Saturday, April 30, 2016

Saturday Revue April 30: Skin Deep

The Curtain Rises...
The Crowd Holds Their Breath...

There's Something Enchanting On Show Tonight!

Chores. Homework. Taxes. None of it got done the week I found the comic Skin Deep a year ago. I was immersed too deep in another world, reading until my eyes hurt. I'd fallen under a spell, and even a smelly kitty litter box couldn't impinge on this strange and beautiful world I'd discovered. I'm deeply indebted to the wonderful Kory Bing for creating this strip, and am delighted to be able to pass on my addiction to new victims *ahem* readers today.
It all began when a medallion was dropped in front of Michelle ten years ago. Since then, the readers of Skin Deep have been invited into worlds they never imagined, faced with some of humanity's oldest strengths and weaknesses, studied ancient mysteries and been shown how strong the soul really can be in the face of all adversity. 

The Rating

I think the creator summed it up best:

The Raves

There's so much to love about this comic that it's hard to know where to start. I guess I'd have to go with the sheer amount of thought that went into the world building, because it is truly impressive. In Skin Deep, Bing posits this idea: we aren't running out of mythological creatures. They just got good at hiding. From that, they created an entire world revolving around the magic of subterfuge and medallions that allow mythological creatures and their descendents to live as humans. 

The work then proceeds to explore throughout its length all the difficulties that come up as a result of such a system, including racism, classism, and the inherent ridiculousness of the self perpetuating system itself! All this information could have been boring in the extreme if in a less deft pair of hands. (seriously, this has gotten complicated enough that it now has its own wiki page) but the information is neatly introduced for the benefit of Michelle, the main character in many of the story arcs and an unwitting inheritor of her father's genetic legacy; she's a sphinx with quite the family history to live up to, and found out by changing shape in the middle of her dorm room. Talk about culture shock.  Before her medallion, the most complicated thing in her life was her college calc homework. After her medallion, things were never simple.
Some very solid research went into all this before all the pretty colors got added, I can say that for sure. As a devotee of mythology and a member of two cultures that mainstream society always gets wrong, I was impressed and enchanted by the careful accuracy that Bing brings to 'Skin Deep', without losing personality in her characters. You even got totems right! That in itself deserves a tip of the hat.

The writing is truly a feat; engaging, empathetic and humerous. The plotting is twisty in all the right ways and the pacing is perfect. Over time, the art came to match it perfectly.
The writing takes the issue of a multi-species world for all it's worth, exploring the issues of multi-ethnicity, mixed families and racism, social stigma and social expectation through its cast of multi-species characters. Take, for instance, these two brothers:
But this comic isn't a social issue pulpit; these are simply issues that come up in the lives of characters. The characters are all definite individuals, with personalities interacting, clashing, meshing and changing over time as they deal with issues and their own lives change. Over time, we come to know the characters as family; Ike, surly on the surface but a true buddy whose sourness mostly stems from an *ahem* unpleasant *COUGHRACISTCOUGH* mother, sweet shy Greg who you always want to snuggle, awesome Merial who is NOT ALLOWED ANY SUGAR OR CAFFEINE AT ALL, and the whole gang. They feel like your pals. You feel their struggles and cheer for their accomplishments. Over time, they become old friends.

The art grows more skillful at an amazing pace through the 10 year run of this wonderful work, and today it's stunning. The grasp of stylized expression, body language (in some very strange bodies!) and form is spot on.  You have to be impressed by an artist who manages to keep a character recognizable as an individual across a wide variety of shape-shifted states, and keep their facial expressions and body language consistent even when that face and body is completely different. And I was a sucker for the color palette as well. The colors draw the eye in and hold you until the story pulls you under its' hypnotist spell. The creation of space in this artist's  style is one of its greatest strengths; even in very active spaces, everything has ample room to be seen.

