Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Obscurity of the Day: Free For All
In a familiar tale of the comic strip business in the last quarter of the 20th century, Free For All was yet another college paper strip that hit the bigtime because syndicate execs were trying to duplicate the past successes of Doonesbury and Bloom County.
Brett Merhar's Free For All debuted in 1992 in The Collegian, the paper of Colorado State University. In 1995 it was picked up by the Greeley (CO) Tribune where it apparently ran until 1998. King Features picked it up and began syndicating the strip on April 27 1998.
Free For All featured a cast of arrested development X-generation kids, originally in a college setting, and later in the syndicated version trying to make their way in the great big world. The strip was intended to be a bit on the raunchy side and closely emulated the hip tone of Bloom County if not the level of humor.
The strip fell flat and seems to have been canceled sometime right around its one year anniversary in 1999. But Merhar had bigger fish to fry -- he moved to L.A. and by 2003 had talked the premium TV cable channel Showtime into signing Free For All as an animated cartoon. In promoting the TV series he avoided mentioning the fact that the strip had been a flop, carefully choosing his words in interviews to leave the impression that it was a big success and still in syndication.
I haven't seen the cartoon but apparently the raunchy factor was turned way up, characterized by one writer as "South Park without the bleeping." Seven episodes were produced for the first season, but Showtime didn't pick up the option for any more. If you saw the show and liked it, you can purchase episodes online at Amazon.com.
The artwork was quite bad, often resembling "Doonesbury" tracings, and the humour never left school. The artist was notoriously lazy, offering recycled strips with new word bubbles, until whole strips were rerun without any change.
The animated version isn't any better with it's shift to a dysfunctional family sitcomy approach and R-rated touches (it was Showtime after all, if it had been on HBO we'd have more of the same).
Interestingly for the TV show they had brought in Merriwether Williams as head writer. She had previously worked on Spongebob Squarepants and after this bombed went on to do Camp Lazlo and Adventure Time for Cartoon Network and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for Hasbro. At least this proved she could handle risque stuff when she can (I know people gave her s--t on MLP anyway).
As for this Brett Merhar, he seems to have fallen into obscurity himself, despite having done an original series for YouTube I've never heard of. Reading what you think of him, he seemed like somebody who simply played with the system as I put it, at least, knew how to walk the walk and talk the talk. Kinda like the creator behind "The Boomdocks" (anyone remember that strip?), who already complains at the show being taken away from him after stepping down from that mess. I'm sure he's doing fine on his own, hopefully not sulking at the years he's wasted on "Free For All". :-P
He does have a YouTube page which seems to not be updated in quite a long time, mostly showcasing clips from "Free For All" and several episodes of an original series called "Beverly Hills Anger Management". Probably worth a check if you have time. If you at least want to see what the animated "Free For All" was like.
I see though this year the Dutch comics website, Lambiek, added Merhar to their "Comiclopedia", here's your chance to see what a typical daily "Free For All" was like.
The last daily strip printed in the book is dated November 20, 1999.
As for the final Sunday strip, the final five Sundays reprinted doesn't have dates on it, but assuming it went chronologically, then the final one should have ran on December 5, 1999.
Hope this helps!