A new epic rises, and it’s looking for a title

I am near to quivering with excitement and glee.

My dear friend and accomplished artist/writer/tree-climbing crazyperson Michelle has finally kicked her long-gestating webcomic into gear. Please hop on over to read the first page of Epic Title Here!

Skittlebright likes tea.
Skittlebright likes tea.

It already has floating islands, aromatic teas, Krishna, Quetzalcoatl, and some guy who looks Sumerian, so I’m guessing he’s Gilgamesh. And two other probably-original characters who will likely become very important very soon. I don’t know, we’ll have to read and find out. The story promises to be about a young woman searching for a story, and that’s a quest I can certainly relate to. It also promises a cat named Sophocles, which I think we can all agree is something the Internet desperately needs.

Sophocles wants you to read his webcomic.
Sophocles wants you to read her webcomic.

Webcomic Review: “Copper”

N.B. I’m still working on my review of THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. The roots of it are down, but I want to manage the difficult task of a complete and balanced review while not rambling or letting the overall length grow too long. Keep hope alive — I may be slow, but I’ve not given up reviewing!

copper_038_clockworkTitle: Copper
Author and Artist: Kazu Kibuishi
Published online: 2002-2009, but more is still promised
Format: Single page vignettes
What’s the premise? A boy named Copper and his talking dog named Fred climb mountains, ride giant turtles, fight robots, dive for sunken treasure, search the skies for alien intelligence, have weird dreams, and generally wander through beautiful landscapes having gently-paced adventures.
What’s it like? Calvin & Hobbes without most of the real-life stuff, just the boy’s fantasy segments.
Worth my time? Definitely. It doesn’t take much time at all, but it rewards every second.

Key Thoughts

All of Copper can be read in a single sitting, which may cause you to lament that there are not more, and that the most recent one was published online as far back as 2009. Still, the one-off nature of each story means that we’re not left waiting in frustrated anticipation for the story to continue. No cliffhangers, no lingering plot threads, and a cast of only two very likable friends. Light reading, but not insubstantial.

Copper and Fred live in a dreamworld where the setting and circumstances all conform to the needs of the vignette. Copper looks about ten years old but doesn’t seem to have any parents or go to school. Yet he’s occasionally shown to live in a house and have modern amenities like television, a toaster, and video games. He even drives his own car! And helicoper! But perhaps in a world where they can footrace a giant shrimp up a vertical street I shouldn’t wonder that a ten year-old lives comfortably alone and can legally operate motor vehicles. With his talking dog as copilot.

copper_008_racing_shrimp

It’s all good fun, though, and the brevity of the stories makes it easy to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the imagination on display. Copper has a pretty easy-going attitude, preferring to take the world as it comes and not worry about trivial things. He’ll wait patiently for just the right wave while surfing, favors simple and old-fashioned things, loves exploration for its own sake, and fixes old clocks for the fun of it. Fred, on the other hand, is often full of doubt, impatience, and nervousness. He’s more likely to make unwise decisions (like staying up all night playing video games) or be bothered by petty details (like the possibilty of falling to his death from a great height). It’s an interesting inverse of the trope of the stupid human and wise pet (a lá Wallace & Gromit). Not that Fred is stupid, but he seems more in need Copper’s care and companionship.

The stories swing gently between warm humor and thoughtful melancholy. A few end rather abruptly without the expected resolution; this one, for example, answers neither how they got stranded in the middle of the ocean nor how they escape their predicament (and makes me wonder if they’ll start reenacting Life of Pi!). Some, like this one where they find a blue crab on the beach, end almost sadly, with the hint of a moral, while this textless one seems to be about nothing more than the warmth of their friendship. Likewise the settings range from typical suburban neighborhoods to unexplained apocalypses. One story they’re watching TV, the next they might be in space, or playing guitar atop a pink cliff and pining for a girl trapped in a floating bubble. There are two recurring girls who appear in a few of the stories, and some of the settings have people in the background, but few of these have dialogue, and none of any importance. The only true characters are the boy and dog.

I think we've all had dreams like this at one time or another.
I think we’ve all had dreams like this at one time or another.

