Webcomics are one of the most fascinating art forms to have emerged in the past fifteen or so years. Though they are obviously related to print comics, the fact that they are designed for the Internet and produced independent of any publishing house gives their creators tremendous freedom of form and content. Just witness the inventive page layouts by Tracy Butler, the context-sensitive dialogue boxes (they’re not really balloons) in Hero, or the amazingly expansive panel in this xkcd strip (click and drag the bottom one). The latter two would not be possible in a non-digital format.
If you’ve been reading my previous webcomic reviews, you’ll know they can get rather long. They also take a long time to write. This is because I try to only review webcomics that are completed or very far along in their storylines. But sometimes I start reading a really interesting one only to find that it’s only a few chapters in. There’s enough that I want to talk about, but not quite enough to demand a long discussion or to make a final judgment about. These are the webcomics I’ll look at in Webcomic Quickies, where I’ll talk about them…well, quickly.
Red Moon Rising
Author/Artist: Rose Loughran
Length: 14 Chapters, 287 pages as of now. On hiatus since May due to illness and personal issues for the artist.
The Gist: A steampunk fantasy with moody artwork involving flying ships, rainy urban settings, angsty magic-users, underground rebel groups, and a significant dose of angst which is slightly mitigated by the characters being generally sympathetic.
The Story: Adrianna’s brother goes AWOL from the army shortly after she speaks with him one day, and the army forces her to help them track him down. She wants to protect her brother, but she doesn’t know what sort of trouble he’s gotten himself into.
My Thoughts: This one should prove very good if the artist/author can tighten her storytelling. Relatively little has happened over fourteen chapters, but it can still be hard to keep track of who’s who. She jumps between different points-of-view too often and chapters are too short, not giving individual scenes enough time to develop and settle. When the dramatic scenes start coming I didn’t feel their full effect because I hadn’t connected fully with the characters due to their scenes so often being interrupted. The plot is only starting to get complicated, but is awkwardly told, such that I consistently have to backtrack or check the cast profile page to figure out what is happening. There’s a history of war between the nations of Ashul and Imara, some kind of contestation over the buffer country of Rishara Caan, and different factions within each country.
On the upside, the main characters are interesting and likable. Despite the considerable angsting from the get-go, Adrianna and her brother Lethe really care for each other and share an encouraging familial bond. The plot, however awkwardly told, is holding my interest, especially as the introduction of a rebel group helps make some of the world’s politics a little clearer. It’s not all talk and glum-faces, either; there have already been quite a few action scenes, as well as a chase or two. And the mixture of magic with a lightly steampunk setting should provide some good plot twists, in addition to the already-prevalent and very cool visuals.
The artwork strikes a fairly consistent tone in keeping with its moody (there’s that word again) story. Lines and details in the backgrounds are deliberately obscured, creating a permanent haze that seems to oppress the characters, hide their secrets, and generally isolate them from each other and the world around them. At times it can be really neat, or even beautiful. On the downside, by obscuring the way the world looks, it makes it that much harder for the reader to get a good feel for the settings. However, this might be intentional, as at the story’s outset Adrianna herself seems to have poor knowledge of geography and contemporary politics; the visual obscuring of the setting may reflect how she hasn’t learned to look at her surroundings in a detailed, knowledgeable way.
The character art is a bit less consistent. Sometimes they’re strikingly well-drawn and almost tangible people, while other times the are confusingly indistinct; in particular, there’s an auburn-headed lieutenant who I kept confusing for Adrianna because of his slight frame and long hair. The facial expressions are a bit limited and don’t evolve the characters quite as much as they do in webcomics like Lackadaisy and Digger.
The magic effects and action scenes, however, can be really cool; fire and glowing energy blaze boldly from the shaded surroundings and instantly command attention, whereas movements of extraordinary speed (or explosions) may be accompanied with motion blur, giving a cinematic feel to these scenes. It’s been fairly low-key so far, but I have a feeling the action is going to start ramping up much more in the coming chapters.
Next Town Over
Author/Artist: Erin Mehlos
Length: 4 Chapters
The Gist: Gunslingers and fire mages fight each other amidst the sprawling, half-tamed West, riding steeds both cyborgian and (literally) fire-blooded. Big on colorful action, low on good guys.
The Story: A silent, pale-faced bounty hunter named Ms. Vane ruthlessly tracks her quarry, the wickedly cultured and affable gunslinger John Henry Hunter, through the scrub and cow towns of the Old West, each of them leaving in their wakes flames, destruction, and a few dead bodies.
