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‘Octopus Pie’ is a Nicktoonish Ode to Twenty-Something Life in Brooklyn

When I was nine years old, Nickelodeon introduced my brain to the Nicktoon, and my brain never looked back. I spent sick days watching the dystopic adventures of Rocko’s Modern Life. I wrote my college thesis with Hey Arnold! playing in the background. I spent many a bleary-eyed morning in law school with Danny Phantom before dragging myself to torts class (and it should surprise no one that I never actually became a lawyer). But nothing came close to blending the tone of those Nicktoons with twenty-something life until I discovered Meredith Gran’s webcomic Octopus Pie.If there’s a canon of must-read webcomics out there, Octopus Pie comes near the top of the heap. Gran’s animation-influenced line art, her fantastical Brooklyn (filled with cultish baristas, keytar-playing lobsters, mystical pastries and a Paris Hilton-type who won’t stop photographing her junk) and her odd-couple protagonists (the prickly Eve Ning and her freewheeling stoner roommate Hanna) made Octopus Pie an instant darling of the webcomics world. Over the last few years, as Gran has both grown as an artist and allowed her characters to grow up a little.

Eve Ning, our punnily named heroine, is your classic quarter-life sad sack. She works at an organic market run by her unscrupulous boss, Olly, and hasn’t put her creative writing degree to use since graduation. She’s aimless and a tad misanthropic, and of course she is clumsily dumped by her existentialist boyfriend in the comic’s opening pages. If Eve were a man and this a romantic comedy, the universe would instantly reward her with a manic pixie dream girl who would pull her out of her funk and make all her dreams come true.

Well, Octopus Pie isn’t a romantic comedy, but Eve does get her very own manic pixie dream girl in the form of Hanna Thompson, who moves onto Eve’s futon and fills her life with the constant odor of marijuana. Hanna is, in perfect sitcom logic, everything Eve is not — impulsive where Eve is stagnant, happily coupled where Eve is brokenhearted, occupationally fulfilled where Eve is trapped in grocery purgatory.

Fortunately, Hanna doesn’t simply whisk Eve off on a series of quirky adventures that magically fix Eve’s outlook on life. In fact, much of the action of Octopus Pie stems from Eve’s own insanity. When her beloved bike, Mr. Peddles, is stolen, Eve constructs the ultimate bicycle rights management system (which works about as well as digital rights management). When Eve’s whiskey-fueled marketing campaign for Olly’s Organix goes viral, Eve is transformed into an evil, scheming capitalist. It’s Eve who goes on a bad date with a script treatment writer who deconstructs her into a set of archetypes. It’s Eve who manages to acquire a childhood figure skating rival without even realizing it. It’s Eve who belonged to a secret brotherhood of status-obsessed coffee pourers. Hanna largely bounces around in Eve’s orbit, toking up and trying to meddle in her friend’s love lives.

Gran studied animation at New York’s School for Visual Arts, and her training as an animator is clear in every panel, from the moment Hanna and her boyfriend Marek kiss, and Eve painedly watches cartoon hearts drift from their smooches, to every goofy dance move that emanates from Hanna’s angular body. She also isn’t afraid to slow down the pacing of a moment to let characters speak more with their eyes than they could flapping their black-and-white gums.

Octopus Pie recently made our list of “Best Webcomics Ever (This Week)” and with good reason. The comic has steadily improved over the last five years, but it has absolutely killed in the last few months. As the cast has expanded to include Eve’s friends, Hanna’s friends and even Hanna’s drug dealer’s friends, Gran’s writing and artwork have grown sharper. Sure, there is still the occasional bout of off-the-wall craziness (see: “Basement Full of Buddies” which leaves the reader with the unsettling question of whether a human skeleton could be flushed down the toilet), but the zaniness doesn’t overwhelm the development of the characters.

It would be easy to dismiss Octopus Pie as a hipster comic (and yes, Eve recoils at being called a hipster), but Gran doesn’t glorify her character’s quirks above the basic challenges of being in your twenties: deciding where to live, where to work, who to love; negotiating your post-collegiate relationship with your parents; figuring out your values. “Fired, Walk With Me” condemns unpaid internships while wondering if they’re the only thing keeping Brooklyn alive. The aforementioned bad date storyline includes some incredible gems — especially when the deconstructionist writer refuses to date Eve on the grounds that no one would ‘ship them. The current plotline involves the Occupy Wall Street protests, and finds Marek and Hanna surprisingly on different sides of the fight. Hanna may be a stoner, but she’s a stoner with a work ethic, dammit.

As the comic has progressed, Eve has become more attractive and less prickly of a pear than she was in the first few storylines, while drug dealer Will starts to question his mercenary lifestyle and starts searching for something more stable. Characters resign themselves to corporate jobs, smooth over the jagged edges of their broken hearts and live their lives as people who are more than archetypes. And as her characters have developed, so has Gran’s artwork. Behold the wonderful simplicity of “Eve Fails at Watching Porn (Again)” (surprisingly SFW, save one reference to the male anatomy). In a recent update, she pulled off that much-touted but little used webcomic maneuver: the infinite canvas. And best of all, the infinite canvas sequence is built from references that run throughout the comic’s history, a nice vertical reward for long-time readers.

It’s moments like these that have kept Octopus Pie at the top of my RSS queue for so long. Gran continues to challenge herself as an artist, and as much as I’m eager for Eve’s next disaster, I’m also deepy invested in what becomes of her. We’ve all had moments in our lives when we’ve been Eve, and no number of manic pixie dream girls (be they roommates or paramours) are going to save us. We have to figure out this whole life thing for ourselves.

Octopus Pie is available in its entirety online, but if you prefer a few trees die for your comics-reading pleasure, you can buy the print collections: There Are No Stars in Brooklyn and Listen at Home with Octopus Pie.

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