Webcomic Review: The Phoenix Requiem

Title: The Phoenix Requiem (read here)
Author: Sarah Ellerton
Artist: Sarah Ellerton
Published: 2007 – 2011
Pages: 800
Genre: Victorian-style fantasy romance, with mild horror elements
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “On a cold December night, a gentleman stumbles into the town of Esk, gunshot wounds leaving a trail of blood in the snow behind him. Despite making a full recovery at the hands of an inexperienced nurse – and deciding to make a new life for himself in the town – he is unable to escape the supernatural beings, both good and bad, that seem to follow him like shadows. As they try to discover why, the nurse must question her beliefs and risk her own life in order to protect her family, her friends, and those that she loves…”
Reason for Beginning: The artwork is gorgeous and the premise sounded interesting. I’d never read fantasy in a Victorian-era setting before.
Reason for Finishing: It took some time and some concerted effort, but the artwork and slow-developing plot kept me coming back until I finished it.
Story Re-readability: I doubt I’ll reread the whole thing—it’s too long and not quite engaging enough—but I may revisit parts now and then, for the artwork and a few characters I liked.
Author Re-readability: This is my second webcomic of Ellerton’s I’ve read, the first being Dreamless (which was the first webcomic I reviewed here), and I plan to keep tabs on her future projects. I may even read her other completed webcomic, Inverloch, although her art style wasn’t as developed for it.
Artist Re-viewability: Beautiful artwork. Tracy Butler is still the best, but all throughout The Phoenix Requiem, Ellerton’s art is elegant, with saturated colors and especial detail paid to clothing. Everyone in the comic dresses very stylishly; I wish I could dress half so cool as some of the guys she draws.
Recommendation: It’s a good webcomic and I’m glad I read it, although the story moves so excruciatingly slowly with an only adequate payoff that I can’t proclaim this truly excellent. But in the end, it was interesting and pleasingly stylish, with likable characters I could cheer—modestly—for. The Phoenix Requiem is not a must-read, but it’s a decent read.

KEY THOUGHTS

Story

Perhaps the biggest problem with The Phoenix Requiem is that, for all its length, not enough of significance happens. Ellerton provokes many questions early on, and that’s great, but she spaces out the answers too far, and when they come, they usually are insufficient. Most of her 800 pages are not used efficiently. They do not add much to her basic story. Characters never acquire the depth that the denizens of Lackadaisy had after Volume 1 of that story, which was only 62 pages long.

Also, not enough of her invented world is explored. The action (what little of it there is) spans only one town and two minor cities, despite the brief references to a fascinating world beyond the story’s borders. Even these three locations, while interesting and beautifully drawn, lack a great deal of personality. After spending the majority of 800 pages with the characters in their hometown of Esk, I should have a good idea of its geography and feel, enough to know whether it’s a place I’d like to live myself. But I don’t. Even animal life seems conspicuously absent. In the very early pages she shows off two neat fantasy forest creatures, but neither they nor any other animals appear again, even though most of the story takes place outside!

The story isn’t excruciatingly boring or anything, but because plot developments are spaced so far apart, by the time you learn one thing you’ve often forgotten the last thing the plot told you. The passage of time is unclear; weeks or months can pass in a few pages, and we may only catch on after the fact through some dialogue. To help counteract this, the characters frequently explain what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. It’s often a bit unrealistic for them to exposit so, but it helps the reader figure out what’s going on.

Robyn takes on a shade.

One of the main areas of confusion is in the relationship between all the spiritual beings—the shades, ghosts, spirits, and hellions who have been gone from the world for centuries but are beginning to make a comeback. Ellerton has a brief description of each on her Character page that helps, but as the story progresses all their rules, details, and motivations are hard to keep straight, and even when the characters seem to understand and talk about them, it can be hard to follow the logic. By the end, when we get the full explanations of the mythology and all the answers, it still seems a bit shaky, a bit arbitrary.

