I have my doubts toward horror comics, even with “Hellblazer” and “Sandman” on one side of the ocean, and “Dylan Dog” and “Martin Mystery” on the other side, I still think that comics lack the element of surprise that horror needs. They also lack sound that is important for horror. Also, while exchanging of viewpoints of the stalker and the victim is very important element in film horrors, comic authors usually choose one ambivalent point of view, of an observer but not an active observer – rather a very passive one; All of those obstacle achieving a few things that are essential for horror: atmosphere and good, old-fashioned fear. Then, I had a habit of flipping through a comic book before actually reading it; that way, I’d actually see all scary parts before putting them in context; of course, I was cheating in a sort of way, but the nature of the comic allows me. Now, without music, without element of surprise, neglecting the point of view, what was left for authors to do in attempt to scare? The same that lousy film-horror directors do, and which destroys horror genre in recent years: to gross out. To think up, you know, gross things, like decapitations, mutilations of human body, mutations; To make the scariest looking monsters – at which point they break the essential horror rule: “When you show the monster, it stops being scary”. Given the picture of some horrible monster in a comic book, I am allowed to stare at it and the more I stare, the less scary it is. And that’s it. Grossed out, maybe, scared, not.
So then why is there so few horror webcomics? Those can implement the element of surprise, through animation of infinite canvas, and they can put music in the background of the site.
Yeah, I know the answer, we webcomickers are an unoriginal lot, and we rarely step out of the reign of fantasy, college, or some other usual webcomic genre.
Which makes “Flatwood” original, and generally, yes, it is an original comic; Both by choice of the genre and by it’s visual appearance. It’s also a nice comic to look at. It’s lingering between supernatural horror and humor, but not humor in a sense of dark, gross-out comedy; Nah, this humor is much more gentle; It’s, perhaps, not even a humor, but a sort of friendly wink at the reader. It’s there mainly through the caricatured, large-eyed design of characters, so they have a sort of humanizing warmth in them, in a surrounding that is very detached and cold otherwise. There’s an effect that films will rarely (if ever) achieve, to give a statement through their character designs.
“Flatwood” is mostly a comic of atmosphere, and that’s where it’s near perfect. You should see the site, with link buttons fading into the dark and comics blending into the background. Moving to a new host allowed author to remove add banner from the top, and it is obvious to see why it was so important to him, with site design that is working so closely with the comic to achieve this dark, eerie atmosphere of a perpetual night in a lonesome forest.
Then there’s the comic itself. Objects, furniture, staircases, woods, have a rustic look, not without caricatured undertone that serves the purpose I mentioned earlier. Comic panels have no frames, they are rather framed with fadeout into the dark; It’s as if characters are always stepping from the dark, into a small patch of light, and then returning to the dark because light has disappeared. To that I have to add that pages are sometimes a bit overcrowded, with panels literally pushing each other off the page. The effect of this (at least to me) is that events sometimes seem a bit rushed that they are racing each other, which is strange having that comic itself is rather slow-paced.
Manipulation with light is here essential; Images are drawn, here and there shaded with hatching, and then computer-shaded over that. Shading is not done in conventional manner, its purpose is not to give objects depth, but to put objects and characters in a reign between light and complete dark, in which these characters exist. Sometimes, a whole figure is coloured flat grey, left visible but covered by a mist of darkness. A comic happens in a world of perpetual night, where light appears rarely, in patches, as the last save, and where lots of dangerous shadows crawl over the walls. So the comic is very uniquely stylish and there’s no doubt that this style is the main star of the comic; So you can say that the visuals serve the story, but it’s more correct to say that the story serves the style. But there’s nothing wrong about it unless the story turns out to be reeeally bad – which is not the case so far.
A few technicals: letters are sometimes too tiny. A comic started with some fond that was hard to read, but after a few pages turned to much better one. Speech balloons are floating in dark, mostly not connected to the person who speaks them. This makes a peculiar effect, one of detachment from characters. Think of when such shapeless, unconnected balloons are used in other comics: when the words are spoken by some supernatural beings or monsters; Here, where balloons are unconnected as a standard, it seems like every character (even the main, human ones) is some sort of supernatural being. I am puzzled to whether this was the desired effect or not.
Now, as for the story: Something supernatural is going on; Characters are trapped in the title Flatwood, with creatures that were once human like them, attacking in bulks, and they struggle to find any meaning in it. First, we see Alex, main character, awaken from the sleep as someone is pounding on his door; Perhaps there’s no more terrifying scene than being trapped in the room as some unknown force is trying to burst through them.
Alex finds a strange, bat-like creature on the floor that is going to be something of a sidekick in future, and some other things happen.
