written by Mark Stanley, about whom I could find out very little. Quite rare in this day and age!
Freefall has received a few different awards, though the only one I recognised is the now defunct Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards in which it won the Best Science-Fiction Comic category in 2001. In 2003 it was nominated for the Best Anthropomorphic Comic category in the Ursa Major Awards.
To my knowledge Freefall has never been published.
As far as a timeline is concerned your guess is as good as mine I suspect. Freefall isn’t really trying to following a traditional story structure; it’s not that sort of comic. However it could be said to be nearing some sort of conclusion at present on the second story arc but whether that means a potential ending to Freefall who knows. Having run for seventeen years it could just as easily run for seventeen more.