The art is beautiful and extremely appealing. Clear lines and a varied, well-chosen color palette make the pictures “pop” pleasingly before the eye, while maintaining the look of a traditional comic or cartoon. Some are shaded predominantly in one color, such as a blue waterfall scene, to create a certain effect, while others, like a city’s open market, burst with the whole color spectrum. I especially like Kazu’s use of lighting to enhance the mood of his scenes. He’s almost as fond as I am of the long shadows and melancholy glow of late afternoon. In this landscape of concrete bridges (and little else), he creates a slightly surreal effect that makes the scene feel like something from my own dreams, like I’ve been there before. The text is lettered in such a way as to be very clear to read, while fitting naturally with the style of the art and indicating the mood in which the dialogue is spoken by the characters.

There’s also a longer, more complete story that was published in the first volume of Flight, which you can also read online. It’s called Maiden Voyage, and it’s a treat.

In a plane they built by hand.
In a plane they built by hand.

Kazu seems to work on the comic in between his professional print projects (like Amulet and the Flight anthologies), which means he doesn’t produce them very often. But when he does, he spends lots of time crafting beautifully-drawn, self-contained stories that invite you to relax, smile, think a bit, and maybe reread. I hope he makes more, and am even considering ordering one of the print versions. Do enjoy.

“Next Town Over” webcomic art contest

Erin Mehlos of the steampunk-fantasy-Western webcomic Next Town Over has an art contest going on right now, and she’s very bummed that it only has one entry so far. She announced it on September 11, but I only noticed it today. It closes on October 20, this Saturday.

You can make visual art or write a short story or poem, so long as it’s based on the NTO world in some way. Winning prizes range from autographed print versions of the first four volumes to T-shirts and character sketch cards, and a few other things in between.

You know what? I just might enter. It depends if I can whip up a good short story in so short a time, but I tend to do most of my work last minute anyway. The subject is fantasy, the only genre I really feel comfortable with, and the setting is the Old West, which I haven’t written in before but I love anyway. Plus it’s been a few months since I’ve written fiction, and I need to get back into it.

Anyone else care to enter the contest?

Webcomic Quickies: Steampunk mages, cowboy wizards, and Turkish Lieutenants

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.

Red Moon Rising
There’s a *lot* of rain.

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.

Red Moon Rising
Purty.

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.

Next Town Over
Basically it is this.

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.

Next Town Over
Pictured: the American landscape, the other main character.

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.

Next Town Over
Steampunk horse. STEAMPUNK CYBORG HORSE. (steamborg horse?)

And this.

Next Town Over
Fire horse. A real nightmare. *ba-dum PSH*

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 LieutenantDelilah 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.

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant
She has a ship that flies. If you need another reason to check out this webcomic, then you may need to question whether or not you really love adventure after all.

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.

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish LieutenantFirstly, 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.Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant

2012 Harvey Awards

Since I just remarked on the Hugo Awards, perhaps it’s fair to remark as well on the Harvey Awards.[1] What are the Harvey’s? The Awards for comic books and graphic novels. Here’s the list of the 2012 recipients.

Alright, so the only point of interest for me is the triple win of Kate Beaton for her Hark! A Vagrant! webcomic. The Harvey’s are mostly for print comics, I believe—there are the Eisner awards for webcomics exclusively—but it still has a BEST ONLINE COMICS WORK award. Kudos to Ms. Beaton for winning it. Her strips are often hilarious and witty, poking fun at history, literature, and pop culture in ways that make you see them all in new lights. I still laugh at her strips about Nikola Tesla.

She also took home the SPECIAL AWARD FOR HUMOR IN COMICS, which is quite appropriate, and BEST CARTOONIST, which I’m in a poor position to judge, but I think is probably also appropriate because of how effectively she uses her deceptively-simple, goofball character designs. Well done, Kate!


[1] Fair is fair: El Santo of The Webcomic Overlook tuned me in to both of these.

Webcomic Review: “Digger” by Ursula Vernon

HEY HEY! THIS IS MY 200TH POST! THIS GIVES ME THE RIGHT TO USE ALL-CAPS, WHICH IS NORMALLY A CAPITAL OFFENSE IN MY BOOK! HEY HEY! THIS IS LIKE, SPECIAL, OR SOMETHING! +) [But seriously guys, thanks for reading my blog and having unbelievable conversations and all. Otherwise this would be a very quiet, very sad corner of the Internet.]

