Thursday, October 12, 2017

Mythology Tour with a Message (Cosmic Fish)

Themes: A-
Story: B
Characters: B
Comedy: B-
Visuals: B

Status: Ongoing
Pages:    260
Videos:  3
Sins: 4

Cosmic Fish by Eliana Falcón (AKA Cosmographia) is a sort of nonlinear fantastical mystery functioning as a mythical metaphor for choice, with time and perspective jumping around between chapters. These perspective jumps add context to the main story, while the main story itself goes through small, unknown (and unimportant?) time jumps. Because of this, the comic takes on a sort of episodic format, with certain chapters almost being stand alone if it weren't for the characterization and small amounts of mystery related info they give. Overall This does a fairly good job of enticing the reader with a decent mystery while also appropriately characterizing the main actors so that we either empathize with them, or wonder about their motives. Really, my biggest gripe about Cosmic Fish is just that there just isn't enough of it yet!

If the intro and rankings have persuaded you, then please go read Cosmic Fish immediately (and then come back). If it has not persuaded you, or you simply wish to see my analysis, then read on:

Reading Cosmic Fish, it very quickly becomes apparent that the story is meant to function something like a parable, as the magic affecting one of the main characters forces continual bodily changes which always results in turning into a raging monster, but are also affected by personal experiences. So in essence: the destination is certain, the path is uncertain, and it's your choice whether or not to make the best of things. This theme of whether or not to take charge of guiding an uncontrollable situation in a positive direction is reinforced by the second main character, Bells, who is the only one of the guiding deities of the realm who chooses to actually help those destined to become monsters as best she can, rather than ignoring or killing them. This idea of proactive optimism stretches over the entire story, and is well executed in how it plays into many different situations without being too blatant or forceful.

Before discussing the details and mechanics of the story proper, we need some context. In the world Eliana has created, the natural order is managed by a group of guardians. Most of these guardians are unimportant for our purposes except to serve as a contrast for Bells, the guardian of children, who reincarnates those who die too young. This ability of reincarnation, shared with the guardian of mature souls, Syias, allows bells to send ghosts back home. What are ghosts? Dunno. As far as I can tell, beings from other universes are somehow entering the one managed by the guardians, probably after somehow dying in their own universe. Left to their own devices, ghosts will form a temporary body based on the remnants of their memories (by the way they lose their memories) and their experiences soon after appearing. If Bells or Syias reaches a ghost before it fully forms a body they can send it back home. Otherwise, the ghost is doomed to slowly turn into a monster as its body continually changes. Also there's a whole bunch of other classical mythology tropes included, much of which are inconsequential. These tropes create a nice mythical atmosphere, but have the drawback of making some of the worlds magic seem arbitrary. For example: fireflies apparently do something somehow having to do with ghosts and or monsters. That's really about as much as I could figure out, it just isn't explained at all.

The two main characters of Cosmic Fish are Bells, the aforementioned guardian, and Acantha, a ghost. Bells is a sweetheart with an odd lack of speech. As far as I can tell, the author wished to have the benefits of a silent character, without the drawbacks, so she has all of the other characters understand Bell, but doesn't explicitly show Bell's dialog to the audience. She plays the part of an optimistic child who has to deal with tragedy and copes as best she can. Between this, and the mystery that surrounds her by virtue of her position as a guardian, she functions very well as a support character for those who are more flawed, like Acantha.

Acantha herself is far more nuanced. She used to share Bell's optimism for a better future for the ghosts, but is pessimistic in regards to her relationships with others, and it's clear that her friends turning into monsters has eaten away at her optimism. Between the main story and the various flashbacks she functions as our eyes into the world, as she seems to know the least out of all the regular characters. She is also the most expressive character, feeling wronged by pretty much everybody because of... reasons, and also being fed up with the way the world currently is. Because of this, most of the best comedy goes to her.

The other big player in the story is Schnell, a big mouthed creep and the defacto antagonist of the story so far. I say so far because while he definitely seems to be a villain, there are also hints of beings acting behind the scene who may end up being more important in the end. To be honest though, Schnell's real purpose is to act mysterious and look silly.

Beyond those three there are several other support characters who are well done, but each of them are limited to one or a few chapters, such as that tiny, green, adorable person in the second image.

The Story:
Remember when I said Cosmic Fish was a mystery? Well it's a bit more nuanced than that. Schnell clearly has a number of questions he has been working to find answers to, and Acantha has questions regarding a strange bunny that seems to travel through dimensions (that's really all we know about it), but besides those two the conundrum of the ghosts existence is mostly treated as a problem to be solved, rather than a mystery to be unraveled. Most of the mystery aspects of the comic come from the how information is only slowly fed to the reader. A good comparison would probably be those documentaries about mechanical failures. Have you seen those? Where most of the people depicted have questions, but the true mystery is only apparent from the outside, and only because the narrator gives you information in a specific order? This comic is kinda like those.