The shading has grown into a work of art (pardon the pun) making he world more real without ever distracting from the point.
The artist enjoys mixing stylistic asides into the work, adding a snarkily humorous note that makes it a joy to read. Text boxes are often used not only to impart information, but to share another little joke and make we readers grin.
 Going back to an earlier point, time is another great strength of this work; time and persistence. This is the comic I show to young and aspiring artists who are talking about giving up. I tell them 'Look! Look at the amazing things this artist draws! Now go look at the first page, she did that ten years ago. See how AMAZING your art will become if you just keep at it?' Bing's patient persistence in telling a story they love is an inspiration to everyone else out there. I can only hope we'll continue to be graced for another ten years with such amazing work.

The Razzes

Well.....get ready to read, is all I can say. And not just the comic, the notes. All the notes. With a work this big and involved, over time it gets a little confusing, especially when it's spread over multiple venues, and you'll find yourself double checking who lives where sometimes. Think of it as a workout for your poor internet-atrophied attention span.

The Revue

A must read! A beautiful work full of beautiful people. I wish I could live there...

Friday, April 29, 2016

Backstage Pass April: Glenn Song

Psst! I grabbed a Back Stage Pass!
Let's Go Meet Glenn Song!

(Note from the MC: Glenn has now joined the Strip Show team, but this interview was offered before he had and it seemed a shame to dump the idea. So here's your chance to get to know our second reviewer dear readers.)

So Glenn, Tell Us Something About Yourself! 

I’m the webcomic author and illustrator for This Mortal Coil and the co-founder and senior engineer for Prisma Wave Studios a small two-person independent game developer. We make the iOS game Ollie and Flip - Arcade Snowboarding.

This Mortal Coil is a webcomic serial about the Gothic Lolita Shinto goddess, Kamiko, and her adventures helping mortals who become entangled with deities, spirits, and monsters from the Eternal Realm.

Another part of This Mortal Coil is The Shrine.

This is a highly experimental form of interactive storytelling for This Mortal Coil. It’s a virtual place -- a Shinto shrine where Kamiko resides as a land deity. You can come at various times of the day or the week and meet someone different and converse with them a la a visual novel (or RPG conversation system like Fallout 3).

You can also leave anonymous wishes, prayers, and messages to Kamiko using the Ema board. She’ll read them and tweet them throughout the day, but at the end of the day, they’re all destroyed.
Kamiko’s twitter is another way of telling story. She randomly gives you bits from her (mis)adventures.

Other Hobbies and Obsessions

Fiction writing, programming (video games, websites, and virtual toys), and photography.

So, tell me about your early experience. How did you fall in love with telling stories in pictures?

It started with my interest in developing video games back in the early 90s. I could barely code, but my ambitious and dreams ran ahead of me. I spent a lot of time designing games, which seemed to segue naturally into doing worldbuilding.
At the same time, I had begun to roleplay Star Trek on America Online. These were chatroom based RPs where you played a character on a ship in Starfleet. This got me into creative writing.
Despite learning a lot of programming, I realized that building a game was a fairly daunting task for one person to do (it can be done though). I really enjoyed writing stories and for a long time I thought I would only write fiction. As I developed my artistic skills over the years, I finally decided at one point that I wanted to combine them together and doing a comic felt like a good fit.

What media and programs do you work in to produce your project?

I use Manga Studio 5 these days for sketching, painting the comic pages, and even a bit of 2D animation.
I use Blender to help me storyboard shots. I’ve created 3D rigged mannequins, props, and even a 3D poseable wolf model to help me set the stage.

I'm particularly interested in the stylistic choices you made on This Mortal Coil. What inspired the style you chose to use? How did it evolve?

When I came up with the series concept as a comic, I thought it would have to be in black and white. Not inked, but painted so that the black inked parts in balance with the white would create the images. Some inspiration for this comes from Frank Miller’s Sin City and Rockstar’s Max Payne 2. I’ve had friends comment that it gives Mortal Coil a very noir look and feel, probably because the style is heavily associated with gritty, detective stories. Another inspiration is the Dao yin-yang symbol, which makes more sense to me. Half of the shape defines the other half. Plus, TMC is rooted in eastern religion, mythology, and pop-culture so it makes more sense to me.

When I first started painting in that style, it was difficult. What’s supposed to be black, and what should be not-black? How do I represent dimensionality? Organic things like trees, bushes, etc? What about shadow? Do I “ink” lines? How much detail? Is everything just in silhouette?

