Webcomic review: Beyond the Canopy

  • Comic: Beyond the Canopy (1st page) by Jonathan Griffiths
  • Reviewer: Elena Cordero
  • Status: Ongoing with an irregular update schedule; 487 pages as of 28 May 2016.
  • Art style: Digital, first gray-scale, then full color since the start of chapter 7 on page 216.

As someone who harshly judges everything with an iron hand and cold black heart, I’ve encountered many reasons to judge a work negatively. The classic is calling something bad because it’s… well, bad. Aside from low quality though, you can also say something is boring, or overhyped, or fails to live up to its potential. There are many ways a story can leave you on a sour note, and mistakes like that are bound to happen. It’s understandable.

Beyond the Canopy

One word of caution I’d like to throw out to anyone wishing to get their work out into the world, though, is this: you can be bad, you can be boring, you can be comically sub-par, but for the love of god, don’t be forgettable.

Beyond the Canopy is a lighthearted comedic adventure fantasy by Jonathan Griffiths. Part of me is tempted to let that sentence be the entirety of the review, but that might imply that I’m being more negative in this review than is my intent. You see, Beyond the Canopy is by no means a bad webcomic. It has its strengths, and can be pretty charming, but sometimes the worst thing you can be is just “alright”.

Beyond the Canopy

At first glance, Beyond the Canopy does very little to meet you halfway in terms of getting you interested. The site layout goes for a minimalistic approach, having as few things cluttering the solid colored screen as possible, and the absolute minimum of links in the top banner. No “About” page or information on the author is found anywhere, and aside from a few typed out links, all you’ll really get aside from the comic itself is a series of simple character bios that don’t mean much in hindsight. Each comic is also accompanied by one of the briefest and to-the-point set of author commentary possible.

And none of this, absolutely NONE of it is a problem. All these traits have and will continue to be used by both clever and silly artists. Minimalistic site templates are aesthetically pleasing and less common than a default template. Character bios show off the cast in a colorful and cute manner, telling you more about the artist making them than the comic itself. And short, direct commentary also has its charm in getting a chuckle from the readers simply by how the comic is presented.

Unlike, say, an actual bad webcomic, Beyond the Canopy didn’t set off any red flags. It made me expect a cute and simple adventure with an author that doesn’t take himself too seriously and just wants his comic to speak for itself. This is admirable, and gets the job done for many successful and well written comics or all genres and tones. After all the cluttered messes that popped up over the years in this growing and uncertain industry, it’s nice to see more artists go for the more lighthearted approach.

The art compliments this lightheartedness rather well too. Everything looks cute and cartoony, more in line with children’s fantasy than traditional. Once the comic switches to colored pages they’re vivid, with a solid and simple palette, all with cute faces and silly expressions to keep invoke good, simple fun. Further into the comic we begin to see more creative creature designs, with exaggerated but still simple characters forming the basic art style. We even eventually see hints of the vast fantasy realm the comic is set in.

To go alongside all this, the comic boasts a very straightforward sense of humor that would be at home among modern children’s shows, never going for anything too clever or complex, but still doing its best to give occasional giggles at the goofiness on screen. Hardly anything in the writing ever stood out in particular, but it’s extremely clear that Griffiths wasn’t attempting a big epic with his playful story, instead settling for a charming light read.

Beyond the Canopy

If you want a cute adventure with simple and easy humor, then Beyond the Canopy is the comic for you. Unfortunately, so are several other webcomics that are much better, which is where the positive phase of my review ends. Try as I might, I can’t think of a reason to recommend this comic in particular out of the bountiful list of charming adventurous fantasy comics. This is ultimately the biggest curse of being average quality.

A good sign of how average Beyond the Canopy can be is its very plot, which can be summed up by the phrase “the adventure begins.” It opens with a young forest kid named Glenn, who literally stumbles upon the plot as vaguely evil people try to steal the magical stick guarded by Glenn’s grandfather. And I mean literally. It’s an actual stick. Like the kind you find on the ground. This is admittedly a clever use of the magical McGuffin trope that sets up so many fantasy stories, but sadly, the clever use of your standard adventure formula ends there.

