Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Webcomic: Darken

Some friends asked me to review their comics here, knowing that I write long and labored reviews. As I started with it, I wasn’t sure whether to post those reviews on blog or to leave it on forum.

The thing is, on blog, these reviews come out of content, after a long string of glorifying film texts, reviews where I chop these comics into bits come… well, I think that the overall impression that you get of those comics is worse than they deserve. After all, we are talking about something that is created as we speak, with no time to filter important things from unimportant.

After some doubt, two reasons made me prevail for posting on blog: first, reviews are more readable. Second, it could be a smooth intro into some further webcomic reviews that I’d do, even though I don’t plan to make new ones, other than the ones that are requested. There’s a third reason, it’s easier for people to link reviews of their comics this way. Fourth reason is, I've been overly cautious in past, it's possible that I am now too.

So, now I’ll post two reviews that I’ve done so far. I'll do it as they were posted in forum, so there might be a few confusing bits. Also, they were full of digressions intended only for ears of reviewed ones. I am posting them like that because in future I'll post reviews directly in blog, not in the forum.

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"Darken" review:

Reading “Darken” gave me the idea for the next Newsletter article, where I’d write most of what I intend to write here, but without directly referring to “Darken”. I don’t wanna use it as a bad example of some sorts. As I see it, fantasy genre is plagued by all sorts of clichés and narrative mistakes and if a competent author like Komi can’t escape from them, then the situation in that genre is red alert. That’s what my article will be about.

Ok, to cut it short, “Darken” started with a very interesting premise, then disappointed me because it turned direction to rather by-the-numbers fantasy, and only in recent few months (since the update became regular) she has shown great improvement in writing. And I mean great. I feel the need to try to analyze what’s so great in it and if it helps Komi to stay on that path, it will not be a waste of time. On the other hand, I also feel the need to dedicate some time and space to the middle part of the story, because it seems indicative for most of online fantasy so I think that a few things can be learned there. E them, and I believe that some would find it interesting too.

In any case, Komi asked me to be brutal and I will be brutal.

Now, art is something I have no objections to. “Darken” is a sort of comic where characters have similar physiognomy and the main differences are in details like hair, eyes, personal marks (tattoo, dark skin); Common physiognomy includes short face, big nose, short forehead, wide eyes, and, although it seems limiting, it actually gives consistency to the art. The obvious impression is that these limitations, as well as stylization, are artist’s decision, even though artist is capable of executing different styles. Given physiognomy lends characters instant appeal so “Darken” is a kind of comic that draws people to read it by just how it looks. Characters are cute and somewhat feminine but there’s a certain leap from the usual “cute” and “feminine” (definitely not bishounen) so we can actually imagine these characters being cruel or doing ruthless things. Which they do, actually, right at the beginning.

Another thing that marks Komi’s art is pencil cross-hatching. Everyone knows that I’m a sucker for cross-hatching, ever since I read Bilal for the first time. Komi is very skilled, her black/white comics are marked by variety of shades achieved my hatching of various densities. She has a good sense of texture, surface, so the can achieve nice variety of materials on background objects with hatching too. When she goes to colour, she keeps penciled hatching as a support and I think it fits perfect, because objects retain the texture and yet, gain colour.

I think that Komi’s art isn’t very buggy. That is, she doesn’t make obvious factual mistakes, characters aren’t in awkward body positions, their body proportions don’t vary, etc. I noticed a certain inconsistency in sizes of characters, some of them appear unusually tall on some pictures, but besides that I don’t think that heights of characters are defined, so some come out a bit taller than the others sometimes, and then sometimes shorter – which can be explained by standing on uneven ground but then again, why? That’s something Komi should probably work on, but honestly, it’s not a big mistake. It’s nowhere near buggines of average webcomics, with characters in improbable poses and necks that look like broken. So on that side, Komi is good as well.

Graphic narration in “Darken” comes a bit plain to me. Camera is usually watching characters from some kind of total shot, rarely does come close to them or even among them. It’s that impression that I, reader, am standing on the side and watching, while I desire to partake in events too. There aren’t tricky camera angles but, even though they would give the comic an edge, this can be just explained as artist’s visual style. Later in the comic Komi applies more swift changes of camera positions and planes, which gives it a certain dynamics that most of the earlier strips lacked. There are two major action scenes and, even though they were soon one after another, I saw a great improvement in the second one, much more inventive, much better planned, characters acting much more plausibly. It’s a big step in right direction.

