Breaking All Barriers 012 – Outtake

Here you can see the only fully sketched Gaia page which was scrapped entirely before publication. I came to the conclusion that this page was slowing down the action too much during the already slow start of the current chapter. So I decided to only use the next page with the photographs to show how Viviana and her new friends had a good time at the party.

I used Viviana’s line from the 5th panel just one page ago so I didn’t want to post this page earlier. I’m also still fond of the characters’ funny facial expressions in this page, especially of Lilith’s in the last panel. The joke doesn’t work that well, though, which was another reason to scrap the page.

Breaking All Barriers 012 - Outtake


Character occurrence frequency 2011 to 2015

Here is a diagram that shows how often the main and supporting characters of Gaia appeared in each year. Note that there were only 28 pages in 2011. You can click on the image for a larger version.

Character occurrence frequency 2011 to 2015 in Gaia

Number of new pages per year:

  • 2011: 27 + 1 cover
  • 2012: 95 + 1 cover
  • 2013: 84 + 2 covers
  • 2014: 99 + 1 cover
  • 2015: 101

Gaia must be one of few webcomic that updates more often with time.


Webcomic review: Chirault

  • Comic: Chirault (1st page) by Ally Rom Colthoff (Varethane)
  • Reviewer: Robert Howard
  • Status: Ongoing; updates on Monday, Wednesday, Friday; 930 pages as of 29 December 2015
  • Art style: Markers, Grayscale with occasional color

There is an old saying that authors need to hook readers with the story’s first sentence or risk losing the audience entirely. This is a bit of an oversimplification, especially as the majority of readers will stumble across a comic after it had been updating for some time. As such, many webcartoonists will go for a slow build rather than rely on that first page to hook the reader. With Chirault, cartoonist Ally Rom Colthoff (Varethane) has gone for a more cinematic feel to help introduce the story’s underlying plot. This may not have been the best choice, however, as readers who do jump to the prologue end up going from a dozen pages with magitek, shielded cities, and efforts to deal with overcrowding before plunging into the middle of a forest with a young tailed girl getting shrunk to the size of a mouse.

At its core, Chirault is an epic fantasy. As such it follows many traditional tropes found in the genre. The prologue’s glimpse at the larger world and story before shifting to the stories of the dual protagonists, Kiran and Teeko, is part of that tropic journey and as the comic develops readers are introduced to their stories, their backgrounds, and what drives and motivates them. Intermingled in that, is a periodic return to the larger plot until the two are woven together. Needless to say this isn’t a fast process; Chirault has been updating for eight years and while it appears to be approaching a final climax, the archives do contain over 900 pages of story updates.

Story

Chirault has one of the more interesting settings I’ve come across in the 15 years I’ve been reading comics; instead of the traditional fantasy races drawn from Tolkien and adapted by fantasy roleplaying, the pointy-eared inhabitants of this world are in fact human. Our main protagonists, Teeko and Kiran, are demons – nonhumans who have nominally been accepted into human society, though both have been discriminated against… Kiran more so than Teeko, though how much of Teeko avoiding the ire of various people is due to her diminutive size remains to be seen.

The “monsters” of this world aren’t the typical fantasy fodder; we have tree spirits (both benign and hostile), strange gangrel monsters that hunt humans (and who Kiran in turn hunts as part of his job), mind-control crabs, and other stranger things as well. Humanity mostly lives in small villages, often hidden in the ever-present forests, and several cities allowed in some ancient treaty with the forest spirits. Naturally, it’s humanity’s efforts to circumvent this ancient treaty behind the meta-plot… and eventually the readers – and cast – learn that the experiment which ends up driving the story has its roots many years earlier.

The initial 100 pages of the comic have a leisurely pace with no actual links between the larger plot and the story of Kiran and Teeko. Seeds are planted with the theft of the artifact the larger story sprouts from, but much of Kiran’s initial story is of his job as a monster-slayer, while we watch Teeko come to terms both with her new minuscule size and her efforts to befriend Kiran. The latter takes time as Kiran seems very much the outsider used to being alone, and it takes a lot of time before he overcomes this tendency.