See, the villains in the story work for the main antagonist, who’s a flaming skull head man that’s apparently just evil, and might want to take over the world. He wants the stick because of vaguely defined reasons and so Glenn steals it to keep it safe, because he is the protagonist and has to become important somehow. This is immediately brushed aside so Glenn can then hang out with his friends in town, followed by multiple chapters of flashbacks to previous shenanigans Glenn and co. have gone through. Over 400 pages in, the story finally kicks off once the main antagonist’s forces show up to retrieve the stick and Glenn is sent off on a vague adventure that, to be honest, hasn’t been given any purpose yet.

Not much has come out of this plot so far, with main events only occurring in the most recent chapters. The overall setup is very by-the-numbers, with little context given to anything aside from the obvious archetypes characters and settings are molded out of. Scenes are presented out of order or are accompanied by awkward exposition for no real reason other than the comic having to adhere to a basic formula, and the plot just sort of happens whenever the comic feels like it, regardless of how well the story sets it up.

Beyond the Canopy

Allow me to provide exposition about the Sovereigns to one of the Sovereigns. Once the reader’s caught up, we can continue this scene.

The story doesn’t go for much, and expects little from the reader, which isn’t really an issue. A simple approach could have worked, but the overall package here could really use just a tad more creativity to get things going. Beyond the Canopy is essentially a rough draft in need of a simple edit here and there. All its issues are minor, and a quick sweep of the messes left unchecked would have made a world of difference. As they are now though, these issues pile up too much and have too little support to reward patience or keep someone like myself interested. In the end I was left with too few highs and not enough disappointments to have any high hopes for the comic’s future. It’s stuck in a very awkward middle ground that might be improved in the future, or might not.

Being entirely fair, I have no reason to recommend Beyond the Canopy, but also no reason to brush it aside either. If you look at Griffiths’ art and think this comic is worth a read, you wouldn’t necessarily be wasting your time, and there are far worse things to invest in. I, personally, though, had low expectations which weren’t exactly met, and I’m not holding my breath for anything to change in that regard. I can only hope you enjoy a light read from time to time, because this comic is not one I expect many people to follow closely.

Strengths:

  • Cute but simple art
  • Light read

Weaknesses:

  • Predictable characters and plot
  • Awkward plot pacing
  • Very little stands out as noteworthy

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.


Back from my Vanessa Carlton concert tour

On Saturday, I came back from my vacation during which I visited all three concerts of Vanessa Carlton in Germany. She had a pretty big hit with A Thousand Miles back in 2002, but her subsequent albums have failed to reach a wide audience, which is a particular shame for her fantastic third album Heroes & Thieves, my favorite music album. I’ve been a huge fan of Vanessa Carlton for over a decade and I was ecstatic when I heard the news that she’s finally coming back to Germany after 13 years. She played in three small venues in Berlin (Wednesday), Cologne (Thursday) and Heidelberg (Friday) and it was a great experience to finally be able to hear her live for the first time. She played and sung very well and I was especially fond of the sound quality of the venue in Cologne, called “Stadtgarten”.

After the first show in Berlin, I managed to get autographs from Vanessa on several posters I brought along. She also seemed to like them, particularly the one with the comic strip, so I gave her a second poster package of the same posters as a gift.

Autopgraphs from Vanessa Carlton

  • The Sandra and Woo” strip [0435] I Don’t Want to Be a Bride
  • An illustration, drawn by Denitsa Petkova, of the first verse of my favorite song More than This:
    • Cradling stones hold fire bright
      As crickets call out to the moonlight
      As you lean in to steal a kiss
      I’ll never need more than this.
  • A portrait of Vanessa Carlton, drawn by Powree, sitting in front of a white piano on a meadow, loosely inspired by her music video for A Thousand Miles.

So if Vanessa Carlton ever played in a town near you, you shouldn’t miss the chance and see her if you’re at least somewhat interested in her style of music.

Here is the portrait of Vanessa shown above which I think is the best piece of Vanessa Carlton fanart curently available on the internet:

Portrait of Vanessa Carlton drawn by Powree

Before my concert tour, I spent five days in Berlin and I can only recommend it to any tourist in Germany. I enjoyed the really impressive architecture and museums. I also liked that the main attractions still aren’t overly crowded. For example, I was the only person in the room with the Nefertiti bust for a couple of seconds. The whole city also didn’t feel as “touristy” as, for example, Heidelberg. Hotel rooms in good locations are a bit pricy in Berlin, but the rest is rather cheap for such a metropolis.


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.

Strays

Excitement with every encounter!

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.

Strays

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.

Strays

My sentiments exactly.

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.

