Webcomic review: Strays
- Comic: Strays (1st page) by Samantha Whitten (Celesse) and Stacey Pefferkorn (Algy)
- Reviewer: Elena Cordero
- Status: Complete (386 pages)
- Art style: Digital, full color
Excuse the start of this review for a bit while I bare my fangs.
If you were to go visit the Strays homepage right now, the first thing you’d likely notice is the banner of characters that look like a parody of stereotypical DeviantArt OCs, and underneath that would be a post from September linking to the most recent Kickstarter. Off to the side of what is mostly the standard default webcomic site template, you’ll find links to the first and latest pages of this recently completed story.
If you dig around even further, amidst the ads and links you’ll find a final Q&A post where co-artists Samantha Whitten and Stacey Pefferkorn address various questions they anticipated from their audience. Without context, my first exposure to the comic and its writers involved the answering of important questions, including why the comic is ending so abruptly (as it was always meant to) and what was with that one plot hole that was never addressed (it’s now been retconned).
Other things you might notice upon first glance is the inconsistent art style between the banner and significantly higher quality donation buttons, suggesting nothing has ever been updated since the comic’s start in 2007. Following a quick look at the merely adequate summaries of the “About” and “Character” pages, you might finally take a look at the comic’s Archive, and realize that in the 8 or so years of this comic’s run, the total page count ends off at a little under 400 pages.
All in all, Strays did not leave me with a good first impression. It looked fairly amateur, albeit still among the best looking amateur works I’ve seen, to be fair. The general presentation gave me the impression of two teenage girls making a comic and keeping it going for a few years before stopping it once they got tired of it. At best, I was expecting average quality with expectations starting low, and Strays would have to jump through a few hoops if it wanted to impress me in the long run.
So how exactly did it turn out in the end? Well, let’s start at the beginning and ask what Strays is even about. It’s about a young wolf girl named Meela who meets a mute wolf man by the name of Feral. And… that’s about it. If the mention of an early and abrupt ending in the Q&A hadn’t tipped me off beforehand, I might’ve been disappointed by how little actually happens in the story, most of its actual content being heavily weighted to the last 100 or so pages.
Unexpectedly though, I’ll say that despite everything working against it, the story of Strays was a pleasantly refreshing surprise. Some of its readers might disagree, but it really does feels like the whole thing was planned from start to finish, bare boned and all. The Q&A from the future did not lie. Our end result is a story set in a believable world where all kinds of creatures and magic exist in a cohesive manner. The characters clearly live in a properly thought out universe that manages to poke itself through the cracks of the actual narrative. That universe just happens to be the setting though, merely guiding along the proper story, which instead focuses on the characters and their relationships.
At the start of the comic, the young preteen Meela is left on her own with no means to fend for herself, conveniently leading her to the mercenary Feral, and the two simply end up traveling together. Even as more characters are introduced and plot points become more complex, ranging from demonic magical seals and dead parents to political secrets and infiltration, the narrative never drifts into foreign territory for too long. We start with Meela and Feral’s relationship and that’s exactly where we end, with any detours delegated to mere mentions in passing.
In a way, I’m both surprised and impressed. The final page could easily have an “End of Act I” watermark, but Whitten and Pefferkorn did the smart thing and chose not to bite off more than they could chew. More than anything, Strays feels like two artists wanted to dip their toes into the medium of webcomics and decided to start with a simple project before moving onto bigger, better things. I almost regret writing this review before their next projects are properly announced, since I’m anxious to see what comes next for them.
Strays is most definitely a learning experience. I may have seemed harsh at first, but it’s hard not to joke at the expense of the “DeviantArt’s Best of 2005” catalogue we call our main cast. The art heads in a good direction though, eventually taking its heavily practiced anime style and adding a more modern and lush flair for detail that’s becoming more common among webcomics. Really, the art does a pretty good job chronicling the popular art trends of the Internet as the years went on, making for a fairly reliable time capsule to go back to in the future.
It’s not all going to be fond memories though. The comic’s simplicity left me impressed with its creators, but a learning experience is still just that. Meela starts off rather unrelatable, acting more like a bratty child getting in the way of other people’s work. She receives the most development by far, growing as any other 12-13 year old would, which makes her easy to warm up to. The ending, as divisive as it could potentially be among readers, wouldn’t have worked had she not grown into a likable character, so the end result seems to pay off, but it’s a bit of a trek to get there.
Alongside our heroine is Feral. Though we learn about his past and his involvement with the larger plot, none of it ever really becomes relevant to Feral as a character. His backstory serves more as an outlet for Meela’s development, with the wolf man himself having no real character or development outside of having a soft spot for children. Of the remaining cast, only one or two ever seem relevant, the rest coming and going as mere props for the story. This is Meela’s journey, and much like the regularly foreshadowed world of drama looming in the background for most of the story, we only ever catch minor glimpses of an enjoyable supporting cast.
The writing and tone of the story also reflects the era it came from as much as the art does, starting with a few silly anime style gags in between predictable episodic adventures. Character backgrounds get dark and edgy, verging on trying too hard a little for those who prefer more subtle tones. Even once the art and writing matures a bit, which admittedly doesn’t take long at all, very little of it pays off with anything major. Conflicts are infrequent, and often more subdued than their buildup would suggest. Plot twists keep our interest but matter very little in hindsight, and loose ends are all tied up rather uneventfully and hurriedly toward the end.
I suppose that is Strays’ biggest fault, that it’s surprisingly mature for the type of story it is. Most stories would build up tension as it goes along, and those that don’t usually did a poor job of maintaining a proper narrative. Strays fits neither category, instead being a pleasant read that takes a more realistic approach. One that actually feels properly set up once you reflect on the comic’s overall presentation.
Had it continued, Strays might have actually become a favorite of mine. I respect Whitten and Pefferkorn’s decision to end their story a bit early. It shows bravery and insight not all too common in this industry. In the end, the comic ends where most long-running comics would only be starting to get good, but Strays took the simpler route and calmly waves goodbye. It’s not every day I feel genuine respect for another webcomic artist on this level.
As it stands, however, the comic leaves plenty to be desired. It had potential, and I trust the artists responsible to have been more than capable of continuing that promising story. For whatever reasons though, they did not, and it’s probably for the best they settled on that decision from the very beginning. Whatever they work on next will be a good read, I’m sure, and Strays will be remembered as their meager, though still delightful, little appetizer.
- Good pace and overall development
- Doesn’t overstay its welcome
- Weak characters
- Many plot points go nowhere
- Story: ★★☆☆☆
- Artwork: ★★★☆☆
- Website: ★★☆
- Overall: ★★★☆☆
* Note that our rating system is much more strict than most and 4 stars are already reserved for comics which are significantly above the average in the specific regard.
* Note that the overall rating is not the average of the other three ratings, but represents the overall impression of the comic.