I came up with some rules of thumb:

If it’s dark, it’s black -- Kamiko’s Lolita dress and shoes lend itself to this, nighttime, the darkness between trees, the characters’ hair. This made it very easy to go through and outline things that were black and then flood fill them.

Light and Shadow. Once I’ve flood filled the light and dark areas, I can go back and etch away the black using an eraser and carve out the details based on where the light source is.

Without color, use texture. Wood grain patterns, speckled surfaces, masses of leaves/grass, etc. It was another way of breaking up the white and black.

Keep lines to a minimum. Sometimes it’s necessary to use lines but I try to break them up to let the reader’s mind fill in the shape. I devised new brushes in Manga Studio for doing shrubs (you can use these as brushes or erasers). I even did some work in Blender such as building the Shinto and Yayoi shrines and using a high contrast material on them and rendered them out as a basis for painting over.

A lot of this work was focused on creating a sense of realism, but I see it as tip of the iceberg. I think there’s so much more to explore with this style technically and artistically.

Can you tell me about your typical day or strip-creation session? How does your working process flow?

It all starts with the script, and though it’s been re-written a few times, I’ll go over it again and make dialogue changes to keep it fresh or make it more concise. Sometimes I have an initial set of storyboards, but these days, since those boards are so old, I toss them and start again. My goal is to reduce the amount of imagery needed to tell a chapter.
A lot of the storyboarding is drawing stick figures and blobs and moving them around to get the layout I want for the page and to make sure it flows from page to page.

I put the actual text in as a part of this process, because word bubbles are also important to the design and layout of each panel and the flow of the entire page.

When I’m happy, I’ll begin the pencils. If I want an establishing shot done with a certain perspective in mind or if it’s a difficult drawing with multiple figures, I may break out Blender to pose mannequins, stub in props, and orient the camera to get the shot I want (having done photography comes in handy here). I screen-cap the result and bring it back to MS5 and draw over it. I rarely draw over the 3D directly since the result can look stiff, so I built my rough sketches from it and go from there.
The black and white rendering is last. I mostly use the stock g-pen and an eraser variant I made for doing the painting. I have some custom brushes for doing foliage or other effects.

Here’s a Youtube timelapse video of the process in motion from the image series above.

When I’m done, I let the page sit and look at it days or weeks later to see if there’s anything missing or terrible looking and make any final corrections. This is usually done right before publishing it online. Doing a page can take on average 15 hours.

What’s the most difficult part of your work?

The most difficult part is storyboarding and designing the page. There’s a lot of things for me to consider at that stage:

What and how big is the establishing shot

which camera angles to use to best convey what’s happening

where to place the text and re-editing it so that it fits in the panels

the expressions and gestures of the characters

Which direction everyone is facing and where they are spatially

the SFX

Letting moments breathe

What needs 3D previs

On top of that, I’m also thinking how I can get through the page economically since it takes a great deal of time to do. It’s a constant balancing act.

Can you tell me about your storytelling process? Do you prefer to script your stories, fly by the seat of your pants, or somewhere in between?

I started by scripting the entirety of The Rabbit and the Moon.When I started producing the comic, I was a bit naive in thinking that I would 100% follow what I wrote. Once I learned the true cost of producing a page, then I could extrapolate how long the entire project would take me. My big takeaway: It’s way cheaper to revise in a script before you draw one line. When I did the math on finishing the first 32 pages and extrapolated based on my original storyboards for a 210 page comic, I realized it would take me 5-6 years to finish. I didn’t intend for Rabbit and the Moon to be THAT long. The pages that were done, were done. My motto is to keep moving forward.

I went by a very loose metric of 32 pages equating to 6 months of artistic work. If I cut 32 pages I’d save half a year, and I aimed to cut one year’s worth of work out. Through lopping off entire chapters and restructuring the remainder I removed 70+ pages.