Alex is a bit of wise-ass, so it seems; Perhaps this doesn’t exactly fit in the setting, perhaps sarcasm doesn’t have the dignity that the whole setting of “Flatwood” is set for. But the character who is introduced next, Beatrice, returns that dignity, together with a certain Victorian appeal; First, we see her on an old photography; Later, when we find her in woods, cloaked and scared, the first image somehow remains in our mind.
Alex’s instant obsession with Beatrice is more than a romantic interest. It kind of gives purpose to this whole place, and a goal to the entire story. After all, love fulfillment is probably one of essential and strongest needs, and it’s sometimes sad how it’s cheapened in so many webcomics where love story is either told in a cheesy, soap-operish way or used as a sub-plot to fill between main storylines. “Flatwood” returns glory and importance to the romance.
But somewhere near the beginning, the story steers toward a sort of mimic of the ghotic horror storytelling, overtalkative in a pushy sort of way. For instance, characters will say sort of things like: “He is toying with us... Bidding his time until we are worn weary... Only to steal in upon us... Like a thief in the night...”; Comparing an attack of mysterious creature in the night with an attack of a thief in the night... well, it isn’t really the best comparison, it actually sounds silly, doesn’t it? Now, I am aware that author needs text to give some weight to pages, to make a delay, to make readers eye stop for a few seconds; But when you are forcing yourself to make up words, those words often sound fake, or even silly. A lots of things said in “Flatwood” do sound fake; Words seem to be intended to sound 19-century-ish; I don’t think that “Flatwood” needs this, it’s been doing fine on it’s own, without the need to mimic something. I don’t mind that the happenings here have no proper explanation (it’s fantasy, after all); I don’t ask for everything to be explained - as long as actions of characters are plausible; I don’t mind that what happened so far boils down to random attacks of those zombie-like creatures and to puzzling conversations with remaining people, that promise more than they deliver (so far); As I said, fantastic atmosphere, residing in dark with hints of light scattered here and there is the main star, and as long as the story is letting this atmosphere develop, it’s all well. But that pseudo-old language and talking for the sake of talking make comic seem like a bad copy of gothic horror at times, and that can be distracting.
“Flatwoods” puts animated gifs to good use. It’s interesting how, in all those dramatic discussions going over the webcomic community, all this talk about novelties that web is going to introduce to comics, infinite canvas, Flash animations, etc, etc, etc... authors often forget about one of the easiest ways to make your webpage dynamic – gif animations. Many might consider gif animations to be of limited possibilities and usable for no more than a joke in webcomics; “Flatwood” proves that it really just depends of authors ability to put it in good use. Sometimes, animation in “Flatwood” is there to put in element of surprise (20040726, 20040910, 20040927); Sometimes it’s there to portray a state of mind – waking up, most often (0929, 1024); Mostly it’s figures unexpectedly creeping out of the dark, and it’s done very well; At first I thought that animations could have been done a little faster, because there’s a chance that reader might leave the page before he realizes it’s an animation; But on second thought, that might ruin the moment and after all, reader quickly gets used to that, when he sees a large black space, he can expect something to pop out of that dark, animated.
There’s one more thing to criticize, and it might sound like neatpicking, but I remember when I first went to comics school, I was pointed at that, and later when I was putting my work up for professional artists to see, I was pointed at that again. It might be one single thing where I found underground and mainstream artists agree, just to show how important it is (and to show how often offspring artists make that mistake): repetition on a single page doesn’t look very good; Now, some will say that sometimes, repetition on the page is nessecary for the sake of the joke, but it’s simply a matter of whether you’re going to sacrifice beauty of your page to some extent to a joke, or not. And whether this is justifiable or not – that’s a whole new discussion, unrelated to the current subject.
Anyway, I found it in “Flatwood”, emphasized by the fact that characters often wear same, grim expressions and that, with their large eyes, they look similar to some extent; Note this page, where two faces of Beatrice appear in same size, with same expression, same half-opened mouth, both framed by the same shape of the cape: It makes a sort of irking repetition; Page is perceived at once, not panel by panel, panels interact with each other, and when there are two too similar panels, interaction isn’t very nice.
Another example, on this page zombies face appears three times, similarily, in same size and looking completely the same (as if copy-pasted). Different positions of body in three cases might’ve removed the feel of repetition, but here, bodies are much less visible than heads, as they’re fading into the dark.
Yeah, that’s a thing I thought I’d mention.
“Flatwood” is a good experience – I say experience because it includes the suggestive site together with reading the comic. It has style, hard to compare with any other webcomic out there. It experiments; It tries and manages to be new, different. It works with reader mostly on an emotional level, and two thumbs up for using gif animation to enhance that; Thus it’s rational, intellectual aspects of the story don’t seem very important to me right now; sure, I’ll expect explanations of some happenings in future (among other reasons, because the story so far hinted that there will be explanations) but they won’t be essential to me; There’ll just be pieces that fulfill the big picture. I also expect more thrill and more emotions in future.