So what is the mystery exactly? well, as far as I can tell, Schnell came into the world somehow in some way which relates him to Bells, giving him some of Bells powers, and when he first showed up there was a strange woman who cared for him. Other ghosts show up for some reason, except they aren't related to Bells, and Schnell is somehow keeping them in the world in order to motivate Bells to solve some sort of mystery. Also there is a bunny that can teleport and possibly travel between dimensions, and who gave Bells a shock collar for Acantha after he broke the guardians no killing rule.
There are also these things called Cucos which eat ghosts who haven't formed a body, and they tried to eat Acantha when she first showed up. Bells at first tried to help, either before or after the Cucos showed up, but Schnell interfered somehow, and so Bells chose not to help Acantha, causing her to later fall into a river and form a body, which coincidentally has spikes on the back. Also, guardians can be killed and then they come back with no explicit memories, just ideas of the lessons they learned?
Like I said earlier, there aren't enough chapters yet. In truth, it feels like the comic is only now really getting into the meat of the story, since Bells decided to change the status quo by befriending Acantha in one of the most recent chapters.

For the most part, Cosmic Fish's visuals are simply compitent. They are well executed, have clear panel structure, switch between high and low fidelity as is appropriate, and overall are simply well done. There are a few points of interest however...
Click Here for High Rez

Taking a look at this image, I would like to draw attention to the texture work. I don't know enough about art to be certain, but I think that Eliana is using a digital paintbrush here that creates a very well executed and unique aesthetic that I really appreciate.

The other thing of note is the two videos, the transition video, and the few animations that are used throughout the comic, all of which are executed very well, and most of which are used exactly as they should be. My one and only gripe is that the two pages after the fight scene video should have been included in the animation, as that would have allowed the video to function as the climax of the action scene, rather than merely the middle of it. (that being said, there is also the advantage of a higher fidelity splash page at the end of the combat, and if a sufficiently impactful animated ending was not possible then this was the best choice.)

Overall, Cosmic Fish is a very interesting comic with a mystery and character relationships that I am excited to see play out, and it has earned a place on the List of Awesome. I am Vindcara, and you can reach me at my desk.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Emotionally Traumatized Kung-Fu Lesbians (Mastery)

Themes: B
Story: B+
Characters: A
Comedy: B
Visuals: A

Status: Complete Ongoing
Pages:  132 194
Sins: 0

Mastery is an amazing comic by Ryan and Krystle about a mistreated girl crawling her way out of her older sisters shadow with the help of her only, and first, friend in the world, who beats the crap out of her. It is a story of emotional turmoil, amazing romance, subtle prejudice, and a fairly realistic representation of the Loony Friends Improve Your Personality trope.

If the rankings and prelude have persuaded you, then stop here and get on with reading already! If, however, you are not yet convinced, or have already read Mastery, and simply wish to see my analysis of it, then read on:

One of the many things that Mastery does quite well is interweaving several major themes into its story without any of them feeling crowded or out of place. It handles homophobia in a subtle, and I expect, more realistic way. It surfaces in the form of a sister being suspicious of the protagonists having compassionate contact, or in the protagonists going to prom 'as friends'. The romance in Mastery, at least in the first part, is slowly built up, and starts out as a friendship. The characters confide in one another, one having had a near death experience, and the other being isolated by her own family, until eventually they admit their mutual attraction to themselves. But what's all this about? What do I mean by 'first part'? Well...

At the time of this review Mastery is split into, effectively, two segments. The first segment, the Prequel, functions as a complete story revolving around Min Hau and Rei Haiyaou, martial arts students who carry out a journey of such heartwarming romance and laugh out loud comedy that I would gladly buy a book form of just the Prequel without any hesitation. The Prequel is down to earth, realistic, and wrapped up with a lovely ending. The second segment, Act-1, has magic. Now, obviously, there's nothing wrong but magic in a story. But, Act-1 differs from the prequel in a very substantive, and downright dangerous way: Genre. Act-1 isn't quite developed enough by this point for me to say for sure, but based on the large amount of exposition, world building, and super powers going on, it seem quite likely that it will differ dramatically from the prequel in tone. This is half of the problem with Mastery's story structure. The other half, is that there is very little transition between the prequel and the Prologue, a ten page primer for Act-1. The Prequel ended, and with a very nice ending at that, and I expected the story to start up again with the same characters after a bit of time had passed. Instead, I felt like the story had jumped to an entirely different thematic universe. Now, Ryan has said that Min and Rei will show up again at some point, so there very well might be a reason why Act-1 couldn't start with them, but a better transition is still in order. For a fast and dirty fix I would slap a black page in the archives that said "X years later, and Y miles away". It's just a band aid, but I still think it would help. For a more sophisticated approach, I would probably start a page with two or three panels of Min and Rei in the present day talking about Derrick Franklin and Star Eater, the focus of the prologue, and then do a fade to black style transition to a final panel of Derrick in his car, the way we first see him in the prologue. Alternatively, Prequel could be put under a separate archive page, so that the expectation of continuity isn't quite so strong. But anyway, I haven't put much context in here have I? let's remedy that.

