Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Webcomic: Herodoll

I think that, no matter how cruel it is, I should start with the worst mistake that “Herodoll” the comic makes (will be easier later). Well, the mistake is this: it starts with a story interesting, intriguing, with a lots of original touches, well-told even – and then it turns to some other story, keeps talking about it and returns to the interesting one only sparingly.

To explain, I offer you these two stories:

  1. A sprite from a game that went nuts and made an army of sprite clones that helped him conquer the universe; Villain is a mix of insane and childlike, both of whom boost his egoism; He has a very scrappy looking doll that serves him at the same time as advisor, leveler of his insanity, and a punching bag.
  2. An average Joe who gets dragged into a RPG game and has to beat a main villain of the game in order to get out – thus he forms a party, including standard RPG characters that are for the most a little more than a cliché.

Well I for one choose option 1. I’ve seen a lot of comics built on premises from RPG games, forming a party, thief, magician, a stupid guy who is actually a leader and who has a funny hair, etc etc - starting from “RPG world” and “Adventurers” – and simply said, I don’t desire to read another comic based on the same idea. Of course, minus the part with an average guy being dragged into a game-like universe, but then again, that’s a part of “Pokemon” legacy (no matter how indirect the influence be) and I believe I’ve seen that idea rehashed often in webcomics too.

On the other hand, there’s a bad guy from the comic, Prime Evil as he called himself, is much more interesting. As I said, he combines madman and the child in himself, his egoism and the inconsistency of his behaviour are pictured quite well. But perhaps the most interesting character is the title one, Herodoll, originally intended by his shrink to be his release of aggression, but Prime Evil instead used it as a sort of imaginary friend. Herodoll’s design is great, it’s obviously been a victim of many beatings and one of it’s eye-buttons is handing on a loose piece of string; The poorer the doll looks like, the more sadistic Prime seems like. Then there’s an army of Prime’s henchman that he calls guard; Being clones, they all look the same and it’s, unexpectedly, a look of the straight, neck-tied man with glasses; Guards seem to form a society around Prime, and it’s interesting to see how (visually) the same person appears in different roles of Prime-centered society; It’s a bit confusing at the beginning, but in a good way. Actually, this all gives those first pages (before Ross, the hero enters the stage) a feel as if it’s all some crazed alternative reality inside Prime’s head, a product of his lunacy (helped by one of the facts that we first find out – that he’s mentally ill and even on therapy); The fact that Prime found a way to make his crazed vision a reality makes it all look scary. That he’d be surrounded by an army of men looking exactly the same, that one man would be reoccurring in many different roles, seems surreal and deranged, and that it is in fact a reality (at least in a computer game), seems, well, menacing.

To continue praising this part of “Herodoll” a bit more, I think that at least first two pages are brilliant: We have a psychiatric “guard” writing a report on Prime, the entire situation quickly glanced, and the report interrupted by Prime’s appearance, in which we see just what Prime is like and just what kind of reaction guards have to him. It’s followed by a series of short flashback while Prime flips through a family album, his relationship with Doll, with Guards, his greatest fear, his insanity, etc etc. All in all I think this introductory part is told very well.

I have to add related to that, my nod the name of the comic. Herodoll is by no means main or decisive character, it’s, in fact, an inanimate object. Naming the entire comic after it, gives Herodoll an unexpected significance that results in a kind of sinister aura of the doll; One way to perceive it is as a silent character that pulls the strings from the dark; Probably not the only way, though.

Now, things tend to go downhill with introduction of Ross, a guy from real life; Prime drags him into a game assuming that real life person would be a more challenging opponent. First thing that goes downhill is timing: a scene of meeting Ross and Prime for the first time is four pages, long, full of words that in the end don’t say anything; Full of confusion and lack of communication between characters that seem to be there just for the sake of low-key gag, which is why it lasts relatively long and achieves very little. Quite the opposite of that, the next scene in which Ross meets some game inhabitants and forms a party with them, seems kind of rushed. But the most important, this is where comic becomes an RPG game mock. Actually, in a way more that an RPG mock-up, though, but I’m going to tell about that later, first a digression:

I have to make this digression here, making digressions in the middle of review like I do seems a bit odd, but if the digression talks about something general regarding a certain kind of comics, then it is of interest to authors of that kind of comics, which includes author of the comic that I’m reviewing at the moment. Just to clear that up.