I don’t like the layout, I think that the page is too wide so it contains too many frames by width. So pages seem a bit crowded, and there are often no obvious centers of the page where I could lay my eye. There are exceptions, like excellent page where eye is drawn to a nice landscape of the kingdom of Darken, but usually there’s just too many equally accented things going on in the view field.

“Darken” has very good pacing, things aren’t rushed in and there’s a breath-in between important events, on the other hand it’s not dragged out like fantasy comics can be (when one day is long over a year of archived comic and stuff). There is no corny mock-medieval-speek to which I never say a point anyway. Even though it features mythical creatures, it bears no fan-like obsession with them, which often happens in fantasy as well.

“Darken” starts interesting. Character named Gort is killed, and then revoked to do some job, and on the way he acquires a sort of servant, Komiyan, who had to slay some of his own priests. Komiyan alone is as interesting character, a regular coward but, then again, he doesn’t hesitate to kill to preserve himself. Story behind Gort seems interesting too, partly because it remains untold, and being untold and mysterious is has something of a myth quality.

But right after this setup, things go downhill because “Darken’s” plot starts to look like any old fantasy webcomic plot: Gort and Komiyan assemble a gang of five, then pick a quest, then even find a sub-quest that would lead them closer to the main quest – which suspiciously look like adventure games, where you pick an object, give it to someone, who gives you another object in return, and so on and so on. Then, what follows is talk scene – fight scene – talk scene – fight scene.

Now you know that I often seem to put originality in front of all. But that’s not exactly true; Take later Hollywood films: they all rely on an interesting premise that is handy to put in tagline, but they’re usually executed very poor. Take Arthur Clarke, one of people with the wildest imagination, but a writer with such poor, dry, plain writing style, and such lack of sense for drama or for story structure, that I can barely manage to read any of his books without throwing it into the opposite corner of the room. But I do appreciate originality, thinking out of the box, when I see that people sit down to think a bit and say: ok, let’s do something that noone has done before. And when it comes to various overly abused genres (like fantasy is in webcomics), the same plot schemes are used, overused and abused so many times in so many variations, that I can justify their reuse only in context of a parody or some other kind of conscious (which means deliberate and very obvious) throw-back at a particular work.

Here are some things that “Darken” took over from webfantasy. Sadly, what it took is nothing but troubles:

First, I gotta mention what Teammayhem pinned as “suddenly” syndrome. It’s when monsters or some other battle opponent appears virtually out of nowhere, but I’d pan it to whenever a character does that. I spotted two examples in Darken, giant’s appearance and Duches’s first appearance, although I think there were more, that I didn’t pay attention to.

Basically, they all come down to this: making a character enter the stage is not easy. It involves an act of entering, walking, that the artist would rather skip because it isn’t always very interesting to draw. Also, you have to make that entrance subtle. So webartists go the easier way: they just assume that character already entered the stage, it’s just that nobody noticed. It is easier that way, yes, but the impression is that nobody walks normally anymore, people just sneak.

Same with giant, pre-beholder opponent in “Darken”: do you think that such giant presence would manage to sneak itself into the scene unnoticed? I don’t think so, no matter how indulged in conversation characters were. But apart from that, see the missed opportunities in this: imagine the scene where monster is approaching them from distance, and they see it. Imagine how the dilemma, whether to fight or to try to avoid the encounter, forms the tension. Gort would want to fight, that’s certain. Komiyan would want to avoid. That conflict, plus menacing appearance of the giant slowly getting closer and closer, could form, I believe, a particular kind of tension and thrill in that scene. Instead, here, we go straight to action. Big deal, there’s always opportunity for action.

Second: I want to turn to the habit of fantasy writers to form a group of characters. These characters are often introduced in a very quick period of time so we don’t get to know them or to care about them. Same here, with exception of Gort and Komiyan. Other thing is, most of these characters seem unnecessary and only the inner logic of the writer, who knows what he’ll use them for later (or, in other cases, just wants to have them, just in case) says otherwise. But readers aren’t aware of that. Take Casper for instance, I couldn’t figure out why it was necessary to introduce him, other than to have larger cast. I think Komi felt the same way, maybe subconsciously, because she gave him a lot of space later (after a fight with beholder) and made him, actually one of the most intriguing and deep characters of the story; I feel that this might be due to the guilt that she insisted on giving him more depth, and maybe even overcompensated (because at this point, I think he is even more profiled than Gort, who is supposed to be the second most important character).

