Meta-review: Alpha-Shade

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Comic: Alpha-Shade by Christopher and Joseph Brudlos

Alpha-Shade is one of the last of the comics I started reading before I started reviewing comics (which is not to say I stopped reading new comics, but that later comics have been read with a deliberate eye toward reviewing). Indeed, my first review was on this comic, and several reviews have been written on it, due to the skill and artistry of not only the artwork of the comic, but of the storyline as well.

One aspect of AS that drew me in was its literary conventions. Like many a novel, AS started halfway into the story and drew us in with this tale of conflict and of a young woman general in a world with biplanes, tanks, huge mounted avians, and magical cats. (Naturally the magical cats caught the attention of the Kitten Collective, and they never cease to point it out as yet another sign of a cat’s inherent superiority to humanity. I get the upper hand; however, when I point out that they need me to pour them their milk…)

While we’ve not focused on any one character (with the exception of Laura, and even then she wasn’t the core character of the comic, but instead more of the axle around which the rest of the story was revolving about), we’ve still had glimpses of varied characters, glimpses that help make this band into one I want to learn more about. Likewise, now that we’re in the second chapter (which takes us back to what seems to be the beginning of our tale), my curiosity is piqued and I want to learn how this young gymnast managed to find herself on a fantasy world… and eventually a commander in an army.

That curiosity and story is what makes Alpha-Shade into such a superb comic, and also part of the reason I’m doing a Meta-review on them now.

Art – Inking: 4.5 ribbons
Art – Backgrounds: 5 ribbons
Art – Coloring: 5 ribbons
Art – Animation: 3.5 ribbons

Alpha-Shade started out a professionally drawn comic and has only grown from there. While I’ve read occasional comments here and there suggesting that older strips may have been touched up, I rather doubt the entire comic has been redrawn and I suspect that the older strips were still much more refined than early comics from say CRfH or CotC.

Most scenes include backgrounds or effective stratagems to explain away the lack of backgrounds. Indeed, if you view updates in the high-definition (ie, Flash) setting, then sometimes you will get little extras such as blinking lights or little links to teasers and the like. These extras are not necessary for the comic as a whole, however, and the comic itself sometimes borders on anime-level quality.

There is also an animated teaser trailer showing other aspects of the comic. It’s not meant to be an animated movie or anything; rather, it’s FLV format – flash video, but without dialog or acting (though it does have music and some sound effects). Thus, viewers are given a glimpse into the world of Alpha-Shade, with huge lumbering airships, tanks, infantry, and more. It’s not necessary for viewers to understand the comic. But there is a general “coolness” factor that the trailer brings to the comic. And seriously, how many comics are out there that have their own animated trailers? Not even Girl Genius has a trailer. Though I’m sure that Phil and Kaja Foglio would probably gleefully work on one if they had a spare moment.

I’ve noticed little improvement in the artwork of Alpha Shade in the time I’ve been reading. This isn’t saying much, however, as the artwork is superb (as I said above). I seem to remember reading somewhere that some of the earlier pages of AS has been redrawn (or touched up in many cases). This isn’t to say that reworking earlier art is wrong. Indeed, Demonology 101 did similar when Faith Hicks redrew the first storyline. Similarly, Gina Biggs also redrew and rewrote the first chapter of her comic Red String. It’s a long standing tradition that cartoonists are seldom happy with their earlier works. Heavens know that I removed the original web-comic of Tangents because I hated the artwork, and when I’m honest with myself I can even admit that the art wasn’t nearly as bad as I claim it was. (Well, at times at least.)

However, I remember reading somewhere that the Brudlos brothers decided to create Alpha Shade as a means of pushing the envelope. Alpha Shade is an attempt to create something bigger, greater than most other web-comics. If you look at traditional web-comics such as PvP or CRfH (I’m choosing those two as two of the older regular comics out there), you have comics that evolved into what they are today. Even CotC, for all of it being an epic comic, hasn’t much of a meta-story behind it.