From my perspective, the hardest chapter to pull was “The Ferrywoman.” I cut it so many times because it was primarily a conversation between Kamiko and the Ferrywoman. I wanted to keep the Ferrywoman in the story since she’s a link to the Eternal Realm and appeared alongside Kamiko in “One of Us”. That chapter has a lot of explanation and info dumping, but as I reshaped it, it became a way to sort out the stuff that came before and hone it in on a conclusion.
A downside of this rework is that some pages had too many panels jammed together.
As a consequence, I learned to let the story breathe and it’s a constant balance of trying to fit as many beats of dialogue and story as I can on one page while letting each scene have it’s moment.
Going forward, working on stories, I’m thinking they need to fall more into 24-48 pages which might be more manageable for a comic story per year.

My idea is that Individual stories like the Rabbit and the Moon are plotted out ahead of time, but the overarching mythology isn’t. I have plenty of ideas and world building material. I’m taking a page from Rick and Morty, and earlier Adventure Time, and Steven Universe. Yes, there’s continuity and a larger world, but the episodes matter more. I want to write intimate stories about a small set of characters. 

You use a lot of period architecture and mythological concepts in your work and do it very well. How do you go about researching ideas you'd like to use in your work? Do your ideas grow from your reading, or do you get ideas and then research them?

For the story the Rabbit and the Moon I got the idea mostly from watching anime and reading mythology and then researched it further. Sailor Moon is probably where I got the idea from. The main character Tsukino Usagi means “Moon Rabbit” (as far as my understanding of Japanese goes).

In Asian mythology, if you look at the moon there’s a shape on it that looks like a rabbit with a pestle and mortar. If you’re Japanese the rabbit is pounding rice into mochi. If you’re Chinese the rabbit is mixing ingredients to make the Elixir of Immortality, and as much as I love mochi, I love that idea better, and with it comes the story of Chang’e, the Lady of the Moon, which my story plays on. Hana and Kamiko tell a version of it in the chapter “The Storyteller.” I researched different versions of the story to get more background on Houyi, Chang’e, etc, and yes, in one version, Houyi throws Chang’e’s pet rabbit Jade up to her as she floats away to the moon.
In the first chapter of the story, I wanted to open it during Houyi’s era of time. I know it’s in the ancient past, but when? I figured he would be apart of the Han Dynasty. I looked to the movie Red Cliff for inspiration for his armour and look since it was about as close as I could get. I wouldn’t say it was historically accurate, but it’s good enough.
I also had to figure out what would be the corresponding time period in Japan, which happened to be (loosely) the Yayoi era, and that’s where the wolf’s shrine design came from. I references a book on Japanese architecture for the design and modeled it in 3D (see the image above).
Likewise, for Natsumi and Hana’s house I found a blueprint of a modern Japanese dwelling and extrapolated that into 3D and tried to design interiors with a semi-Japanese aesthetic in mind.
A lot of what I know about Japanese culture comes from watching documentaries and cultural shows on NHK World such as Begin Japanology, Japanology Plus, and Journeys in Japan.

How much of a buffer did you like to keep when this project was active?

I was pretty poor at keeping a buffer. When I drew the first 32 pages, I thought it didn’t make sense to drip it out one page per week, so I released them all at once and then did chapter releases, but that would mean months could go by without new pages. Eventually, I settled on doing a page per week, but I had barely any buffer and struggled to keep up with it. I also took hiatuses to work on related Mortal Coil projects such as the Shrine.

Has anyone told you that you'll never be a successful artist and you'd be better off studying a real field and/or getting a real job?

Yes. I know my father did. He was a big believer in waiting till you retire to pursue your other interests, but he never really had his retirement, and he passed away last August. If anything, the uncertainty of death is reason enough to do it now.
But, the bigger critic was myself. I certainly didn’t think being an artist was a way to make money for me, and that’s why I turned to software engineering and kept my dreams of doing art and writing as a side gig.
Last year, I got laid off from my job, and it was a nice kick in the butt. I’m working with a friend and we formed a company called Prisma Wave Studios and made our first game Ollie and Flip over the last year. I’m still working on This Mortal Coil and I’m learning from both of these ventures side by side.

What message do you hope readers take away from your work?