But there’s a few more problems with such group casting: to forget that most of them may seem excessive in a story – because that problem might be fixed later and they all might fit into their places - but they often seem excessive in particular scenes. When you have presence of five or more characters in every scene, most of them aren’t active. They just stand on the side and crowd the stage. This is obvious in “Darken” during the first fight (with the giant, again). All the time you have exchanges of shots of some members of the cast fighting, and then some members standing on the side. Aside the question why they didn’t attack all at once, you have dynamic shots constantly switching with rather static shots of people standing on the side and observing. This ruins the dynamism of the entire sequence, every time the action huffs up, static scenes make sure to hold it down.

On the other side, try drawing an action scene where all characters are involved at once, all fighting against one opponent. I think that this conception would be very hard to pull out. I think that most of webartists aren’t skilled enough to pull out such scene (which is not to say that artists in print are). Which is why webartists never try it anyway. They can be very resourceful when coming up with reasons why the entire cast is not active. Take the action scene with Beholder, where half of the cast is injured or unconscious all the time. Injured or unconscious members of the cast switch so that they all participate the fight, but never more than two or three at the same time. But the problem of the most of scene being painfully inactive, you could say, mannequins, remains. This entire argument goes against forming too large casts that stick together all time during the comic. Which, fantasy casts do.

Which brings me to the third point: as it is, we usually follow one group of people on a sort of mutual quest. They never separate. Camera follows them all the time (except sometimes when some bad guy foreshadows or during flashbacks). This enforces a very simple story structure in such comics. There’s no various storylines intersecting, no unexpected encounters, no action taking place behind reader’s back – it’s all so linear. Why? Well, because it’s the easiest way.

More interesting would be, if group separated for some reason. Then we could switch between two groups of characters, and that would give the story a dynamics, a tension based on differences between those two storylines. Also, because a reader, while reading one storyline, inevitably desires to see what happens next in the other one.

Even more interesting would be, if we rejected the whole “group on a quest” concept and accept something else. Take the “7 samurai” story, for instance: 7 warriors protecting a village; This theme has been re-hashed many times (on top of my head, at least in three movies), but not in webcomics, and rarely in fantasy. There’s nothing wrong in using a known story outlines, the problem is when what you use is the most obvious choice (“quest” story here is, indeed, the most obvious choice).

But if we don’t want 7 samurai, we can acquire other setups too. What about the general “siege” setup? What about the “Deliverance” setup, where main characters are basically fighting for their lives? Or, characters can go to quests, but do they have to be homeless? Can’t they have a home somewhere? Or, you’re read “Twice destined” probably – people go on for their business there, they have their quests, but they move in a rather rounded-up universe, they meet each other and re-meet later, circling in that universe. With standard quest setup, characters go on and on in straight line, they are deemed not to meet people they get to know along the way again, so the only constant characters are the members of the group themselves. But then, writer wants to have more characters, so he increases the number of members of the group, which brings us to problems tied to a large group, see above.

Another problem of “quest” type story: when does it end? Of course, if the entire story is revolving around this quest, as soon as the quest is finished, the comic has no reason to exist anymore (unless you plan a sequel). If artist doesn’t feel like finishing the comic, he drags the story out, quest is never achieved and neither is a total fulfillment of a reader. Therein lays the problem.

I am trying to figure out why is the whole idea of “quest” so much integrated in fantasy. It seems to me that writers are sometimes practically unaware that fantasy could go in other direction. They think that their character must find a fire of some sorts and throw a ring of some sorts in it. But I’m not inclined to believe that this is “Lord of the rings” heritage. I’d rather believe that its RPG games heritage. But we have to keep in mind that writers of RPG games are more limited by requirements of the game as a, well, medium. We don’t have those limitations but we still cling to them because our knowledge of fantasy is often limited to RPG games or to webcomics whose writers, in return, played PRG games. If I was fantasy author, frankly, I’d want to get away from it.