(On the other hand, GPF has hints suggesting that the meta-storyline has been planned since its inception, especially if you examine the Keenspot Premium content, but GPF is one of the exceptions in terms of storytelling comics. And while it is well drawn, there’s something about AS’s art style that lends itself to the epic storytelling more than GPF does.)

Perhaps the closest comic there is in terms of epic storyline and fantastic art (and professionalism) would be Girl Genius. This is a comic that has from the beginning shown an epic storyline that promises to be truly great, and artwork that is among the best in the field. But Girl Genius comes from the opposite direction, having started out as a print comic and shifting over to the web-comic field to build up greater readership and interest, while Alpha Shade has worked from the other direction with a web-comic that is going to print as a graphic novel.

I won’t say that Alpha Shade can’t improve its artwork, as Joseph Brudlos keeps showing through touching up old pages that he is improving his artwork, and it is in a constant state of improvement. However, it is definitely among the best drawn comics out there.

Character Development: 4 ribbons
Character Chemistry: 4 ribbons

There’s a certain irony that Alpha Shade has been running for a couple years now, and 115 pages, and yet we don’t know much about the cast. Some of that has to do with the Introduction Chapter, in which we’re put in the midst of the action and the middle of a war. In the 90 pages of Book 1, we knew of one key character, Laura. This young lady was the commander of an army, working to overcome bureaucratic red tape in the Empire while fighting a war, and was successful enough that the enemy (and agents within the military) tried to assassinate her; indeed, the entire enemy operation in Book 1 was meant to kill Laura.

Further, Laura had endeared herself enough with her men that they jumped to her aid, to keep her safe. If a military leader is unpopular, then even though a man may be assigned to keep that leader alive, when push comes to shove they may hesitate or not work to their full potential to keep their ward safe.

Of course, part of this is that the men working to keep Laura safe are her friends. Indeed, in Book 2, we learn that Laura is a gymnast on Earth (or at least a world that seems much like Earth). (An interesting side note is that the V-symbol that Laura’s military force uses is the same V found on the computer in Peru.)

Even back on Earth, Laura is in some level of leadership; she appears to be the captain of the gymnast team in Book 2. Likewise, she has some knowledge of tactics, from how she is talked about by her boyfriend (whom we are introduced to through a tactical computerized war-game). And while computerized tactics (even against human opponents) isn’t the same as fighting a war with real people, the basic discipline needed to build a squad (whether it is for gymnastics or for combat) is basically the same. We’ve seen that early Laura has many of the skills and abilities needed to become the commander she is in the first chapter of the comic.

Another character who looks interesting is Molly. We’ve only really been recently introduced to her (while she does bear some resemblance to the soldier Sky in Chapter 1, I’ve had it verified they are two separate people), but in that time we’ve learned that something odd is afoot, something that has been building for months now. Further, she doesn’t want to be seeing these things (though I suppose any “normal” person wouldn’t; I’m not sure how that goes seeing as I’m definitely not normal!). Curiously, the representative of the Kitten Collective currently begging for food scraps there doesn’t react to the shadow-panther, which is rather odd as cats normally are quite sensitive to things humans normally can’t see.

Of course, it could be that our little feline there knows she could easily kick that shadow-panther’s butt if it tried to steal her food. Then again, considering how bug-eyed our little cat is in the final panel where the shadow-panther is seen… man, I’ve never seen a kitten do puppy-dog eyes before. (Ooooh, I’m so going to pay for that comment. They’re prepping the ribbons already…)

Undoubtedly we’ll get to know more about Laura and her friends as time goes on. They seem fairly essential to the story as a whole, or at least the ads in Comixpedia seem to imply this. (To be honest, this is what brought me to Alpha Shade to begin with; I enjoy stories about friendships and keeping those friends together and safe. It’s what makes many of my favorite comics of such interest to me. And it’s what will keep me reading Alpha Shade, even more so than the storyline.)

