Bret Juliano‘s webcomic Dust Bunny Mafia has been online and running since 2011, and features the illicit dealings and everyday goings-on of sentient dust bunnies, who run rackets against the Rats (actual rats), while also trying to stay clear of Mickey Potatoes, a morally ambiguous bird detective out to stop the Dust Bunny Mafia (although he spends an equal amount of time collaborating with them as well). The character designs are simplistic, with each individual dust bunny character being a fuzzy blob of different colors, often wearing a fedora or other type of hat, and with over-sized bunny ears. The three panel comic layout is easy enough to follow as well, and the comic itself could be a cute, funny, diversionary conceit. Despite the ease of getting into the world, the details of it are lacking.
The comic tends to stick mainly to gags or wordplay, occasionally throwing in a pop culture reference (Sonic the Hedgehog shows up in one of the later entries), and many of the jokes elicit little more than a smile or grin. The simplicity of the character designs, again, while making the characters cute, add little to make them distinct. The only memorable characters (without referencing Juliano’s character breakdown page) are Frankie the Force (since he is the most massive), Lucy Leadfoot (since she is the only female), and Mickey Potatoes (since he is the only recurring non-dust-bunny character). The other characters are thrown in as needed in service of the jokes, not necessarily adding much of anything to what the story may be, and while reading there were frequent referrals to the character page to remember who was who and what they did. Throughout nearly the entirety of the first years’ worth of strips, it was difficult to know not only what the story was, but what every character’s motivation was as well. It is also unclear whether the strip had a main character, which is problematic since a clear main character makes it easy to become invested in the strip and to have a point of reference. Moving from one daily strip to the next would prove much more enjoyable if there were a clear main character with whom to use as a point of reference, and the relationships between the other characters would be stronger and clearer as well.
Dust Bunny Mafia, for the most part, is a series of mostly unrelated jokes in the classic “setup-setup-punchline” style. The first years’ worth of strips touched upon one or two extended story lines, but never fully developed them; in fact, there was more than one instance of an extended story being interrupted with an unrelated joke, sometimes featuring the same characters featured in the initial story. With a structure this confusing, it seemed as if Juliano simply had no idea how to best exploit the conceit of his own comic: should he try telling a long-form story, or should he continue doing one-off jokes? Even within the confines of a three-panel layout, Juliano can greatly expand his characters, giving them some depth, and to further explore the universe he’d created. But as it is, it plays out mainly as a series of vignettes, each seemingly unrelated to the strip that preceded it.
While webcomics are commonly focused on telling jokes, there can be a tact and skill to it that engages the reader fully and adds to the enjoyment of the strip. Joke-based webcomics such as XKCD, and Toothpaste For Dinner, can often tell a great joke in as little as one panel. Other webcomics can engage the reader by telling a great, compelling story (such is the case with Black Is The Color, which also boasts beautiful artwork), while yet other web comics successfully combine both methods, at once both engaging the reader and developing the characters (such as with the ever-funny Dr. McNinja). Juliano’s strip, however, makes no assertion either way. With little personality to each character, little clarity on each character’s point or motivation, little clarity as to whether the world of the webcomic is populated with anthropomorphic dust bunnies and animals, or whether it is a world that exists underneath the beds and furniture…without any explanation as to the very logic of its own world, it is difficult to fully engage with the comic (an example of this unclarity within the strip’s universe: in one strip, the characters are startled by an M&M that has fallen into their presence; to them the candy is massive. Presumably, the comic’s world takes place underneath a bed or dresser. However, a later strip shows the dust bunny characters driving a car, or working on a computer, and these items are scaled to their size. I guess they live in a scaled world that just happens to be populated by fantastical characters.)
If Juliano focused fully on what he had to say about the world he’d created, he could potentially have a great webcomic in his hands. There is plenty of potential here, and Juliano is a skilled artist and knows how to structure a joke. He clearly has a good mind for humor. As the webcomic continued into its more recent edition, it seemed to develop more long-form story lines. The lack of character development remained, though, and crowd-sourcing content after three years of being online seems like a symptom of not knowing where to take the comic. Again, if Juliano focuses on the characters and logic of his world a bit more, it would translate into a more successful experience and grow his fanbase. There is room for growth and potential with these cute characters that would greatly benefit from some cohesion and structural consistency.
Would Dust Bunny Mafia be able to hold its own against more popular webcomics if it focused on its characters, or stories, more? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!