Comical Musings

Tag: plot-based

Review: Unity

by on Dec.21, 2009, under Review

I have something of a soft spot for science fiction. Some of this might be that I grew up reading “the good stuff”—my dad has an extensive collection of Asimov, Niven, Card, Heinlein, Clarke, and others, so I had a pretty steady supply of sci-fi as long as I could get past the bats in the attic. As a result, I managed to avoid the brunt of Sturgeon’s Law, and the tales of the improbable hold a special place in the stacks of my heart, on the other end of the room from the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett and just past the shelf of O. Henry.

So I was intrigued when a cartoonist named fluffy submitted her* comic, Unity, for review. When a comic starts with a purple-skinned amnesiac thinking in a computer font, you know that what will follow is either science fiction or ergotism. Or, as the case is for fluffy, synaesthesia. (A certain amount of this information is what I’m picking up from the “easter eggs” to be found throughout the comics; a lot of webcomic artists enjoy hiding bonus commentary in the alt-text of their comic images. This can be entertaining or frustrating, depending on how much text is suddenly revealed when you hover your mouse.)

The art of Unity is somewhat variable. At times, there are highly detailed character shots and backgrounds; at others, plucked emus in footie pajamas. From a print publishing standpoint, I’m intrigued by the choice for different characters to speak in different typefaces—a good way to differentiate between characters speaking, but sometimes irritating.

There is a lot of nudity, but when the nudity involves beings descended from the common platypus, there’s not much to be seen (no mammaries, no external privates). Sexuality does crop up a lot in Unity, however. Main character Juni is the neutered virgin-birth clone daughter of a lesbian witch-doctor, while her partner, Sam, is female in anatomy but male in pronoun. This becomes something of a plot hook, as it becomes revealed later that many members of Juni’s species are treated as prostitutes outside of their native lands.

It seems that Juni’s people, being electrically sensitive like their distant forebears, have the potential to recover the information left behind by the ancient creatures who created their world, if only they weren’t so primitive a culture. But it takes a lot of confusion, plotting, counter-plotting, and murder to figure all this out from square one. I have to hand it to fluffy for managing to tie so many baffling story threads into a coherent plot, in spite of the number of interruptions and random art pieces that get thrown in.

One final note: the animated 404 error page is strangely hilarious.

Comic Rating: Three or four recipes I kinda want to try now.

* Fluffy is a bit of an enigma. To my knowledge, fluffy prefers a gender-neutral pronoun, as does the protagonist of Unity. The trouble in this is that it gets hard to differentiate between an it referring to the comic, an it referring to the main character, and an it referring to the cartoonist. In the interest of clarity, then, and because fluffy appears as a human with breasts and a skirt in some of the early journal comics, I will be using her to denote the cartoonist. I offer my apologies to the alternate-gender community, as well as to the American Usage professor who tried to teach me inclusive language.**

**Though even she balked at the use of sie, hir, or coe as pronouns.

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Review: Paradigm Shift

by on Oct.19, 2009, under Review

In pretty much every variation on the written and spoken word that hasn’t been touched by Tom Clancy, there is a deep, deep mistrust for big institutions (be it Wal*Mart, the government, the military, or organized religion). In just about every story, movie, or video game nowadays, these entities are enormous well-oiled conspiracies out to enslave or destroy humanity, often using large chunks of said humanity as tools of their own enslavement. For example, Final Fantasy X‘s storyline can be boiled down to “You can only be free of Sin by destroying all the Fayth in the world.” The upcoming Final Fantasy XIII goes so far as to have their gods known as the fal’Cie (pronounced “fallacy”). Real subtle there, Square-Enix. Real subtle.

So in reviewing Paradigm Shift, by Dirk I. Tiede, I find myself rather disappointed that the paradigm above does not, in fact, shift. About the only thing more frustrating is the fact that Tiede lays each “scene” out in its entirety on one page; this means I won’t be able to link to examples of what I’m going to say, because each reference will be buried somewhere down in the middle and those of my readers on dial-up will cry themselves to sleep. The infinite canvas is at once a beautiful thing and reason for dread.