Title: Digger
Author/Artist: Ursula Vernon
Pages: Difficult to say, because the numbering is disorderly and unreliable, but the web address count is 921.
Published: February 1, 2007 to March 17, 2011
Status: COMPLETE
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A pragmatic, good-hearted wombat engineer gets wrapped up in a quest involving dead pagan gods, talking statues, vampiric squash, the social politics of an anthropomorphic hyena tribe, a possibly-demonic shadowchild who wants to be good, an oracular slug with an attitude, a shrew pirate-troll-awesomething with even more attitude, mythologies so tangled even the god Ganesh has trouble working them out, and far too much magic for her comfort. All Digger really wants is to stop being lost and go home.
Reason for Beginning: Ursula Vernon has been known on deviantArt and Elfwood for her oddball drawings and clever, slightly-insane explanations for them. I like her creative weirdness, and her sense of humor, and wanted to see if it would hold out over a longer story.
Reason for Finishing: It did. And fortunately, the central characters are all very interesting, mostly likable folks, and the mythology Vernon creates is intriguing.
Story Re-readability: While the overarching plot might only beg for one or two rereads at most, to catch all the details, individual pages and passages make for fun and satisfying rereads on their own, on account of Vernon filling every nook and cranny with something uniquely funny, touching, ominous, and/or character-building.
Author Re-readability: Definitely. She knows how to keep the characters and setting interesting even when not much appears to be happening plotwise.
Artist Re-viewability: Her main weakness seems to be drawing human faces; they often don’t succeed in communicating the characters’ age or even expressions very well. Fortunately, most of the characters are non-human, which she manages much better. The stark black-and-white art at times causes problems when she’s drawing particularly complicated objects or an odd perspective, because with all the lines and shadows it can be hard to make out the details, but on the whole it creates a heavy, ominous atmosphere. Vernon’s real specialty, though, is creating weird new creature designs, often of a goofy variety, and then giving them a certain dignity; check out her fierce hyena tribes, bridge trolls, and oracular slugs below. There are many memorable, even iconic, images in this strip.
Recommendation: Aye! It has an effective mix of pathos, comedy, and mystery. Digger herself (yes, the wombat is female) is one of the more original and likable webcomic protagonists I’ve met, and you get to know her very well. Where the story becomes more interesting than just a fantasy adventure is when it throws in some surprisingly difficult moral quandaries that challenge Digger and engender some thoughtful discussions among the characters, as well as, hopefully, the readers.

Key Thoughts

The thing is, I’m a wombat. And no self-respecting wombat has anything to do with magic. It’s dangerous, but mostly it’s just bad taste.

This is a peculiar twist on the idea of the fantasy quest, but an entertaining one. If you read mainly for the plot, you might get frustrated, because it takes some time to get going. For the most part, and despite heavily featuring prophecies and divine intervention, the plot of Digger reveals itself naturally in small stages, like one of the dark underground caverns through which our heroine often walks with her lantern held high and her sensitive nose sniffing the dusty air. It takes quite awhile for the main quest to get moving, but honestly, I didn’t miss it. The build-up is every bit as entertaining and fascinating as the climax – perhaps even moreso, in fact.

It's like "The Matrix." With...wombats. And no Matrix.The naming of Ganesh, a Hindu deity, would seem to set this story in India, yet the designs of the humans look either more oriental or, in the case of the village nurse or a local ruffian, very Caucasian. I don’t know if this is due to Vernon’s afore-mentioned difficulty with drawing humans, to laxity of design, or to deliberate artistic choice, but it does work to make the setting rather vague. In the long run, this probably helps the story, as it has enough exoticism to feel different from standard Western fantasy while still retaining a certain timeless quality. Sort of timeless. I mean, this is still a pre-industrial society we’re talking about.

Digger herself is an eminently likable main character, full of common sense from her toe-claws to the tips of her furry ears, and she functions as a reader stand-in. Chatty and reflective in a down-to-earth way, her observations and opinions on everything from temple architecture to a village nurse’s medical practices make for a charming and often funny running commentary on the story’s world, serving to deepen the worldbuilding as well as develop her character. She, like all wombats, loves the art of engineering but distrusts things like magic (which the dwarves fiddle with too much) and religion (which, being wholly of the pagan and polytheistic kind in this story, is disorganized and full of dangerous or untrustworthy spirits).