My Thoughts: More professional than most webcomics, Next Town Over certainly looks like it’ll be an entertaining, action-packed ride throughout. It’s just getting started, so we don’t know yet who Vane and Hunter are, what their relationship is or was, and what started this whole chase. We’re not even quite sure whether the rest of the world knows about the magic and steampunk contraptions—both Vane and Hunter treat it all rather casually, as if it’s built into them, but the innocent bystanders seem shocked when these elements show up.
The artwork is very bright and colorful, with backgrounds evoking the varied beauty of the American West, from the red canyons to the grassy plains and high buttes. Characters are a tad more stylized than I would like, occasionally jarring with the naturalistic landscapes, but that’s nit-picking. They all have lot of personality to their designs and thoughtful detail in their wardrobes. The panel layouts are also varied, utilizing different shapes and decorated borders to add atmosphere, and sometimes even to further the story. It keeps things fresh.
The characters are the tricky part, and will determine whether or not this webcomic can really end up being worth it. Neither Ms. Vane nor John Henry Hunter are good guys. Hunter’s the more obvious villain, with his white dandy suit, taste for loose women, and general willingness to murder and cause mayhem whenever people get in his way. But Ms. Vane is no better; she steals, hijacks, and kills her way from town to town. Once she even shoots off two fingers from a blacksmith’s hand when he refuses to surrender his shop for the night, and then shoots two successive sheriffs who come to apprehend her, in cold blood. She comes across as a psychopath, which isn’t helped by her pale, almost corpse-like face and her general impassive silence. Sympathetic she is not. In fact, we end up liking Hunter a lot more, because he at least gives the appearance of affability, smiling as dandily as he dresses and loving the sound of his own melodious voice. His dialogue in particular is well-written, with the diction and turns of phase we expect from sophisticated Western characters (like Doc Holiday and his ilk).
So Hunter is a lot of fun, but he needs a hero to go up against. Right now, all he has is another villain, and despite his greater charisma, he’s still too evil to root for. Before long, I need a truly sympathetic character to follow, someone with moral backbone. Fortunately, we may have just gotten on in Chapter 4, as a nicer guy from a posse that was chasing Hunter seems to be tagging along with Vane now.
But mainly you should read it because of this.
Note: There is a fair bit of blood and some cringe-inducing injuries, not to mention a bit of sexual innuendo, so this one’s definitely not for kids. PG-13 at this stage, though with a tad more blood than you’d see in a PG-13 movie.
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant
Author/Artist: Tony Cliff
Length: Four chapters for the online story. Another story can be bought as a print comic.
The Gist: Pure, unadulterated adventure-comedy, one of the crown jewels of webcomics, as far as I’m concerned. Exotic locations! Gorgeous artwork! Wild adventure! Hilarious buddy comedy! Thrilling contraptions! Glittering treasure! And some bloody good tea!
The Story: A mild-mannered, tea-loving lieutenant in the Turkish emperor’s Janissary corps accidentally falls in with Delilah Dirk, a world-traveling thrill-seeking wonder woman. They Fly on a Ship to Steal Treasure from a Bad Guy and it is Super Fun.
My Thoughts: Look, just go read it right now, okay? Do yourself a favor. It’s one story, and it’s relatively short. And sweet. As in, sweet, man. I don’t even know where to start with this one. It’s one of my favorite things on the Internet, ever.
Firstly, this is my favorite artwork of all the webcomics I’ve seen, including Tracy Butler’s superb Lackadaisy and Tom Siddell’s increasingly beautiful Gunnerkrigg Court. But Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant is more appealing even than these. Through Cliff’s artwork I can hear the seagulls and harbor bells in the bay of Constantinople, I can feel the sea breezes and the warm sun, I feel as I were right there lounging against a wood fence with some Anatolian goatherds. The landscapes have the brightness of a cartoon, but the detailed specificity of the real eastern Mediterranean. Tony Cliff knows exactly where his characters are in the world, and he takes you there, too.
The plot in this first adventure isn’t much beyond an excuse to get the two protagonists together and show off some exotic locations, but that’s fine by me. Delilah and Selim make a truly inspired pair. She’s the hyper-competent Action Girl, more than a match in a fight for any man, but is kept from being an irritating straw feminist by her overconfidence, wackiness, her inability to stay cool under stress, and her appreciation of the infinitely more stable Selim. Selim, in turn, is eminently likable and sensible. Despite being in the renowned janissary corps, he’s not much of a warrior. Rather, he likes brewing the best tea in the world, using big words, and being pleasant. He’d rather not risk his life, thank you, but in a cinch he proves to be remarkably clear-headed. After one notable disaster Delilah completely breaks down in frustration because she can’t think of a way out and can’t handle failure, and it’s Selim’s modest practicality that saves their lives. The two of them banter and bicker and charm their way into our hearts, and I laughed and smiled and generally felt fantastic while in their presence.