First RPG mock-up was, I think, “RPG world” and it set in stone some clichés that are to be used over and over again (some of the silliest ones too, like the one that main character has to have a stupid-looking haircut); But that’s not so hard, webcomic authors can be such fanboys that they’ll repeat their favourite comic by the numbers. Anyway, “RPG world”, being popular, spans a dozen of copies. It’s undebatable that webcomics are related to gaming a lot; Thus comics like RPG mocks, Fantasy based on table-games characters, and, of course, sprite comics. But all those people who try to directly transfer a computer game to comic, always forget to add in calculation the fact that games are (gasp!) different than comics. See, with RPG game, it mostly sums up to this: walk, run into enemy, fight, walk, run into enemy, fight, and so on till the end. This doesn’t work in a comic. Comic needs to have a structure, it needs to have rising action, culmination, it needs to have a lot that game doesn’t. What doesn’t work in a comic, works in a game because game has one important element that comic doesn’t: interaction. What is interesting a scene in a comic, in which two characters are chipping off 20 points or so, switching in hitting each other, all told without much actual interaction between two characters that would give it dynamism? Or when we see a comic character using an object from inventory to turn the battle into his favour? What is interesting there, when we don’t have any impact on the result of that fight? Now that’s the problem with such transpositions, in every moment where there’s a lack of interaction of a player (where, in a game, there’s be an interaction of a player), a comic has to offer something in return. Something, enough to make it up. Mocking interface and other elements of the game might work once or twice, though even that is debatable. In my opinion, even “RPG world” is pointless in moments where it strictly repeats a game. But in any case, in there, it was a novelty that worn out with the next use.

Now that told, there’s a bit of understanding why seeing that “Herodoll” is turning into one of those RPG mocks was a let down. But “Herodoll” does with it better than you’d expect. For one, it remains perfects understandable to a non-gamer too. See, when a sorceress does a “scan” function on an opponent and opponent cries “I feel violated”, that’s a joke that even non-gamer will understand; or when she blocks because she’s reading a tutorial; There’s a laugh hidden in the fact that they keep meeting the same guy who keeps giving them generic answers as well – if you took a game as a theme, use it’s possibilities for humor effect, nah? Elements of story aren’t obscure and they really don’t go very much into a gamer “mythology”. That’s good of course.

Then there’s an issue of characterization; I’ve told how, in their way, Prime and Herodoll, even cloned Guards, have a strong characterization. On contrary, to party characters, somewhat cliché characterization in forced on, because they’re RPG game characters: thief, warrior, magician, leader of the party... all of their characterizations are pre-written in a game, then in comics of the same kind that precede this one, and there seems to be not much place to move from there. Luckily, some clichés are still escaped: there’s no straight guy in the story; There’s no obligatory violent femme who yells at everybody all the time; Main character is not an idiot.

That that’s it, “Herodoll” lingers between lunatic Prime and RPG quests that are rather conventional so far. But then there’s one thing that makes me confident: see, authors brought a person from a real world to a game. What’s the worst they could do with this plot? They could keep him acting like a game character, getting through all troubles like a regular game sprite, until at the end we ask ourselves why is it so much important that the character is from the real world, couldn’t they just used any old game character? I have no doubt that average Hollywood movie would do that, but then again, that’s why so many bad movies get released every year.

Instead, “Herodoll” makes a lucky break toward the “Pleasantville” line and it’s real-life character started introducing something of the real-life understanding of the world into a game. He encourages his game friends to act out of character of a game sprite; I’ll remind you, “Pleasantville” is a lovely film about two teenagers who get into a world of a 40ies TV show. Where these teenagers introduce liberal moral, wider horizons and curiosity, Ross from “Herodoll” introduces free will that game sprites, of course, don’t have plenty. And then “Herodoll” makes another quote from “Pleasantville” in which every change is illustrated by a burst of colour into a black/white TV show. Although the relation between colour and change is not drawn very well in “Herodoll” (in “Pleasantville”, colour, later technology achievement stands representing everything that’s new against black and white, forced by earlier technology, that represents old views of life; In “Herodoll” I don’t see exactly why the game would be black/white and why the colour would represent free will), I still think that being influenced by other mediums (film) might enrich webcomics, while being influenced strictly by webcomics, leads to repetition and lack of inspiration. Thus this borrowing (intentional or unintentional) freshens the comic. In fact, it turns out that it’s one of those rare comics where colour is not just for achieving atmosphere or making art richer, it is in fact a mean of narration, an integral part of story; There’s even a very few films that do this, starting from “Wizard of Oz” and “Shock corridor” to said “Pleasantville” – I can recall of just a few.