While Kiran is nominally the primary “hero” of the story, I’ve found that Teeko tends to fill the protagonist role. My impression of Kiran is someone who reacts to things, while Teeko is the character who seeks to learn more and who helps draw Kiran out of his shell. She is also quite impetuous which naturally enough gets her in trouble – but if she needs bailing out from time to time, it’s because of her size rather than being a girl. This includes her learning magic as her non-human nature can make the magic less stable.

As the story commences, Kiran and Teeko are joined by three others; a mage named Astrid, a village warrior named Bethan, and a hanger-on named Aaron. Unfortunately, Aaron never really stood out for me; I’m not sure if that’s because Aaron was an everyman or if it was because nothing that interesting happened to him, unlike Bethan who fought to protect her and Aaron’s village and who had paid a price for her bravery a couple of times. And as for Astrid, a combination of his smugness, which rubs Kiran the wrong way, and his connections with the greater plot help him to become a more integral part of the story.

Other secondary characters help round out the story, both in expanding on the larger plot and in developing the word. Of these, Heryan is one of the more significant characters who helps drive the artifact storyline, while her comrade Rune’s links to Astrid is responsible for bringing Kiran and Teeko – and Astrid, for that matter – into the larger plot. Likewise, the story’s antagonists appear to have some link to Kiran himself and it seems likely their role in Kiran’s mysterious pass will come to light as the story starts to wind up toward a climax.

Artwork

As with most long-run comics, Chirault’s artwork has improved over time. The seven-page prologue actually uses newer art, and then goes back to older art. The comic has been collected into print collections which include updated artwork and likely revamped lettering. Unfortunately, some of the lettering in the older art leaves much to be desired and it can prove difficult reading the comic. After the first 200 or so pages, the dialogue tends to stabilize as the cartoonist improved his hand-lettering technique.

Varethane actually goes over his artistic method at the bottom of the About page, with the process including a brush pen to ink his pencils and markers for the greyscale. The dialogue itself tends to change according to what can fit in the speech bubbles and during the drawing process, which has resulted in changes to the script itself. While I’d not recommend the approach to new cartoonists, it does provide the cartoonist with a more organic flow to the strip as changes come organically; no doubt the larger plot itself has remained unchanged.

For the most part, the art works nicely with the story. There is an organic feel to the art and while at times the lines related to tree spirits and the like can get confusing, the line art and greyscale tends to work nicely. Color work appears in several places; primarily the colors are used in cover pages for each new chapter, though a short story on Astrid’s origins is fully colored with markers.

Website

Chirault’s website is fairly easy to navigate, and includes a top bar with links to a basic Cast page with a thumbnail of the characters that includes a hyperlink to their first appearance, their names (with one exception), and a one-line tongue-in-cheek comment on the character. Other links include an Archive page, various social media pages including Twitter and Tumblr, and a store where readers can purchase either a print copy of the comic, or a PDF with the newer art.

Conclusion

While the comic takes its time in developing the larger plot, a combination of an organic art style which stands out from most of its contemporaries, a world unlike pretty much any fantasy comic I’ve come across to date, and enjoyable characters helps make this comic an enjoyable read. Despite the problems with lettering some of the earlier comics suffered from, on the whole this has been on my reading list for years now and hasn’t disappointed. I definitely recommend it, especially for people interested in something that isn’t just more of the same old same old.

Strengths:

  • A unique and interesting setting
  • Fairly concise story without dangling plotlines

Weaknesses:

  • Problems with lettering of early comics
  • The art can be confusing at times

Rating:

  • Story:   ★★★★☆
  • Artwork: ★★★☆☆
  • Website: ★★★
  • Overall: ★★★½☆

* 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.