Setting the story aside, let me take a moment to gush over the art. Like with Multiplex, PS is set in Chicago (imagine the cross-over potential!), and Tiede fills every panel with highly accurate and detailed renditions of local landmarks. This detail isn’t limited to the backgrounds, either. Character outfits and props have every line and wrinkle carefully delineated, and Tiede makes sure to ink in every last hair of every last lycanthropic transformation (of which there are ever so many). It’s little wonder that the comic only updates once a week; he must need half of that just to work out the cramps in his hand.

His proportions are likewise generally spot-on. It’s faces where any sort of problem arises for me, and that’s mostly because the way Tiede outlines shadows makes everyone appear to have kitty-noses. And after a while, main character Kate’s self-satisfied manic grin seems more and more inappropriate to the situations she’s in. But then, given the number of scenes where that smile is the only thing she’s wearing, maybe she’s justified in clinging to it.

A certain amount of the plot is werewolf boilerplate: mysterious deaths around town, could be an animal but it’s too intelligent, someone’s recovering way too fast from deadly wounds, disturbing dreams and irrational behavior point at something being seriously wrong, and oh by the way the spunky girl’s a werewolf. I actually get more entertainment from the characters’ interactions and the detective aspect of the story (a strange admission from someone who’s usually put off by forensic drama), and this dichotomy is only compounded when the spectacularly unsubtle Werewolves In Black show up to drag away or neutralize everyone who’s been even remotely sympathetic to the story.

Speaking as a Christian who has worked in a government job before, with relatives who have been in the military, police, and other government positions, I have to say that I’m particularly irked by all these accusations of religion and governments being massive, well-oiled machines of evil, out to crush the little guy. I’ve sat through one too many lectures from people about how organized religion inspires bigotry and hatred … the day before going to a local church to help with a blood drive, a food bank event, or a community clean-up deal. And after working for the State Parks department … let’s just say that the government isn’t evil. Just inefficient.

Comic Rating: Four outfits a week that girl must have to go through.

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Review: What Do You Do

by on Oct.12, 2009, under Review

If you’re around my age or so (which I’m sure at least one or two of you are), you probably remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series. For those of you either too young or too old to know what this fogey/whippersnapper (your choice) is talking about, here’s a quick description: imagine, if you will, a novel that follows every possible outcome of every choice the protagonist makes. The reader is set up as the protagonist and sent off to make choices that will catapult the main character either to a fabulously happy ending with riches and splendor . . . or to a spectacularly gruesome death . . . with plenty of truly illogical intermediate steps that the reader forgave on account of being about eight years old and not realizing that the universe didn’t work that way.

The ability to control the main character (within bounded guidelines) is something of the driving force behind What Do You Do. Taking a bit of an example from MSPaint Adventures, WDYD relies on a certain amount of reader input to influence where the artist takes the main character (and, in one instance, a side character narrating a flashback). The artist is just as likely to take serious suggestions as daft ones, although immature ones will be mutilated as he sees fit.

The site design is fun and frustrating at the same time. It’s fun because the pixellated art lends a nice “late 80’s/early 90’s computer game” feel to things, but frustrating in that the sidebars cram in over the main text and comic. It turns out that you can deal with that problem by zooming out on “really low resolutions.”* The site programmer also provides you with plenty of resource screens, in case you forget how things work (which you will).

Now, while I mentioned that openly dirty suggestions won’t be tolerated, this isn’t to say that the artist won’t have his fun when he feels like it. And oh, what fun he has (warning: sound, plus reference to both Benny Hill and the Keystone Kops).

The art itself manages to look both hurried and polished, with the occasional animated moment adding to the charm. And for some reason, I’m occasionally reminded of Charlie Brown (y’know, other than the language).

As you can see, I had a lot of fun reading through What Do You Do. Once the layout issue was taken care of, it was an enjoyable reminder of all the ways that Dungeons & Dragons and similar games can be hilariously abused.** Read it if you enjoy fantasy, comedy, or just messing with the guy in charge.

Comic Rating: Four party members of variable competence.

*Boy, does that ever sting, given that my current monitor is running at 1024×768. I’m old enough to remember when 800×600 started falling out of favor, and I was just as stung to be called out-of-touch back then.
**Yes, I’m looking at you, Alan and Tom.