The premise and the way it plays out are still interesting, but Ellerton doesn’t focus enough on her actual world. Long ago there was a contract between spirits and men—since forgotten by men—that gave humans magic and the ability to create fantastic empires and civilizations. Even though their culture still looks pretty advanced and sophisticated—being at a Victorian stage of development, after all—many of the people still long for halcyon days of magic. The problem is, Ellerton never shows us what has been lost by the loss of magic. What can they not do now that they would have done with magic? Their civilization seems complete and normal, without any gaps that magic could fill. Because of this, all the talk about magic feels inconsequential.

The ending itself is reasonably satisfying. The romantic couples are paired off the way they should be and one character gets to be a living legend without apparently having to sacrifice much of his own happiness. There are still some weaknesses, though. Ellerton’s final explanation of the afterlife is a bit of a letdown. Jonas hypothesizes about the existence of God when one character says that she was created specifically to ferry souls to the afterlife, but such a deity is implied to be an absentee figure in this world. Also,the only explanation of what happens to the souls of the dead that is given any credibility in-universe is the idea (very Eastern) that they all just go into a “sea” of souls and their individuality and consciousness disappears. Such a cosmology shouldn’t satisfy anyone, in fantasy or in real life.

Characters

Jonas and Anya.

The characters, while mostly likable and decently-portrayed, simply are not well-defined enough for their motivations and attitudes to be easily remembered over 800 pages. They also tend to act much younger than they look. All appear to be in their twenties, but act like high-schoolers, especially with regard to their emotions, maturity level, and how they express themselves. They are remarkably indecisive.

With Lackadaisy, the characters were so vibrant and fascinating that I wanted to talk about as many of them as I could. With The Phoenix Requiem, although I feel I should talk about them more for my duty as a reviewer, it’s hard to muster the motivation. Their melodrama simply did not involve me much, and none of them really inspired me. The central characters of Jonas and Anya, whose romance is clearly what Ellerton is most interested in writing, are fine, but not particularly memorable. As such, I’ll just mention the two characters I actually cared about.

Petria is the most fun of the them and the one I enjoyed reading the most, despite her being a supporting character. She is the most down-to-earth and the most forgiving of human foibles, and also happens to be the prettiest of the women, especially at the end. She’s a minx, to be sure, with a disreputable past life that the gentlemanly Robyn rescued her from, but I liked that she was able to become more respectable without losing her humor and sense of fun.

Robyn Hart himself is more interesting than Jonas, in my opinion, and I was sad to see that of all the important characters he gets the most shortchanged in terms of page-time. An ex-soldier who rescued Petria from her brief life as a teenage prostitute and is devoted to becoming a farmer, he has a strong sense of justice and chivalry that appeals to me.

Artwork

As you can see above, the beautiful artwork is the main reason to read The Phoenix Requiem. The combination of detailed, painterly backgrounds with clearer, almost cel-shaded characters is heavily reminiscent of a high quality animated film, as from the Disney heyday. The colors are lush and very easy on the eyes, and every page is attractive to look at.

The art isn’t quite as masterly as Tracy Butler’s in Lackadaisy, to be sure. There are occasional gaffs where characters don’t look their age, such as this one where a grown woman looks prepubescent and younger than her own daughter! Characters generally emote pretty well, although at times their facial expressions look a little off, and other times too extreme and borrowing too much from anime, which is jarring when it appears beside the otherwise naturalistic drawings. The action on a page also isn’t always as clear as it should be, and too often Ellerton wastes space for shots that may have been part of a film (closeups, things like that) but which do not add to her own story at that moment. Geography is also a minor issue. After spending the majority of an 800 page story in the town of Esk, I should have a decent feel for its layout. For most of the story I thought it was a small village, until suddenly, on about page 734, it appears much more developed with tightly-packed, well-built houses.