The evolution of Viviana and the Shadowdancers

When Gaia was developed as a campaign for the PC game Neverwinter Nights 2, important parts of the story were completely different. The role of Viviana and the Shadowdancers has probably changed the most with respect to the already published chapters:

  1. Viviana was a regular member of the Shadowdancers who only joined the group of heroes right before the jailbreak.
  2. In the subsequent chapters, Viviana was the least important member of the group. She had the fewest appearances and practically no impact on the overall story.
  3. There were no romantic feelings between her and Ilias at all.
  4. The Shadowdancers were a classical thieves’ guild led by a shady middle-aged guy as you’d expect it from a D&D campaign. Their members were in general much less likable.
  5. It took the heroes much longer to convince the Shadowdancers of helping them. Ilias & Co. had to carry out several dangerous quests for the Shadowdancers. I still really like some of the quests, but the pace of the story would have become way too slow with more than just the short party quest.
  6. The party quest was written by my mother, by the way. Just like a huge part of the rest of the original story. However, almost none of the lines written for the game have ended up in the comic since it would have become way too wordy otherwise.
  7. The heroes’ contact person at the Shadowdancers was an apt female thief named Jael Nightingale who did not appear in later chapters. Viviana in the comic is like a mixture of Viviana and Jael Nightingale in the game. That’s the main reason why I’ve chosen Jael as Viviana’s given name.
  8. The country of Ileasaar did not exist in any shape or form in the game, not even in such things as item descriptions.
  9. Instead, there was a criminal rebel group in Aracona which played an important role as antagonists of the Shadowdancers.
  10. There is a reason why Viviana has these visions and it will be (partially) revealed in this chapter… dun duun duuuun. 😉

I think that Viviana has become a much better character in the comic than she was in the game and I’m proud of the result of her transformation.


Webcomic review: Fey Winds

Below, you can find the first fantasy webcomic review, written by Elena Cordero. Please note that we’re still working out some details about the structure of the reviews, so future reviews may look a little different.

  • Comic: Fey Winds (1st page) by Nicole Chartrand
  • Reviewer: Elena Cordero
  • Status: Ongoing; 1 new page per week; 401 pages as of 27 November 2015

Tone is one of the most important aspects in a work of fiction. It is what keeps the audience immersed and conveys what the writer wants them to feel. Without proper tone, a fictional work can feel disjointed, confusing, unengaging, or just plain unpleasant. Thus, tone is arguably one of the most important things to decide when beginning a story. In reviewing Fey Winds, a comic by Nicole Chartrand, I’ve run into an dilemma.

Fey Winds

Like most fantasy stories, Fey Winds begins with a much lighter tone than what it will eventually become. Typically, these stories will leave hints of what’s to come, which Chartrand does succeed in; that’s not an issue here. The Fey Winds site has more than one page dedicated to providing information on the characters, races, and regions within the story, and the comic itself opens up with a rather serious history lesson regarding an ancient war, albeit, a very brief one.

Fey Winds succeeds in getting viewers engaged right away, there’s no denying it. It’s premise is quite simple. Long ago, a mystical being called the Sylphe ravaged the lands during a great war. Eventually, she turned on her masters and disappeared from the world, but not before leaving behind trinkets of great power and value. Our protagonists are a group of adventurers in search of these trinkets. Why? Doesn’t matter. The readers are thrust into a story that’s eager to get started, full context or not.

Within five pages, the setting, backstory, and our main characters are introduced, all in mere sentences. Our cast consists of a fox who was turned into a human, a swordsman magically bound to go wherever she does, an elf who’s routinely possessed by ghosts, and a runaway prince who can turn into a dragon.

The humorous tone of the comic is quickly set alongside our unusual protagonists, complete with The Legend of Zelda references and silly faces. Throughout the first couple of chapters, it quickly becomes evident that our main heroes are not afraid of cracking one liners and jokes at the expense of themselves and the fantasy tropes they come across. Now as I said, it is incredibly common for fantasy stories to display their lighter side up front, and Fey Winds is smart enough to present itself in a more serious light for those with the habit of checking “About” pages prior to reading.

The art also helps, with a bit of manga inspired style that’s flexible enough to fit any tone ranging from silly to deathly serious. As the story progresses, the art evolves enough to get some good action scenes thrown in. Panoramic shots and magic filled page spreads become slightly more common, character designs get a surprising amount of detail despite their sillier origins, and you eventually get an acceptable level of lush art most would expect from high-end fantasy.