“Darken” does get trampled in some of these traps. So far it has mostly been a quest comic, thus my disappointment after the first thrill. I know that changing the direction, cutting up the cast, or any abrupt change like this, in the middle, wouldn’t end seamless, so “Darken” has to go in other directions to make up for this. It has to have originality on micro level, through particular scenes, events, relations. People, enemies and friends characters encounter will have to leave quite an impression, to be far from the usual, far from cliché, and even far from unremarkable. Dialogues will have to be clever; “Darken” will have to avoid further traps of fantasy.

Fourth: setting of fantasy comics, for the same reasons, are often wastelands with rare remaining of rural society. This is another by-the-book rule. Once again I have to call upon “Twice destined” where one story is based in a dense forest/rural society, while the other is in an urban setting, which I’ve rarely seen in webcomics. No wasteland where you have to travel for ages to meet another living soul.

Fifth: Even if we stick to a “quest”, we realize that the nature of the quest is always either material possession or some heroic deed. “Darken” goes a step from that, the goal is personal revenge and some not very nice motives on the side. So, Komi is good there. Artists could consider other ideas, like finding their roots, their home, their families, their true love, whatever different. (Interestingly enough, in such comics, romance is usually a subplot but never the subject)

Sixth: Let’s consider action scenes: are they dynamic enough? Are they inventive, resourceful? Recently I was blogging about “Chinatown” and mentioned how Polanski found himself in the orange field and simply couldn’t resist making a car chase in the orange field. There’s a hint of that kind of invention in the scene in “Darken” where characters have to handle ten times bigger opponent. There’s a lot of opportunity for camera angles, effective contrasts in size, all sorts of things that could make this scene unique, that makes it more that, you know, two guys kicking each other and throwing magic at each other. Comics aren’t films, they’re static medium, and they don’t handle scenes where two guys are just hitting each other very well. Movement is not enough, action scenes in comics need something else to give them edge. As I mentioned, I don’t think that the scene with the giant was handled very well. But she’ll learn.

Now that I ended that long rant, I think that the last few months of “Darken” have shown a great improvement. No more clumsy writing, no more plain dialogues, characters start gaining depth. Komi shows more wit in writing. Some might interpret this wit as a comedy, but the humor never goes as far as to comedy; In remains in the reign of real life: Just like it’s out of reality that the characters would crack jokes all the time, followed by a can laughter, so is improbable that the characters would be dead-serious all the time, without doing anything that would be a subject of laugh, at least for an outsider. Take, for instance, are “Pulp fiction”, “Smoke” or “Buena Vista Social Club” comedies? Nope, neither one. But they hold things that could make you chuckle in them, as much as humor is a part of real life. It’s the humor that gives them depth. I believe that such is the nature of humor in later “Darken” comics (unlike earlier, “Gort is violent, Komiyan is coward” character-type humor). One example of such humor is the encounter with the nuns, or the line of side comments that Casper delivers.

I love the scene with the apple: two kids can’t reach the apple. What stroke me the most was, when the boy can’t reach the apple, the girl answers “It’s ok”. It’s not only cute, but it’s so life-like, but it’s also a showcase of genuinely good characters. It reminded me of my second date with my first love, when some street seller of roses wanted to trick me and overprice the rose, she said “It’s ok” and got me out of the awkward situation. I related to that scene, I believe that this part of “darken” holds other scenes that people could relate to.

I believe lots of people will find the scene that is drawn in chibies an inconsistency, out of place. I believe it would be, in printed comics where one issue is more rounded-up unity than in webcomics. In webcomics, I find it ok.

I mentioned that these comics lack parallelism. “Darken” holds one scene that is in my opinion, a wonderful display of parallel actions that is taking use of contrast of those actions, to create dynamism.

I couldn’t be the judge of whether there’s more of old material or new (better) material. Old is dragged over more months, but with very severe updating. Consistent updating with improved writing might lead to the part that I critiqued here, being insignificantly small part of the comic very soon. It’s not the case yet, though, and many improvements I saw here are on half-way so it might be hard to tell. As it is now, I would recommend “Darken” to people who like fantasy comics with quest-type story, because it’s one of technically the best comics of that kind. However, I’ll wait a bit to see how the things go on before recommending it to others.


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