Story Continuity: 4.75 ribbons
Story Type: Storyline, Drama, Wartime, Friendship
Story Genre: Epic Fantasy

It isn’t exactly easy to determine the continuity of a story when it has only a hundred or so strips. Of course, when you consider the fact that these are full-page strips, in essence we have over 300 strips here to work from. Unfortunately, this is countered by the fact that after Page 90, we shift to an entirely new storyline.

The thing is, this is a deliberate storytelling choice here. Book 1 is meant to draw us in. We are interested in Commander Laura Stone, who is planning an attack using biplanes, artillery, and magical cats. But that was the teaser, meant to gather our interest while the Brudlos brothers build the story behind the rise to power of Laura, and her evolution from the captain of a gymnast team to the leader of men and women willing to die in battle for her.

From the notes I’ve seen and little bits like Laura’s watch being distinctive in both Book 1 (the future of the comic) and Book 2 (the past/present), there appears to be a bit of internal consistency. Add into this the fact they’ve written and plotted out a significant amount of the storyline in advance, it is more than likely that any plot inconsistencies will be explained away.

So, why only 4.75 ribbons instead of 5? It’s easy to forget something in the rush. Unfortunately (for me), there is considerable information available in the print compilations, information that may answer questions about the magical cats or the strange bird-like creatures, or why we have airships (that seem almost to run on anti-grav or maybe massive jet turbines letting them “hover” at altitude) and biplanes.

Or in other words, I’m hedging my bets. Just in case. Besides, 4.75 ribbons is still damn good. (And why 4.75 instead of 4.5 ribbons? Well, part of that has to do with the symbol that Laura uses for her army… a symbol seen on a computer monitor at the end of the first chapter, in Laura’s homeworld. It’s a fascinating touch and shows quite a bit of attention to detail.)

The story itself continue to grow and evolve, like a novel. Indeed, Laura and her friends (who have been spoken of in advertisements) seem not to be central to the happenings that somehow drag them from their Earth to the world in Book 1. Instead, they are likely to be accidental debris swept along for the ride. What remains to be seen is just how many people will be dragged into this other world. And what will be the catalyst to turn a young athlete into a leader of men and women, during a time of war.

Rating: PG-13 (Once again the kittens have had their attention dragged away from their yarn balls… I think they’re fascinated by those other telepathic kitties. Not to mention wanting snacks from Molly there…)

Alpha-Shade is rated PG-13, due to graphic violence and some language. This violence isn’t a bad thing, mind you. I for one feel that if you’re going to tell a story about a war, then you tell the story, not cover up bits and make it into something cozy and comfortable. I remember an old TV cartoon, “G.I. Joe” in which the enemy (or good guys) would always escape their vehicle just before the missile hit or the like. At the end of each episode, hundreds of terrorists would be led away with their hands behind their heads, going to jail.

Real life doesn’t work that way. People die in conflicts. People die in war. Good people, bad people, it doesn’t matter. To pretend this isn’t true just glorifies fighting, and makes it into a lie. This doesn’t mean I think any child should be allowed to read this story; while it’s a fantastic tale, parents shouldn’t just ignore their responsibilities because of a rating. Indeed, parents should talk to their kids about what they thought of stories like this, and what questions they have.

But I’ve said this before, and will likely do so again, so…

Punctuality: Approximately weekly, on a per-completed basis.

Much like Malakhim, this comic updates intermittently. This is because the Brudlos don’t want to rush perfection. Updates can come as soon as three or four days after the previous update, or take a week or more to happen. Fortunately, there is a progress bar on the high-definition Flash-driven page to let you know where the progress is.

Unfortunately, that bar isn’t always upkept. Sometimes it will languish at 10% for days, and then next thing you know it’s at 90%. It’s a nice concept, very much like Aleph’s progress window on the main page of her site, but sometimes things come up and it’s not kept up to date. Also, you do need to access the Flash-driven page to access this function; there isn’t an equivalent that I’ve seen in the html page.

Still, if you check every few days, you’ll likely be able to keep up with the comic.