Now, lineart is, seems so, intentionally schematic, perhaps even stiff (at least in earlier comics). To add to that, characters seem to be perpetually trapped in a chibi state, most of the time, with their rather large heads, small bodies and exaggerated emotions. This has an interesting effect that character designs have more similarity with actual game sprites than other RPG comics have. Art in hand-drawn RPG comics usually represent characters but not their visual appearance in games. By art, they are ordinary fantasy characters, only by behavior they are recognizable as game characters. In “Herodoll”, character designs bear bizarre similarity with sprites, specially Prime with his stiff haircut, and his emotionless Guards, but others with proportions and other features as well (this, however, doesn’t go for occasional pinup pages and some of the more detailed pages later in the comic). Short sequence that happens in real life is drawn somewhat more detailed.

Colour is, as I mentioned, very important element of the story. In first pages, lineart was aided with raster, patterns and hatching, and with lineart that was, as I said, stiff, patterns that look technically cold themselves, weren’t the right tough; Perhaps they were, where the representation of the cold game screen was an aim; But when it comes to a story and characterization, it wasn’t. Luckily, artist switches to grayscale very fast, and then a bit later to watercolors and watered ink.

It’s not really wattercolours and ink; It’s a brush in painting program that mimics those. But it’s genuine enough. In most of pages, artist sticks to a limited palette of blue or grey tones. Colour is, of course, saved for those moments of free-will-enlightening or for occasional red eyes of Prime. I personally like this wattercolour execution, I think it looks lovely, it has a touch of gentleness, and then also emotive warmth. I don’t say it often, but I think that scenes in which colour bursts into a black/white space possess a kind of, well, poetry. Hm, not poetry as a kind of writing, but as the quality that makes writing what it is, that power to extract an emotion from a reader; In my native language those are two different words, I guess I wouldn’t need half as much words to say it in it; With English, I’m still sometimes on ice. Well, yes, I rarely give comics an attribute of poetry, but that scene with black/white hand that reaches for the blue sky has it – perhaps even because we know that blue sky bears some significance, that it isn’t there just because it looks cool (o7-18).

(Said that, I don’t think that artist shouldn't use colour as a gimmick, like colouring money green and such stuff. It might wear out the effect of facing b/w and colour before its time).

There’s an issue of narrative language here: It’s heavy influenced by manga, perhaps much more than art itself. Now, with manga narration, it gets a set of instantly recognizable facial expressions, habit to structure the page in a dynamic manner, using variety of camera positions and, yes, there’s no talking heads, copy/pasting and similar stuff here. But there’s a reoccurring problem that I see when relative beginners – or even sometimes professionals – grip to this kind of narration, that that is that the narration isn’t clear enough, it tends to be confusing. It takes several looks to realise what’s going. There are certain lapses in narration, and I guess it’s best if I give examples because it can be a serious problem:

(07-21) One thing inherited directly from manga narration: As bodies transforms into chibi (for instance) and their hands transform into mittens, we can get confused about those body parts if, for instance, that mitten is shown in a position where it’s not obvious what it is and that it belongs to a body. In this particular case, in fifth panel, because of her mitten-hands, we are not aware that dog-girl is pointing at something – thus the next panel with totally different sight comes as awkward surprise. Awkward are the hands in panel 3 on (03 – 03). If the background was a little more detailed, they’d fit right in it and poor guy would look handless.

(07-25) It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in the background, even if I know what Chubbyco is. I am trying to grasp what the problem is and I think it’s this: the page is overcrowded with panels (some of “Herodoll” pages tend to be). But then, the action of flying and sticking into massive Chubbyco bodies requires a lot of space to be properly shown. But artist measured space by how much the action in front needs, and it needs a little because it’s the static dialogue. Thus the confusion at what they are doing there in the background.

(06-06) There’s a case of bad placement of panels. Well, in some order, panel 3 should be seen right after panel 2, but in this case panels 4 and 5 (framed), with their size, with the appearance that practically pushes panel 2 into the corner, well, those panels force reader to read them right after panel 2, after which he reads 3 and then 6. And there’s a confusion. It took me a second look to realize the right order – and I realized it out of content, not intuitively because of placement of panels, like it should be.