Now, at this point, I should probably tell you about some buried trauma of mine so that you’ll be willing to open up to me and tell me whatever. But frankly, I don’t have any buried traumas or dark secrets or anything. Well, I’m scared of ducks, but it’s really not the same thing.

Her character feels consistent: she never denies that gods and magic exist, she just goes out of her way to avoid them whenever possible. When, at the story’s beginning, she finds herself lost and confused in a bewitched tunnel far from home and crawls out of a hole into a temple to the Indian god Ganesh, she is noticeably disappointed. And yet, because the spirit of the god’s statue can talk (it is careful to inform us that it is only the spirit of the statue representing Ganesh, not Ganesh himself), and can talk quite sensibly and courteously at that, Digger addresses it politely, even while honestly admitting her distaste for the supernatural.

Most of the supporting characters are equally entertaining, and some of them nearly as developed as Digger:

Digger: You’re a lifesaver.
Statue: On occasion, yes.

It is Ganesh—or the statue, rather, but Digger just gives up and conflates the two—who is responsible for kicking the plot proper off. He’s a fun personality, sometimes speaking grandiose words of prophecy, other times letting out an eloquently snarky comment, but always fairly humble and polite. The story’s cosmology is extremely vague, but seems to be loosely Hindu. After all, the character Ganesh is clearly a supernatural spirit who inhabits the statue. Yet he insists that he is not the actual Hindu god Ganesh, but merely the god’s representation in this particular temple. It doesn’t make much sense, but Ganesh himself admits it is confusing, and Digger is less concerned with pagan theology than with how Ganesh can help her get home.

Ed: Of course It remembers! It remembers the rabbit It ate yesterday too, but rabbit still gone. Memory not life.

The hyena Ed is perhaps the comic’s most fascinating and iconic character. Gentler than a puppy, more joyous and forgiving than a child, his outward appearance of simplicity betrays a mind and heart that have dealt with some of the most difficult issues, morally and emotionally, that it’s possible to imagine even in real life. The secrets of his story are revealed slowly, late in the comic, but prove crucial to Digger’s growth and understanding. I like Ed a lot – it’s almost impossible not to love him. I believe that a truly good character, well-portrayed, is inherently more interesting than a villain, and Ed is proof of this. For all the interesting flawed characters in this story, it is Ed, the kind and loving soul who made a heartbreakingly difficult choice based on his values, who may be Ursula Vernon’s greatest achievement.

Murai: The Veiled serve the gods, Honored Digger. Comparative mythology and hand-to-hand combat are our specialities.

Nothing is ordinary in this webcomic.

The character who is the least fun is the girl Murai. She’s apprenticed to the Veiled monks who guard the temple of Ganesh and supposedly act as his police force, but have their own agenda. She’s another gentle soul whom Digger feels compelled to take care of, and then becomes surprisingly crucial to the quest. As a character, she’s okay, but because the Veiled are always, well, veiled, Murai can only express herself through her eyes, since we can’t see her mouth. While Vernon tries hard to make the character emote, Murai still comes off blander and less interesting than the others around her. The fact that she’s sometimes either insane or possessed by a prophetic spirit only makes it harder to figure out her own personality. Personally, I thought she got in the way more often than not, and I wish Vernon hadn’t made her so central to the later parts of the story.

The artwork is always engaging, sometimes powerful. While I mentioned some of its weaknesses in the summary section, the truth is that Digger is still a joy to look at. Environments—particularly the forest—are well-evoked, and the level of detail is usually very pleasant and balanced. As vague as the setting is (vaguely Indian), it acquires specificity through all the little surprises Vernon adds to the corners and backgrounds of each page. Look at Ganesh’s library, pictured below. Little rats and mice nose around scrolls and books with titles like Ryleh Text and Chickens of the World II.

Or this beautiful dark forest, where a trenchcoated and fedoraed lizard sidles into the bottom right corner, probably pondering the mystery of who killed his late partner or something. It has nothing to do with the plot, and this little guy doesn’t ever appear again. But it adds a welcome whimsy that’s not out of keeping with the weirdness of the world as a whole.

Wombat ethics are pretty straightforward, and were not meant for situations this complicated unless geology is involved.