The plot of Mastery goes as such: Min is being mistreated by her family, especially her sister. Rei shows up and beats Min's sister in a sparring match. Min and Rei bond, and Rei starts training Min the beat her sister before Rei has to leave. They fall in love, or at least grow very close, as they don't actually officially become a couple until the epilogue of the prequel, and Min partially comes to terms with her sister after she finds Min and Rei confiding in eachother. Rei leaves after promising to come back, and Min finally has her fight with her sister, defeating her, and finally getting the respect she deserves. The prequels epilogue shows several years passing, there's a bookend, and then the Prologue starts.

In the Prologue an extraterrestrial, and possibly extradimensional, lifeform possesses Derrick with the intent of consuming the world. Then Act-1 Starts. In Act-1, our new protagonists, Sarrah and Ash, are walking home from school one day, when Sarrah sees Derrick. Sarrah chases Derrick, gets cornered in an alley by some possessed school kids, stabbed, and this causes her superpowers to awaken. (I say awaken because I think they were given to Sarrah in a dormant form at the start of Act-1 by the same extradimensional being that possessed Derrick.) Then Sarrah and Ash go home, experiment with her new super powers, producing weird blue flames, and go to bed. Then they get woken up by beings from beyond the veil, which feed on their fear. Then some other dude shows up and tells another dude that the extradimensional being has come to consume the world. Then Sarrah and Ash wake up in the morning and talk about how great their hiding-in-the-closet sex was.

Do you notice the gap in the plot? you should. After all, that's why I put the paragraph break there.

Despite this, Act-1 still seems like a good story, and the Prequel is an amazing story! It's just the transition that's the problem.

Min is a well executed character, but analytically uninteresting from my point of view. She's frustrated, spunky, confident where she can be, a great teacher, and silly. I love her, she's adorable, but there isn't much I can analyze with appropriate scrutiny. Instead, I'm going to focus on Min's sister, Xiu Mei, and Rei.
Xiu serves as the most obvious antagonist in the Prologue, being the one threat Min has to overcome; and while she starts out as a fairly black and white villain, she grows into a quite complex character in a very well written way. Xiu plans to leave someday, leaving Min alone, and thus does not wish to be the one Min relies on. Xiu fears that if she is the only one around to support Min, that Min won't be able to support herself when Xiu finally leaves, so she berates, fights, and mistreats her instead. A misguided position to take, but a believable one, especially when coupled with the later revealed fact that Xiu partially blames Min for the death of their grandmother. All of this comes together to make Xiu Mei a complex and believable character, who both cares for, and resents Min, causing her to behave in a similarly mixed way.
(sorry about the size)

Rei on the other hand, is an example of the kind of person I have only known once in my lifetime. She is emotionally open, expresses her feeling honestly, isn't ashamed of herself, and feels open affection for many people. She is also mischievous. Rei's character doesn't extend much deeper than that, but she is exceptional in just how well executed this aspect of her character is. (although, in my experience, this kind of person tends to attract friends like a magnet rather than pushing people away)

Moving on to Act-1, almost none of the characters besides Sarrah and Ash have been developed yet, So I will briefly talk about them. Sarrah is a tall athlete with blue hair and is more easily embarrassed. Ash is short, does not have anime hair, and is quite forward. In truth, most of the significance of Ash and Sarrah, as far as I'm concerned for analyzing the comic, comes from the obvious parallels with Min and Rei. Although, really, I just think the authors like depicting a smaller girl wrapped around a larger girl. And I approve.

A comics visuals are comperable to the directing in a movie, and there are some key things done quite well in Mastery that I would like to give attention to:
The first is this scene to the right here. Notice how Min's hand is clutched around the ruffled end of the blanket? It's just an amazing detail that really enhances the concern and anxiety shown on her face.