Fey Winds

So our tone is now set: lighthearted goofy fun that’s not afraid to get serious as we eventually go more in depth. All in all, we have here the recipe for a fairly enjoyable story that, at the very least, promises to be of acceptable quality. You have your jokes that know when to poke fun at cliché but still necessary aspects of fantasy storytelling, and following this, you have the bare minimum of lore to make the fairly well drawn world feel whole.

So where’s the dilemma, you may ask? What is the fly that spoils this solid recipe I’m praising so much? Clearly I will pull a 180 and reveal the flaws that drag this comic review into the ground, because that’s what cynical critics do, right? (See that? That’s called lampshade hanging, and you’d best develop a taste for it if you wish to enjoy Fey Winds.)

Fey Winds
Exhibit A

Well for starters, the humour can be a bit much. It’s hard to say the balance of humourous and serious tones is maintained well when phrases like “le sigh” and “omg hax” are sprinkled in ever so infrequently enough to feel jarring every time they pop up. It could also be because the lore presented alongside the comic is hardly ever touched upon in the comic itself, serving more as a glossary than anything else. Or maybe I just don’t like how the pages felt too small at times and the border surrounding the comic is just bright green space, making early pages a bit of an eyesore. It could be a lot of things.

For me, the real kicker is that, a mere two chapters into the story, out of what is currently 12 and counting, everything established is thrown out the window.

After getting little to no time to see our heroes interacting with each other, we’re introduced to our first main villain. Backstories suddenly become complex, revealing connections surprising enough to be consider spoilers despite happening so early in. Our villain’s goals and the main protagonist’s role in it are suddenly brought out and change what little we know about the story completely. All at once, the comic’s more serious tone comes charging in at full force.

And now, some readers give their best “ahhhh now I get it” as my nitpicking comes full circle. My introduction to this comic felt like it was establishing a lighthearted adventure with a touch of serious mode thrown in. Despite the characters being a bit too silly or on-the-nose at times for me, I was still relatively sold on the premise. What I at first thought was a cheerful fantasy adventure, though, was in actuality a very lengthy and extended prologue, setting up our characters and who they are before the plot literally ambushes them when they least expect it.

I return to what I said at the beginning of the review. Fey Winds has presented a dilemma to me. One that makes a standard review formula quite difficult, to be honest. You see, it can be a problem when a story just shifts tone suddenly. Some people might think it’s jarring when we have enemies called “The Minionz” in the exact same chapter as one where a character is violently tortured by our true antagonist. Others might feel it was not necessary to establish backstories that will become completely irrelevant or exposed as flat out lies a hundred pages later. There’s a lot in Fey Winds to make you raise an eyebrow.

But this doesn’t have to be an issue, in all fairness. I can’t exactly blame the comic completely for my own expectations. The humour doesn’t outright stop once the plot kicks in, and the lore and setup was all there, making sure I knew exactly what I was getting into. What really matters is how the story develops after it gets going, regardless of the time it takes to get there, so a sudden tone shift less than a quarter into the story is a rather minor offense, is it not?

Fey Winds
Our heroes seem to agree, at least.

But the thing is, nobody likes it when a story holds off on the main course for too long. A solid start and fairly developed follow-up can and will be ruined if the transition between the two is too sudden and awkward. For some, the warning of how abrupt these shifts are is concerning, regardless of how interesting the resulting storyline is. For others though, they are minor nitpicks that don’t detract from the big picture, as long as all you care about is the overall experience and knowing there aren’t bigger issues plaguing a comic.

This was my dilemma. Fey Winds has good art and a unique world. The characters are likable and the story goes interesting places, even if it doesn’t explore those options as much as one would prefer. There are flaws, but they can range from deal breakers to minor infractions, depending on why you read webcomics in the first place. The comic delivers exactly what I expected from it and provided an adequate adventure once it eventually got the misshapen ball rolling. How far that gets you will have much mileage. It will not be your new favourite, but there is enough here to potentially overlook its flaws for a rainy day.

Fey Winds is, at the very least… acceptable.

Strengths:

  • Quick and simple start

Weaknesses:

  • Awkward tone shifts/clashes

Rating:

  • 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.