For the readers of TMC, I hope they enjoy the stories and the mythology as it grows.

Another message that I want to impart to readers and indie creatives is that you can make something big from nothing. Passion is important, but discipline and open-mindedness is necessary if you want to build something. I want to show the behind-the-scenes and even teach the processes behind how I built this project into what it is.

What keeps you devoted to telling the story you’re telling?

The mythology of TMC is one reason to keep me invested in this. It’s something that’s been stewing in my mind for a long time (way before TMC became a thing), and it would be neat to see it materialized as a work of fiction.
Kamiko is the other reason. I’ve spent a great deal of time with her living in my head and I’ve tried to make her personality different than myself, so it’s interesting to explore her view of the world.

Rock on Glenn Song, we look forward to seeing what you'll come up with next! 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunday Revue April 24th: Doodling Around

Ladies and Gentlemen presenting Angelica and Rina and their act...

The cast of Doodling Around

Doodling Around is a slice-of-life anime webcomic created by the group at Skill:Draw. We follow Rina, Angelica and their group of friends through their day to day misadventures.

I'm a big fan of slice-of-life anime like K-ON, Genshiken, Working!, and Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, and if you're a fan of those shows, then this webcomic will be right up your alley.


A cute slice-of-life story about a group of friends.

The Raves

The art is a cute anime-like style and it's fairly consistent throughout the run of the comic. The lines are crisp and sharp on the finished comic pages.
I really love the expressiveness of the characters. Body movement and facial expressions are exaggerated for effect and it works well with the style and adds to the visual humor.
The exaggerated arm movements are overused but I like how silly it looks to have them all run like this.

There's a massive cast of characters and it helps that they each have a different silhouette. You can tell them apart at a glance (okay, except the twins, but they're twins...). There are several strong personalities that also help you identify who's who such as Tinaru's overzealous otakudom and Fieri's strong woman personality.

Height chart for all the characters
The romantic relationships in Doodling Around keep the readers invested in the characters. We want to see how Rina and Armando's or Chiqui and Pedro's relationship evolves and we're given bits and pieces of it within the other stories. I like that the plots don't just focus around the budding romances, but that they're present and guide character actions. In the amusement park story, when everyone is paring up, Chiqui and Pedro seem like an obvious couple but Fieri is quick to pull him away (she's the third vertex of this love triangle). The end result: I'm rooting for Team Chiqui. (Girl, you better step it up.)

This comic really grew on me as I read through the archive. The individual story arcs are hit and miss -- I mostly enjoyed the ones about the group's real lives going to comic conventions, hanging out, and getting into trouble at school as opposed to the more fantasy ones like the Clue episode or the Bumper cars, but that is personal preference.

I enjoy a lot of slice-of-life anime and that's what the writing reminds me of, which is both good and bad. What I love about Doodling Around is the warm, fuzzy feeling of being in a group of friends and the shenanigans they get into. After watching so many slice-of-life anime though there are various tropes that make many stories in this genre feel samey. The beach episode. The sleep over. The mid-summer festival. Doodling has it's fair share of that, but the creators of Doodling are Colombian and I like that, as a foreigner, I can get some insights into their culture -- like the latest story is about Vixen's QuinceaƱera. That's what sets Doodling Around apart and makes it interesting to me.

As for the presentation, the website fits the look of the comic. It uses the characters in the art which is a nice way to reinforce them. The social icons are done as doodles, and  the 'next' and 'prev' arrows animate when rolled over. It's fun and playful. I never felt bogged down by ads as they're restricted to the top and sidebar. The comic pages are large and readable.


I did happen to start reading Doodling Around during the week of their server upgrade, so I experienced some horrible lag on the site and resorted to the deviantArt mirror, but I'm happy to say that issue has been cleared up.
The only thing that ever bugs me about the art quality in this piece is the shading on Rina and Angelica's hair. It looks blobby and reminds me of a hazy airbrushed look. I'd almost rather they have harder-edged anime highlights to compliment the rest of the cel-shaded appearance. On further inspection, I see that most of the characters have that for their hair shading, but it stands out on the twins because they've got a ton of hair.