The thing is, as much as these dynamic, shape-shifting panel arrangements are nice-looking, for the sake of clear narration, double-meaning arrangements, those that leave reader confused to in which order he should read them – have to be avoided. Professionals recommend amateurs to stick to simple arrangements and to not experiment too much until they get a lot of practice. However, this is an advice for artists struggling to became pros. We webartists can safely experiment – we will get wrong pages sometimes, but we will probably learn faster through trial-and-error. If a pro makes such messes out of his pages, he might lose his job or audience, in any case, money. We webartists can only get a paragraph or two of critique in some review or something.

(08-18) Here we have a problem with switch of planes. It takes a while to identify that the thing in 5th plane is a mouth with the fork and some food on it (mostly because it’s where the tail of speech balloon points to). What’s the problem here? The art is too simplified to go into such small details. If you make such close shot, you have to make sure that either the object possesses enough details to be identified (thus, as I said earlier, chibi mitten hand would be hardly recognizable, unlike fully drawn hand) or that the shift from the full character image to the detail is not so sudden, perhaps through a series of panels with more and more close-up – so that then, we can recognize a mouth because we expect to see a mouth.

Those are some problems that I’ve seen elsewhere too. I think that with practice (and trial-and-error) you’ll get to use this, rather demanding narrative style, with less confusion.

Overall tone of “Herodoll” is sill. Actually, for the most part silly doesn’t stop and only in some of the last comics, tones of serious burst in. Though, from the beginning, comic is set as obviously not a string of gags; There’s a story hanging there and there’s a sence that serious parts are gonna come sooner or later. So when they come, they aren’t sudden or inappropriate.

Pacing is another thing I have to mention: It’s not overly slow as it knows to be; There’s a bit less then a year of archives, bi-weekly updates and after reading it, you have a feel that you got somewhere, that some things happened and that you aren’t still in introductory phase.

Now, I’ll try to draw some last conclusions about “Herodoll”. It starts with something original; It’s rather obvious how much I appreciate originality; I appreciate it in webcomics because there’s a little of it, because authors rather choose to copy their idols than to use the freedom they have and make something on their own. I can’t point fingers, my comic started as an indirect copy of my favourite comic as well; Later I regretted it but decided to make the best I can of it instead of cutting in the middle of the job. But never mind that; “Herodoll” combines some original parts with some that are almost cliché and results are what I called earlier in article, I believe, somewhat a letdown, awkward, a mistake... But eh, you know, before finally getting to “Herodoll” after I reviewed “Superfightfight”, I read three other comics quickly. You wanna know what were they about? They were all about a stupid guy who acts like an idiot and who hits on a girl who is waaaaay out of his league, and that girl yells at him for his idiocy, but then finally falls for him because beep down in his heart, he is a good person. All three!!! Sure, one was placed in space, one was in college, one was who knows where, but they were all about a stupid guy who acts like an idiot and who hits on a girl who is waaaaay out of his league, and that girl yells at him for his idiocy, but then finally falls for him because beep down in his heart, he is a good person! It may bring you to conclusion that webartists have no life experience so they have no choice but to use facts of life that they learned from other comics. In “Herodoll”, there’s no idiot hero, there’s no violent and bad-tempered female character, there’s no perfect character and no straight guy for reference. There’s a lack of a lot of things that I’m already fed up with, reading webcomics.

I said that I see perspective in “Herodoll”. I’ll take liberty to consider what “Herodoll” has to accomplish to stand up to those expectations (who’m I kidding, I always do that): First of all, I expect it to stick to the “Pleasantville” line that, probably, leads to some sort of liberation of game sprites. However, I have to note that we haven’t actually seen much of a display of how much they aren’t free. I mean, we’ve seen in a couple of occasions that they hesitate to do something, but I haven’t seen some strong reluctance or even something that holds them strongly without their own will. Nothing big that would justify seeing colours in a black/white world. So I guess we’d need a bit more profiling of what life is like to sprites before they meet Ross, outside force.

Then there’s a matter of characterization: I said that characterization is forced by standards of RPG. If characters are going for free will, their characters must leap out of those stereotypes too; They must became real characters, likes of something that we’d find in real life. Thief’s game-given character tells her that she’s sinister, that she has to steal, to plot, etc, etc. But is there more to it than those simple characteristics (that are all derived from the fact that she is a thief)? Or is she maybe completely the opposite than what rules of the game demand? And, you know, similar questions. In any case, I think that splitting the party was a good idea, it gives more opportunity to characterize each of them individually.

And then there’s a matter of Herodoll and that awkward world that is created around him. We’ve seen some more bits of it in some of latest comics, but damn, I feel like seeing more.


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