But the quibbles about the art are pretty insignificant next to its general beauty. Clothing is Ellerton’s especial expertise, every piece she designs being more interesting and attractive than most of what passes as modern fashion. The clothing perhaps takes up a disproportionate part of her focus and energies, but it turns out so spectacularly that even I—hardly a fashion aficionado—am not complaining.

Let me sum up

The premise is good and interesting. The execution of the story is rocky and it takes far too long for anything of significance to happen. Characters are decent, with Petria and Robyn being most lively, but no one is a true standout, and the characters never seem very mature. The artwork is exceptional and beautiful.

Other Reviews
El Santo @ ComixTalk

Webcomic Review: Dreamless

[3/14/2011: Added link to another review. Also, since this review is not quite up to my current standard, I intend to rewrite it with more in-depth commentary and accompanying pictures.]

Hm, seems like I’ll be reviewing webcomics on this blog as well. Fancy that. I just jumped 200 years in two posts!

Romantic drama ensues.

Title: Dreamless
Author/Artist: Written by Bobby Crosby; Drawn by Sarah Ellerton
Format: Webcomic
Published: January 4, 2009 – July 25, 2010
Pages: 70
Reason for Beginning: I don’t remember where I heard about it; possibly it was on the TVTropes list of fantasy webcomics. But the premise intrigued me and the art is painterly, so I gave it a go. Plus this was when I was only just discovering webcomics in general, and was exploring.
Reason for Finishing: Short, as webcomics go, and sweetly romantic. The magical element (which remains unexplained) brings up some really interesting ideas.
Synopsis: In the years before WWII, an American girl and a Japanese boy are linked from birth by being able, while sleeping, to literally see through the eyes of the other one.  One will nearly always be awake while the other is asleep.  Both are born bilingual, and since they can often sense each other’s “presence,” they manage to communicate and, soon enough, fall in love.  The difficulty of loving someone on the other side of the world is not lost on them, and much drama ensues.  THEN WWII begins, bringing more pain, more troubles, and, perhaps, a glimmer of hope…
Story Re-readability: Perhaps sometime I will, though I don’t feel the need to right now. It ended in a satisfying manner, but the plot was sometimes handled a bit awkwardly. Artwork is beautiful, though.
Author Re-readability: Maybe; the writing was decent, sometimes very good, just not great. Crosby has written a few other webcomics, I think one about zombies. Reading them would be based on whether or not they individually seem good.
Artist Re-viewability: I’m already a huge fan of Sarah Ellerton’s Phoenix Requiem, which she writes as well as draws. So, yes. She’s my second favorite webcomic artist right now, next to Tracy Butler of Lackadaisy Cats.
Recommendation: Mainly for people who like idealist love stories. The magical realist element does add a fascinating and fairly original twist

Key Thoughts

This is the only complete webcomic I’ve finished so far.  Like I said above, the storytelling is a bit clunky at times, what with some flashbacks and time-skips that are a bit confusing at first.  Everything does manage to sort itself out in good order, but it might briefly cause a headache or two, trying to figure out whether or not one of them is watching the other at a given moment, or why one character assumed something about the other when it isn’t clear to we readers.  Things like that.  But, like I said, it’s all sorted in the end.

However, it also felt like there were a number of missed moments, where the story could have done something unique because of its premise but instead took a more conventional route.  It’d make a good movie, too, if it were skillfully fleshed out.  There’s a lot of potential for grand drama here, not to mention the beautiful theme of interracial romance between a white Californian girl and a Japanese boy in the 1940s.  I liked how each character was treated with equal respect and intelligence, neither succumbing to clichés.  Their love felt organic and believable.  They made you want them to be together.

Sarah Ellerton uses a softer art style than in The Phoenix Requiem, which is very sharply defined and vibrant.  Here, the effect is almost like watercolors, and it complements the theme of romance and dreams.  Very pleasant to look at.

Beyond that, I cannot think of any more to say about it.  It is a pleasant read that will not demand too much of your time.

Other Reviews
El Santo @ The Webcomic Overlook