English isn't the first language for the folks who make Doodling Around. Sometimes the English translation is stilted and odd sounding or it's worded incorrectly, but I applaud them for making the effort to translate it into another language. It's double the work and I hope it's finding an audience in both languages.

I saw folks in the comments offer up suggestions to smooth out the English, but this is only after the strip has appeared online (not a bad way to get engagement though, if you want to look at it from that perspective). To do a translation before posting, you'd have to add another member of the team who could translate the scripts, or at least someone who can take the coarsely translated scripts and clean them up. I suppose you could try and look for a fan in the comments or in a webcomic forum and ask them to help with the translation. If you can't, maybe you could look for a freelancer on Fiverr to do it, but that may not be worthwhile since it'll cost you a pretty penny or delay the English release of each page if you decide to batch translate them.

For as much as I've discussed the issue, I can't really ding them. My parents didn't speak English as a first language (we're Chinese American), so I've always had to interpolate their broken English, and in reading Doodling, I did the same.

Comedy-wise, I found much of Doodling Around's humor to be more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, and that's on-par with most 4-koma slice-of-life manga. This actually seeps back into the discussion on language: if the joke isn't visual, then the dialogue would have to express it, but since much of the dialogue is stilted we lose a little of the "zing" that comes with a barb, or a joke, or a moment. For example:

Comedy is a subjective thing, and it's also a difficult thing to do, and I don't think there's really any advice I can give to improve it other than just try new material and refine it. What you find funny may not be what I think is funny so there's that bit of subjectivity involved.


If you like slice-of-life anime, then check out Doodling Around.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Saturday Revue April 23: Smallbug Comics

Having One Of Those Days?

Here's The Comic For You!

Next time you're having a sour day, stuck at the DMV or between classes, take a saunter over to Smallbug Comics. The work of Charles Brubaker and comprised of several gag-a-day series compiled, it's a nice diversion for those times when you need a deliciously cranky laugh.

The Rating

Diverting on a slow day

The Raves

At its best, Smallbug is a  piece of Sunday Funny quality, with short, sharp and insightful comments on the state of life and stylized pen-and-ink art that looks like it belongs in a long-running newspaper strip. It makes amusing observations on the human condition and at times points out things that we should notice more often in our daily lives, like the fact that we aren't nearly nice enough to one another or that marketing executives see the world in an entirely mercenary way. It's fun finding the little gems in this comic that you want to hang in the break room or stick on your fridge to furnish a daily little chuckle.

The Razzes

Unfortunately, those gems are embedded in an awful lot of dross. The creator doesn't seem to have a grip on what style they're doing, a longform story or a gag-a-day strip. This grows annoying when a joke drags on and on, and by the time we finally get the punchline it's often been drained of much of its amusement by the length. Frankly, no joke should go on for 11 pages. It just doesn't work unless you're Sir Terry Pratchett.
The sense that the eye is skipping panels to find the point is exacerbated by the hurried quality to some of the art, which gives the reader the sense that the artist just wanted to get it over with too.
To the creator I say this: take a page out of zen. Do one thing, do it well, and do not think about what comes next. You can do a great job when you're focused on one concept or joke. Expand on that, and quit dispersing your energy.

The Revue

Great for killing the time at the dentist's office, but not something to sit down and read on its own merits. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday Revue April 17th: Niebla

Come one, come all...
Hear the Tales of Arofa...
The floating continent beyond the clouds!

Page 1 of Niebla tells the origin story of the floating continent Arofa.

Niebla is written and illustrated by Ramon Espinoza and tells the tale of a young boy named Astor Adima. You can read it online or you can buy it from Corteza Editorial which has Niebla as a series of trades (at least I think you can). Here's Ramon's blog if you'd like to check out more of his artwork.


A grand fantasy adventure awaits you...


The art is a feast for your eyes. You could frame almost any panel of this comic and put it up in a gallery. Nothing is skimped on -- the backgrounds are well defined and painted with the utmost care. Check it out:

Amazing perspective of the capital city.