The characters, humor, and artwork are enough to make Digger excellent entertainment, but what gives it resonance are the discussions of morality and mythology that crop up more and more as the story progresses. The creature Shadowchild is so-named by Digger because he appears to be made out of shadow material, and has the demeanor and innocence of a child. He doesn’t know what he is or what morality is, so Digger finds herself having to explain to him what’s right and wrong. This proves difficult. As a Christian, I found these segments interesting because even though I know what the absolute standard for truth and morality is, Digger (and presumably Ursula Vernon) takes a loosely agnostic stance on theology (not denying the existence of gods, but rather their relevancy and utility), but finds herself trying to defend what her conscience tells her are universal truths. She does a pretty good job; while obviously insufficient from the standpoint of Christian knowledge, her explanations avoid complete relativism and do illustrate the difficulty of articulating deeply-held beliefs.

Other times, Digger herself is directly faced with thorny moral quandaries. The most prominent and interesting one I cannot, unfortunately, tell you, for fear of spoiling important plot points, but it involves Digger’s need and desire to take part in a tribal ritual that—very contrary to her desire and morals—involves a kind of cannibalism of the dead as a way of honoring them. It was a case where I would still say that the tribal culture is wrong, but Digger’s choice was likely made for righteous reasons and, in context, may have been morally acceptable. But it’s a tricky case, and undoubtedly one that has come up for real-life Christian missionaries before. I’m glad that Vernon is able to ask questions like this in her story.

More troublesome is a section where one character relates a myth—possibly true within the comic’s world—that quite overtly echoes the Christ story in certain key elements. It begins on page 366. It calls the Christ figure the Good Man who was revered as a god, who was born miraculously by his mysterious mother who was revered as a goddess, and he healed the sick, raised the dead, and converted politicians (to which Digger cries out “Now I know this is a myth!”) until one day he was attacked and mortally wounded by the families and friends of the people he hadn’t cured and raised from the dead. He is carried by his goddess-mother back across the sea over which she had originally come, and never seen again. There is no talk of sin, grace, redemption, or any kind of salvation, but there is a promise to return. The story is powerfully told through Vernon’s artwork, but in the context of the whole webcomic it doesn’t end up amounting to much. It helps explain just one minor plot point and never shows up again. The elements that resemble the Christian gospel feel forced to do so, and contrast oddly with the parts that are clearly un-Christian. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. If this were presumed to be a retelling of the actual Christian gospel—as Catherynne Valente tries to do in Habitation of the  Blessed—it would be easier to see this as blasphemy and a perversion of the gospel. But Vernon doesn’t make that claim, and is rather just telling a myth she made up for her fantasy series That story, however, goes out of its way to use Christian imagery and language. She doesn’t seem to be critiquing actual Christianity, but it left me feeling rather uncomfortable, for she did co-opt the story of my Lord to tell another one that is untrue and much less meaningful.

Likewise leaving me uncomfortable is the great quest—the main plot arc—which involves killing a god (possibly two). Again, these are definitively pagan gods, weaker even in Vernon’s world than those of Greek, Norse, or Egyptian mythology, but it still reflects an idea of divinity which is increasingly common in our time, that of any idea of divinity as pathetic and weak, unworthy of reverence, and able to be conquered and killed by man. The god Ganesh is the only positive portrayal of divinity, and even then it’s only his statue who appears, and he’s hardly powerful, just knowledgeable and wise. As a Christian and an amateur classicist, I cannot be offended by the negative portrayal of deities which are explicitly very far from the true God I know. But as a Christian and a person aware of the prevailing trends in popular and academic culture, I am still worried that this is one more work that denigrates the idea of the supernatural, to the elevation of the created over their Creator. It’s a good comic here, a good story, but not without elements a Christian might object to.

So there you have it – a very long review in which I probably left out a great many important things from the comic. To re-iterate, most of the comic is really very funny. The oracular slug is hilarious, as is Surka the shrew who is also a professional troll (and sometimes professional pirate queen, and even the possibly-demonic morally-confused Shadowchild is a great source of comedy. Digger’s internal voice is a delight to read, what with her wry comments on the weirdness about her, and Ed is so cuddly you just want to hug him and give him a cup of tea. But there is some serious stuff going on to balance out the laughs, and the main plot is of a quite dark nature.

Who’d have thought a slug could be so…cute?

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