And this one to the left? Here I just wanted to point out the expression on Min's face in the second panel. I really don't know how to describe it. Happy? Confident? Amused? At ease? It's something like that, and I think it would take quite a bit of practice to reproduce reliably, even if my artistic abilities weren't otherwise terrible.

Remeber that Thing I said about small girl wrapped around larger girl? Yeah, this whole scene here just kinda makes me squee.

This is the last thing for Prequel. These fight scenes come up several times, and the choreography of the fight is probably the best I've ever seen. If you look at the two panels here it is abundantly clear how the characters moved from the first position to the second position. This requires quite a bit of thought to be put into the positions, and I think any comic artists would do well to learn from Ryan's and Krystle's example.

And now we get a three for one special!

If you compare the left and right sides of the image, you will notice two cases where Sarrah, the blue haired one, extends out of the panel she occupies, but there is an important difference between the two examples. On the right side the panel is clearly defined by the usual white space with black boarders. But on the left, the white space is missing! This causes the readers eye to naturally move downward, as the panel doesn't seem to end like it normally would, and now the audience is reading the fourth panel as if it were the second! This is worthy of a sin. (edit: they corrected this)

Second thing about this image: the coffee. If you look closely, you can see the coffee splash, drip down the side of the cup, and then you can see the spot where it hit the floor. Great attention to detail.

Third thing: Sarrah has moles! Why does Sarrah have moles?! I mean I love them, but it's just such a frivolous detail! Kudos to Ryan and Krystle for including tiny things like that. Usually details like moles are reserved for more realistic depictions, where the author is trying to portray the grittiness of the world via, among other things, scars, stains, and wrinkles. I'm not entirely sure if the moles add anything story content wise here, since none of those other realism factors are present, but I appreciate them regardless.

Alright, last thing for visuals, and this time I haven't just stolen the art and pasted it here. Instead I want you to follow this link:

This is something that I hope to see more of in webcomics in general. Because webcomics exist on a digital medium, they have the ability to include various animations where appropriate to enhance the experience. This is a topic for another day, but I wanted to call it out since it's here.

All in all, Mastery's Act-1 is a good comic, and Mastery's Prequel is an amazing comic, I just wish they were either better connected, or more clearly separated. This has been Vindcara, and you can reach me at my desk.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Workshop Corner #1

     I recently read Galebound, a comic with considerable promise from an author who clearly know what they're doing... although it only has 74 comics as of this post and seems to be doing more of a slow story build up, so I didn't find myself getting emotionally invested enough for it to make its way onto my bookmarks bar. However, it did do a few interesting technical things that I thought were interesting. So this is the first in a series of smaller posts where I will point out specific mechanics of comics various authors employ, and how I think they might best be used.

      This is the  first page of Galebound, about one fifth of its normal size, and it is a good example of how 'Show, don't tell' works in comics. Even from this zoomed out view it is immediately apparent what has happend, and it is worth mentioning that the eviction notice is just displayed as a white sheet. If the author had zoomed in on the page so that we could read "eviction notice" on it, that would be telling, not showing. Between the eviction notice, the boards on the door, and the kids huddling in the alley, it can be expected that everyone in Galebound's target demographic will understand the situation, and all without anything having to be spoon fed to them, so the audience is more connected to the story.

     But things get better. On top of the detail that the whole audience needs to understand, the author has added a second detail which will provide more context and characterization, but  isn't strictly necessary. The little windmill house and the garden are well maintained. The whole house hasn't been abandoned, and it wasn't housing an unhappy family. This one detail allows us to confirm, that these two kids came from a loving home, but had to leave because their parents died, not because of family financial troubles or because they were running away from home. From this we can speculate, which just makes the page all the better.

This dual-panel thing here was the second mechanic I wanted to discuss today. Quite often it is necessary to put in pauses in the dialog, commonly expressed by an ellipsis, "...". But here, the author has went further. The longer the audience pauses between sections of dialog in which there is an intervening ellipsis, the longer the pause in dialog seems. Quite often, if the ellipsis is just sandwiched between two other speech bubbles, then it will barely register, and the author quite likely wont get the thematic impact they are looking for. To solve this problem, the author of Galebound cuts what would otherwise be one panel of dialog into two. This keeps the dialog feeling fluid, as the comic's point of view doesn't change, while also providing the starkest break possible. By making the pause in dialog its own panel the author ensures it not only registers, but also feels thematically impactful to the audience. (Raspheal, the author, also uses this technique for ellipsis' at the end of dialog, to separate two beats in a conversation)

This posts recommendation is, obviously, Galebound. I am Vindcara, and you can  reach me at my desk.