So..... this review is a little late.
To be exact, this review - two, maybe three pages' worth of plain text about someone's webcomic - is about three years late. And y'know what? I've got no excuse. None. Just... I've had writer's block on this specific issue for three straight goddamn years, over a thousand days.
On any day I made a to-do list for myself, it was always one of the items on there. "CL". Every day, I'd add it on. Every day I'd throw the list away with that box unchecked. In time, it became one of those unstartable tasks, a boulder laden with inertia and gravity far out of proportion with its actual mass.
And in that time, of course, the comic in question has changed. The writing's gotten better. The art's gotten better. It's gone from black-and-white to colour. The archive size has more than doubled, even as the non-canon copy-paste filler strips have been removed.
And, in a way, that change and improvement is the same thing I'd like to talk about in this review, since that's a major theme - if not the theme of the comic in question.
This is Center Lane.
Center Lane is the story of David Ramsey. In fact, the very first words in the comic are David's name.
And let's talk about that name, because it seems to be significant - when you think of "David", of course, you think of a little guy, a young guy, a guy going up against harsh persecution and ridicule and a large evil threat, and then defeating that threat with a weapon his enemies don't expect. That is precisely what Center Lane is about - how David faces off against a world that is, inexplicably, against him.
Except, when you read that aforementioned first strip, wherein our hero is needlessly condescending and sarcastic to someone interviewing him for a job, and when you read the subsequent page where we learn David didn't get that job and blames it entirely on a factor outside of his control, we start to get a picture of why the world might be against him.
If Center Lane focused more on David's perspective, I might assume we were dealing with an unreliable narrator, a whiny self-obsessed teenager with overwrought fantasies of unfair bullying and a universe that's out to get him. We don't stay entirely focused on David, though - we see plenty of Davidless scenes of the same sort of cruel world imposing itself on his roommate or his employer or his girlfriend or his friendfriend. The world of Center Lane is a world made up of those sorts of one-sided anecdotes you see on Not Always Right, a world composed of Last Sane Persons and Gibbering Idiots.
What's interesting is - and this may be a bit of a spoiler on the plot, sorry - but we do see a character make the transition from an incoherently hostile idiot to a relatable and sympathetic and ethical and friendly cast member. Like many of the plot developments in Center Lane, this change is abrupt. It's almost as if taking a few moments to put yourself in someone else's shoes immediately unlocks empathy, self-awareness, reasonableness, about five hundred vocabulary words, and even a new sexual orientation... but, at the same time, it changes you from predator to prey, from bully to victim, from being an element of the world that is against a main character to being a main character yourself (and therefore, having the world against you).
Perhaps this change would have been less jarring if the timeframe of the strip was longer, but this is a comic with a very tight time focus... I wasn't counting the days, but I believe the entire duration of the story thus far is less than two weeks. In that time, we see the initiation of a romantic relationship, we see multiple acts of violence, we see multiple sexual hookups, we see abuse of authority, we see legal threats, we see medical problems, we see dream sequences...
Oh, and there's a computer demon. Did I mention the computer demon?
That's the Evil Computer Demon, or ECD, a nigh-omnipotent force that lives in the Internet and reveals itself - for whatever reason - to David. This is one of those factors that would lead me to suspect that Center Lane is meant to be seen through David's unreliable-narrator eyes, were it not for the fact that ECD does mess with one of the characters once while David is not present.
Somewhat fittingly, this interference is entirely without consequence or significance, despite hijacking a fairly important piece of infrastructure that could very well hurt or kill people. ECD is like that. He talks a mean game, and presumably could do a lot of real damage, but functionally, he's little more than the mascot of the strip.
Oh, I mentioned earlier that some non-canon copy-paste filler strips were removed from the archive? Those were mascot strips. There were a few comic pages that were just ECD's face as he interacted with someone off-screen, often someone from another comic - in fact, one of those was with Lily, from Leftover Soup. These were originally part of the archive, but have since been pruned out - I normally don't approve of altering the record of a living webcomic, but, in this case, it was a good idea. It makes the flow of the actual story much more cohesive... at the expense of making the omnipotent cyberdemon a less important and significant part of the world.
I mentioned that growth and improvement and maturity are a major theme of Center Lane, which is fitting for a story about a sixteen-year-old. We do see David confronting the obstacles in his life, coming to terms with the factors that make him who he is, stumbling towards adulthood, overcoming barriers - not merely the barriers of school and family and work and bullies, but the more important barriers inside of himself that prevent him from opening up and meaningfully connecting to other people.
Of course, he's still very much a sixteen-year-old boy, and the strip is only a two-week window into his life, so perhaps we should take all of that with a grain of salt.
The other improvement is with the writing and art. As with most living, regularly-updating comics, we do see the artists' work improving over time. And yes, that apostrophe is on the right side of the S, because Center Lane is the work of two people - the writer, Christopher Galbreath (aka Izumi Ryu), and the artist, Rafa Lee.
Galbreath's dialogue has certainly improved over the course of the past few years, and the scenarios and plotlines he lays out have gotten more realistic, more complex, and more nuanced. (Given the fact that David is, himself, a writer, one may be tempted to assume that he's a Mary Sue stand-in for Galbreath, were it not for the fact that a) all the other main characters endure similar problems, and b) that would make Stacy a stand-in for Lee, which I do not believe is intended.)
Lee's art has also improved over the years, especially since the addition of colour, though it's still consistent in style and character design. Lee definitely has a talent for poses and expressions and layouts and background stuff, though his work is very often... shall we say... loose. That looseness works with the energy of the strip, though. It's realistic when it needs to be, and unrealistic where that's appropriate.
Overall, if you like slice-of-life comedies, if you like coming-of-age dramas, if you want stories that are set in the real world (with one side addition), and if you don't mind seeing characters that you care about subjected to the unfairness of an uncaring universe (and subsequently growing, if not exactly triumphing), then Center Lane is for you. It's been updating regularly twice a week since 2013, so you should be able to get through the archive in an hour or two.
Or, if you're me, in about three years.