It's filled with lush colors:
There's even that shoujo thing with the pink blossoms floating around.
These aren't just illustrations but a world being built one frame at a time:
It's visually overwhelming in the sheer amount of detail put in every frame: the diverse crowds, the texture and coloration of the clothing, the decorative set pieces.

The establishing shot in this page above is great. Not only do we get a sense of the place and the scale of the situation, but the young boy running through is highlighted by splitting it into skinny panels to show movement and using a lighted path against the shadowed crowd to guide the eye along from left to right. Movement, composition, framing, and establishing the scene all in one go.

It's a marvel to look at all these pages, and I can see the countless hours spent putting every element in place. If you're going to do a high fantasy story like Niebla, you really can't cut corners. You're not just selling us a bunch of pictures that form a narrative, but building a world through all the bits and bobs in the background to give it a sense of place.

Oh, and what fantasy story isn't without a map:

No GPS to guide you around though...
Ramon says in his notes:

'I really hope you enjoy this little story, I can only say that I am very fond of it, and that I did put all my love and passion on it.'
Love and passion for sure.

There's not really anything to critique with the art. I'll only mention, and this really isn't a knock against Niebla, but sometimes the characters do look like posed and rendered CG models. I found myself asking that question as I read the story, because sometimes it feels obvious that they're CG and other times they look hand painted. I'd be curious to know.

As far as the writing goes, if you like your high fantasy stories, then you're bound to enjoy this one. It's well paced from page to page. There's royal intrigue, war looms on the horizon, monsters that were once thought extinct have now returned en masse. All of your fantasy is right here.



I feel like I read it before.

There are strange and mysterious things brought up in the first few pages to leave us with lingering questions as a guide through the story.

A boy is entrusted with his father's legacy and morality. He takes it to heart.

War is coming...and it does.

With dragons.

Astor eventually gets on his Joseph Campbell hero's journey.

Which leads to a lot of burly guys with impressive swords fighting skills (and fantastic art).

We learn of the "The Night of 7 Lamentations." You know this got fantasy-real when we're breaking out the overly dramatic phrasing.

Okay... but admittedly Astor killed a guy... okay, seven guys... seven nobles, so maybe it's warranted. 
Later, Astor meets magical tribal folk...

There's a lot of word salad when you begin this story: Ragna, Jusheina, Yeferi, Petrolchimist, Arofa, Aminias, to name some of the people and things in the story. It's a lot of jargon. You can sort out who's who, but I could never pronounce half the names in a fantasy novel and that didn't help when I had to remember who those people were thousands of pages later when they return. I'm also aware you can't just name your characters Tom and Bert because that -- oh right, that didn't stop Tolkien from calling his trolls that (for comic relief).

Niebla has the opposite problem. The character silhouettes are different, and I know who Astor and Jusheina are because we spend a lot of time with them, but some of the burly guys, knights, and even the red-headed Captain are generic. I know their faces but I don't know their names or they're not given names because they're sword-fodder.

These are the hallmarks you'd expect to find in a classical high fantasy story. There's nothing wrong with that if you're hankering for more of it. If so, come get some Niebla.

But, I've played a lot of Final Fantasy in my youth, read Wheel of Time, watched Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, done D&D sessions with friends, and encountered all kinds of fantasy themed stuff in-between, that follow similar story trajectories, and these days, I want something different. If you're relatively new to the genre, then everything here is fantastic.

Niebla being a longform story also has me asking: how long? Will we ever see the end of Astor's adventures? Ramon talks about illustrating this for a decade already and we have 120 pages, and I feel that we're still at the beginning of Astor's adventures.

It would seem that Ramon plus a few assistants working 16 hour days, 5-6 days a week on a deadline would be the only way to get this done. That's pretty much how most manga work. I'm not even talking about this from the consumer point-of-view of "will I get an ending for all my time investment reading it?" I'm talking from a creator's viewpoint: "Can I get this done? Will I run out of motivation and steam before it ends?" Money aside, a comic is a mental endurance race and you've got to have the brain stamina and force-of-will to keep it going.

I hope Ramon makes it, but the last update was December 2015.