Overall: 4.5 ribbons

Alpha Shade is an ambitious project, and a superb comic. It is easily among the best out there, and in another year it will likely be the best, once there is more story behind it, and a better feel of the characters. We’re still learning about the characters. We’re still getting a feel as to how they interact, and the chemistry between them. Still, the comic shows considerable promise, and I look forward to each new update.

Unfortunately, there are aspects of the comic that I cannot report on because I do not have the print compilations. The background information found in the Alpha Shade Chapter 1 Graphic Novel could be pertinent to understanding some aspects of the comic, or learning more about the characters. I understand why it was done this way, and when I eventually get my hands on a print compilation, I’ll definitely revisit it (maybe I’ll do a review section for print compilations?).

Despite this, the comic proves to be a work of art and storytelling that is quite intriguing and draws you in. You’ll want to read more. When you’ve finished with the archives, you’ll be left wanting more. The truly superb comics do this, and Alpha Shade has managed to do that.

That is not to say that problems don’t exist for the comic. While the Brudlos make an effective use of Flash in their comic, not all computers are able to handle this. Dial-up users will find that load-times of the strips, even on the html pages, takes a bit. And the html pages hide the links, so it is not easy to provide links to specific pages (which is why all of my links in the review lead to jpegs rather than specific pages).

These are a couple of reasons that Alpha Shade didn’t score above 4.5 overall, but it was a close thing. No doubt there are good reasons for the site to be designed the way it is, but it does make things difficult to send people to specific parts of the comic, and generally discourages links in general. The browser problems aside, however, this is still a fantastic comic and deserves to be among the best of the comics I’ve already reviewed.

This is the next generation of web comic. Previous comics have started out as a mixture of joke and character, gradually evolving into storylines. Sluggy Freelance did this, as did College Roomies from Hell. Hell, even story-oriented comics like Clan of the Cats or Schlock Mercenary didn’t have a definitive storyline before them, at least not at inception.

Alpha Shade is a different sort of beast. There is a definitive plot here, with a deliberate beginning, middle, and end. Interestingly, it starts in the middle, showing that this is deliberate, that there is a specific story that will be followed. (Whether the story will be fairly fixed in form, or evolve as has other such story comics like GPF or Narbonic remains to be seen.)

It draws a line in the sand, and challenges future cartoonists to do the same. It challenges us all to take web comics and turn them from the evolution of story and art that so many are, and become professional and focused, in art and story.

It is a challenge others will answer, and will change the face of web comics for all time. That I’m sure of.

Robert A. Howard

Addendum Notes: Soon after this review went up, Chris Brudlos posted a reply to the review (letting me fix a link going to the wrong image for starters). In it, he posted some of the older artwork for Alpha Shade, showing how the comic has evolved in time and verifying that some of the older pages were touched up and in some cases redrawn. Planes had unit markers added, faces were redrawn, effects modified or replaced. (While I’d originally thought the comic was done using Photoshop, I’ve been told that in fact the entire thing was done using Flash. I’d not known that you could use Flash for that; I’ve not used the program myself, and tend to think of Flash as used more for animation than regular graphic design. But hey, you learn something new everyday…)

The graphic style also moved away from the manga roots that honestly do remind me of some cells I’ve seen of anime series (Bubblegum Crisis 2030, for instance). One thing that I personally find interesting is that noses have taken greater prominence in the revised panels, which helps to further move the comic from looking like something out of an anime and into an excellent style that definitely suits the comic.

And the extras in the book were explained slightly further. They’re more incentives to buy the books (which I intend on doing in time) than a necessity to understand what’s going on. (Though I still am curious as to what’s in it. But hey, they explain the cats further. And you know me and cats…)

Finally, I stick by my assertion about preferring more traditional web page formats. While low-bandwidth users can easily type in the URLs of specific page images, doing so does eliminate the usefulness of page links or the pull-down menu. But that’s a gripe that affects the reviewer more than the reader, and probably resulted in many of you actually finishing one of my reviews instead of getting distracted by all the pretty links. Rob

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