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Review: Guardians: Land of Legends

by on Oct.05, 2009, under Review

So lately, a lot of the comics I’ve reviewed have been fairly well established. Whether they’re popular or obscure, the comics have been around long enough to garner a dedicated fan base and gain a certain momentum that keeps them going. There’s something about having several hundred comics in the archive that keeps a cartoonist willing to keep making them until the plot ends or the ideas dry up completely. With the younger comics, though, there’s a certain temptation to skip an update if things are a little busier than usual, or you just don’t quite feel the urge to finish a comic. Sometimes, the cartoonist has to scale back the updates while things get hectic.

Such is also the case for the nascent Guardians: Land of Legends, by Kaitlin Callahan. As she posted recently, the demands of the school year are cutting into her comic time. I can sort of relate, having had to post similar messages once or twice on my own comics. Of course, those posts usually signaled that either a hiatus or the abrupt end of the comic was near, and in the case with Guardians, that would be rather a pity.

Callahan seems to have more than a decade’s worth of work into developing the story, if the dates on that notice are correct, so she at least has the motivation to continue the comic and complete the story. As it stands so far, the story has a sort of “The Olden Days have lost their magic . . . or have they?” feel to it, although as is often the case with such stories, the sense of mysticality is quickly pushed aside for mundanity, although by genre laws, I assume that this is only for the first chapter.

The focus of the story seems geared more toward lovable spaz Vincent than on vaguely magical Kate, however. There’s also queen bee Fleur, who’s likely to wind up tangled up in the plot, if not the outright antagonist. A few wacky minor characters round out the ensemble for now.

I have to admit that I dig the art style. Lines are very fluid, progression shots are done rather nicely, and you can tell when characters are related. I’ll admit that Mr. G. seems a lot more like a caricature than the other characters, and occasionally people say an awful lot without opening their mouths. (That last panel also has a certain “Hey, Macarena!” vibe to it, but I digress.)

So far, Guardians looks pretty promising. The plot may have a slight potboiler fantasy feel to it, but the characters are entertaining. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s very, very pretty.

Comic Rating: Four sparkly streaming sunbeams.

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Review: Sandusky

by on Sep.14, 2009, under Review

Back in the summer of 1996, I was assigned to read Rascal, by Sterling North, to prepare for seventh-grade English. It’s a charming and bittersweet story of what happens when you adopt a baby wild animal . . . and it grows up. I hate to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it, but young Sterling has to release his pet raccoon when little Rascal gets too old and wild. Nowadays, there are rehabilitation centers that deal with the aftermath of baby wild pets growing up.

This is why I have mixed opinions concerning Sandusky, by John Prengaman, Jr. On the one hand, it’s a gently humorous people and talking animals comic rather like Sandra and Woo (though I should note that Sandusky is the older comic). And on the other hand, the plot takes an 87-page detour that depicts in great detail the trauma experienced when a wild animal raised in captivity gets dumped into the wild. It’s one of those have-your-cake-and-eat-it situations; for all the maturity with which Prengaman deals with the realities of a wild pet, there are just as many “Aww, lookit the cougar! I want one!” moments.

Moral quandaries aside, though, the writing in Sandusky is pretty tight. After a brief prologue of sorts, the comic follows a series of tidy little story arcs, each of which comes to, if not a resolution, then at least a pleasant gag to round things off. Sometimes it seems almost too convenient, but it’s usually the results of a lot of things going on behind the scenes.

Pop-culture references abound. Be prepared to run into musicians, geography, Warner Bros. classics, movies, video games, Crocodile Hunter, more musicians, redneck comedy, famous paintings, and even more musicians. Heck, the eyes on the human characters pre-“Rocky Mountain Lion” make me think of those Precious Moments figurines. About the only thing more prevalent than the shout-outs . . . are the poop jokes.

The art style makes a sudden leap after the massive effort of “Rocky Mountain Lion” (compare this scat joke with this one to see the difference). And while the thinner outlines make the comic seem more “sketchy” than it used to, the rest of the art style is more . . . confident. It’s not something I can entirely pin down, but if you look back at those two examples, you’ll probably see what I mean.

So while I have my misgivings about a setting that tries to have it both ways, and the name-the-cubs arc felt like it went on a bit long, I still enjoyed reading through Sandusky. As the many links to various wildcat foundations will attest, Prengaman is passionate about what he does, and it shows in the way the comic is so enjoyable to read.

Comic Rating: Five minutes before you realize that the female cougar has eyelashes.

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