Another thing I noticed about this comic was that most of it was uploaded online around September 1-4th of 2014. Only as recently as 2015 did the graphic novel begin serializing each Tuesday and it seems to have gaps here and there -- maybe because it's a passion project and Ramon has to pay the bills some other way.

Corteza Editorial though has printed the first few volumes of Niebla (presumably before Niebla showed up online in 2014), so maybe the first 94 pages or so come from that and Ramon is continuing it as a webcomic. Maybe Niebla makes most of it's money in print and the web is just an experiment or of lesser priority.

I can't help to think there's some missed community building and marketing opportunities though. A lot of pages were devoid of comments. Eventually, Ramon blogs at us. Later pages get likes on Facebook, but I wonder, if Ramon released Niebla 1-2 pages a week from his massive backlog, could he have cultivated more of a web presence and following than by dumping all the pages at once?

When I started This Mortal Coil, I released all 32 pages of my work all at once. My thought was that there needed to be something for the reader to sink his teeth into. It didn't make sense to release it a page at a time because they weren't gags and not every page had a cliffhanger. When I finished a chapter I would release those pages, but this odd, inconsistent schedule meant folks would never know when new pages came out. The moral of this story is that having a weekly presence was paramount and it's made some difference when I started doing it.

Of course there's a lot of marketing to do beyond that: social media, Patreon, ads via Project Wonderful, and voting on TopWebComics. Interacting with folks on #webcomicchat and so on. If anything Niebla's shown me that even having top notch art and a brilliant story isn't enough. If you build it, they still won't come. You're bytes on a server trawled through by spiders and bots, and as an author it can be difficult to find a real person amidst all that. Webcomic readers are a silent majority, if they are out there.


A familiar yet original fantasy story filled with lush settings rendered through gorgeous art.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Saturday Revue April 16:Art Of Monsters

Ladies And Gentlemen! Please Put Your Hands Together For

Today I humbly present for your perusal one of the most lucid explorations of humanity and human loss that I've ever had the pleasure to encounter. It's called the Art Of Monsters, it's created by Helen Greetham, it can be read here and bought here. And I include the buying link, because this, dear readers, is one you're going to want for your own.
The story revolves around Hui and her ailing master, what it means to love and what it means to lose, what it means to rise and what it means to fall.

 The Rating

Wonderful, powerful, witty and affirming.

The Raves

The Art of Monsters will charm you from page one. It intersperses moving emotional themes with dry and sidelong wit, mixing the perfect alchemical brew of fun, mockery, difficult issues and zen-like acceptance of life in its style.

In writing, this story has captured the style of folk tales; simple, lucid and powerful in its simplicity. Each of the characters stands for an archetype we can all understand; Starving Artist, Misunderstood Misanthrope, Beloved Master.  The issues explored are as old as our species; the strive to become something more than we are, the hatred of our personal weaknesses, the love we have for the special people in our lives and our desperate wish to hold back time and hold on to what we care about.
Because these concepts are so universal the personalities of the characters act as grace notes on the theme, and the creator needs to do little to flesh them out. But what they do is cheeky, witty and engaging. Through their writing we watch a monster gain a soul, we watch an artist gain humility and perspective, and we explore what really makes us human. Writers from Kant to Socrates to Sun Tzu have explored these issues, but I don't think any of them have been as funny about it, or included jokes about alchemical mistakes and ponies that 'accidentally' get eaten.
The artwork supports the feel of the story in its naive watercolor charm and gentle color gradients. There's a child-like, engaging quality to the work that belies its skill in perspective, pacing and framing, not to mention research! The amount of research the creator has put in to detail when capturing a particular place and time in history is phenomenal. Even the food on the table is period. Don't let the art's casual fun fool you, this is a piece that someone poured their heart and soul into.

The Razzes

I only have on piece of advice for the creator; you may want to work on your profile shots when drawing heads; when you draw profiles they often seem a touch flat and off balance. Unless I miss my guess, it's because the heads are a little too narrow. Try studying the face in profile a bit more...or just ask Hui for a skull to study, I'm sure she's got one around...

The Revue

Powerful, poignant and beautiful. One you'll want on your bookshelf.