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Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Penny and Aggie

Penny and Aggie

Writer and co-creator: T. Campbell
Original artist and co-creator: Gisele Lagace
Current artist: Jason Waltrip

“She’ll go far in this world. And she’ll get whatever she wants… by making dozens, hundreds, of people feel like you feel right now. And we gave her the power. So it will be our fault.”
- Penny

What’s It About?
Penny And Aggie follows the relationships of a large and varied group of American teenagers. Aggie is a budding activist, socially conscious and outwardly quite emotionally mature. Penny, meanwhile, is Aggie’s chosen arch-enemy: a rich, spoilt and outwardly selfish popular girl. If that all sounds stereotypical (and it does, I admit it) then rest assured that over the years the two characters grow and change: Penny is not the monster Aggie initially believes her to be and neither is Aggie as perfect as she believes herself to be.

What’s Good About It?
What separates Penny And Aggie from the average teen drama strip is the depth of psychology the characters possess. The central relationship between Penny and Aggie could easily have been a morally perfect socially conscious heroine positioned against a rich and selfish teen villain. However, over the years both characters gain positive and negative characteristics in equal measure. Aggie is capable of being just as self-serving as Penny whilst Penny is shown to actually have many good qualities including an admirable loyalty to her friends in adversity. It makes them better characters because it makes them deeper.

The strip has a large cast of distinct characters, each with a well-rounded psychology to them. Even the most villainous characters have their reasons, sometimes quite legitimate ones. There were characters I started off hating who I now find quite sympathetic.

The strip also deals with a lot of issues in a refreshingly direct manner. There are storylines dealing with coming out, peer pressure, definitions of sexuality, eating disorders, bullying, body image, false rape accusations, the lingering scars of bereavement, self-expression, homophobia, the perception of Islam… and that’s just off the top of my head.

The series, ultimately, is about social conscience and a group of young people trying to make a difference in the world. The “bad” characters aren’t demonised, the “good” characters aren’t canonised, no one is evil and no one is perfect. Penny And Aggie is proof that comic writing can be complex and multi-layered, dealing with real issues and featuring three dimensional characters.

What’s Bad About It?
A small gripe but one that should be mentioned as a general sort of warning for reading web comics: if you choose to go into the archives and read Penny and Aggie from the beginning, the strip takes a while to find its feet. The strip started as a basic gag-a-day strip in a four panel format (newspaper-style, basically). The characters gain real depth over time but in those original strips they are very basic, even stereotypical. Lagace, similarly, takes time to find her feet and you can watch her style develop over time. There is a certain satisfaction in watching the characters, stories, themes and art deepen from those original stock characters and short strips to the psychologically-charged 200-page epic The Popsicle Wars.

This isn’t unusual with webcomics but it is probably best to make note of it first.

In a strange move for a “What’s bad about it?” section I have to provide a warning concerning one of the series’ best storylines. During The Popsicle Wars there’s a story concerning a rape accusation. Those strips are uncomfortably well-written but uncomfortable like the final scenes of Blackadder Goes Forth*, uncomfortable because it should be, because that’s what the subject matter deserves. Nonetheless, it is uncomfortable and emotive enough that it might be triggering.

Finally, if you find large casts problematic to keep straight in your head, this may not be the strip for you, especially as the relationships between them alter so drastically over the years.

What’s the Art Like?
Penny And Aggie has had too artists in its life: co-creator Gisele Lagace for its first five years with Jason Waltrip taking it up to the present. Now, you’ll have to forgive me here because posting webcomic art on your own website without permission is actually considered terribly bad form and so the usual art samples will be replaced by links as we go. Just click on the links to take you to the example.

Both artists work in black and white with grey-scale “colouring”, that is shades of grey used to imply colours rather than true colour. Also in common between the two artists is a commendable variety of body types used to differentiate characters. There are a couple of characters who are similar facially and in their hair ,but telling them apart isn’t usually difficult because character design extends to the whole body here, not just the face.

As to separating the two artists, Lagace has a somewhat manga-influenced style with fine lines and very defined anatomy. For the most part, Lagace’s art doesn’t deviate much from “realism” but still manages to convey a lot of visual humour to complement Campbell’s script.

Waltrip’s art is simpler, more cartoon-like and his visual humour takes more liberties with anatomy. This aspect of his work settles down when portraying the series’ more serious scenes in which he switches to a style more in keeping with Lagace’s work. The more Lagace-like realism of these scenes sells them better than the cartoon-y style of his humour pages.

Other Information
New pages are posted on the website (http://www.pennyandaggie.com/) every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The main series is free to view but the website operates a service called “Penny and Aggie Plus” where extra (but not vital) material is available for a monthly or annual fee.

The series has been collected in print over four volumes so far up the end of The Popsicle War saga, however, they have not been published in Britain. The website store doesn’t seem to offer international delivery so hunting them down second hand may take time and expense

*Blackadder Goes Forth is the fourth season of UK comedy show that ran in the 1980s. This particular season was set in the trenches of the first world war and the last episode saw the characters finally charging out into No Man'ss Land and to their deaths. It was particularly distressing, but very effective. For more information here is a link to the Wikipedia entry.


  1. Sorry to be a such a pedant but Blackadder Goes Forth was set during the first world war, not the second.

    I feel deeply ashamed of myself now. Loving the blog by the way

  2. I've never even heard of Penny an Aggie,but I DO have all of the Blackadder series. And it was magnificent.

  3. Jules - no worries about the pedantry, I shall go change it now. And for clarity - it was me that put that in, not James, he's somewhat more observant and less prone to typos than me!
    Glad you like the site.