Strengths:

  • Good pace and overall development
  • Doesn’t overstay its welcome

Weaknesses:

  • Weak characters
  • Many plot points go nowhere

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.


No new comics next week, but will be published later

There will likely be no new comics next week since I’m going on a vacation. However, the two missed updates will be caught up on in the following weeks.


Webcomic review: The Forgotten Order

  • Comic: The Forgotten Order (1st page) by Christy Bontrager
  • Reviewer: Tom Speelman
  • Status: Ongoing; 1 new page every Monday; 194 pages as of March 26, 2016.
  • Art style: Digital, full color

In today’s literary world, where YA Paranormal Romance is a shelving category at Barnes & Noble and fantasy fills movie and TV screens everywhere—there’s a damn Shannara show on MTV now, if you want proof that nerds rule the world—it’s easy to forget that, for most of history, anything containing magic or monsters was consigned to fairy tales for children. Same with comics.

But given that most modern comics are created by fans for fans—the medium as a whole, not just superheroes, though that’s the biggest example—it’s hard to find work appropriate for younger readers. Particularly with webcomics which exploded in part due to creators being able to do whatever they want, however explicitly they wanted.

The Forgotten Order: Page 1

Thankfully, we have comics like Christy Bontrager’s The Forgotten Order which embody the best kind of storytelling: appealing to all ages while talking down to none. Adult connoisseurs of fantasy will appreciate Bontrager’s immense talent for worldbuilding and detail while kids and teens will find themselves relating to the struggles the heroines face.

Story

The plot revolves around Trystan Wicker–a sickly fauni child who, unlike the rest of her race and particular her triplets Mariwen and Merrick, has no aptitude for magic or spellcasting—and a “bone doll”—a sort of voodoo doll like talisman—who’s been alive for centuries but can’t recall anything about her past and frequently wanders through the mystical dreamscape while sleeping in search of answers. When Trystan comes across the bone doll in her uncle’s shop, she names her “Kay.”

Both Trystan and Kay have mysteries to unravel. Trystan wants to discover why she can’t do magic as well as every other fauni, which has led her siblings and mother to ignore her and her herbalist father to withdraw. Kay’s crisis is twofold. In addition to trying to figure out her own past, she keeps getting tangled up with a strange blue figure in the dreamscape who is more—and more sinister—than he seems.

The Forgotten Order: Chapter 2, Page 7

Bontrager states in the “about” section of her website that the completed story will consist of 3 multi-chapter books with the first book being almost completed as of this writing. The commitment to structure is evident from the beginning; like the best ongoing stories, this reads with the skill of knowing there’s an end but being surprised along the way. Of course, there are pacing problems early on; the first chapter is very long and could have been condensed.

Artwork

While most webcomics tend to show the artist’s skill greatly evolving over time (compare Faith Erin Hick’s Demonology 101 with her more recent work), The Forgotten Order has its style, look and tone down from the beginning (the comic has been running since 2011). Bontrager draws her world and characters with the vibrancy of Nintendo games and the depth of artists like Hiromu Arakawa or Erica Henderson.

Unsurprisingly, given Bontrager’s day job as an artist in the games industry, a lot of the story recalls video games. In her longing for acceptance, Trystan resonates the same way Sora did in Kingdom Hearts. The surreal dream world Kay ventures through recalls stuff like the opening of Ocarina of Time and the fantastical side of the Persona series. If anyone’s looking how to take the simple success of good video game storytelling and apply it to comics, this is a fine template.

Website

The Forgotten Order’s website is very simple to navigate. Built in a Comicspress-like format (although the site doesn’t say explicitly it’s built on the platform), the site has comments enabled through Disqus and a purple backdrop to evoke the owl that follows Kay around in the dreamscape. There’s also a drop-down archive for each page as well as links to the start of each chapter.

Conclusion

Because of the comic’s weekly schedule, it’s easy to catch up on. Furthermore, during chapter breaks, Bontrager does the traditional webcomic things like fan art contests and so on but has also serialized a couple of prose stories that flesh out the fascinating backstory of the Fauni people from both their perspective and that of humans. There’s a lot more going on than it appears and it’s entertaining and engrossing to watch Trystan and Kay navigate it. It’s a series worth diving into and sharing around.

Strengths:

  • An engrossing, compelling story with empathetic characters
  • A well fleshed-out fantasy world that has a lot of depth

Weaknesses:

  • Pacing problems in the early going

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.