Meta-review – Pastel Defender Heliotrope

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Comic: Pastel Defender Heliotrope by Jennifer Diane Reitz

I first ran across Jennifer Diane Reitz on the El Goonish Shive forum board. Jennifer’s posts were intelligently written, touching upon some truly fascinating issues, and showed an active and fascinating mind behind them. Much of her interest was on transgendered issues and on the concept of trying to find out the truth of who and what you are. (In this, EGS is well-suited for her interest, as several characters in the comic are more than they appear, whether it’s the shape-shifter Grace or Elliot’s female doppelganger and adoptive sister, Ellen.) I eventually clicked the link beneath her posts and came across her webcomics.

Pastel Defender Heliotrope is in many ways a sequel to her first webcomic, Unicorn Jelly (which ran from Sept. 5, 2000 to April 14, 2003). PDH is a tangential storyline linked to the distant past of UJ, the horrific event that started the Stormfall in the Tryslmaistan universe. However, what was thought in Unicorn Jelly to have been a horrific weapon ended up being something else; an attempt to send the humans displaced into Tryslmaistan back to their home universe that went horrifically wrong.

As UJ itself was in some ways a means to comment on society and our own world, so too is the world of PDH used to bring attention to the human failings evident in so many of us, and of the dangers associated with blindly following government, church, or even one’s own beliefs. Even more than that, PDH is the story of a young entity’s growth in an alien world in circumstances that are less than tolerant.

But PDH is more than just a glimpse through the looking glass at our own world, distorted in Alice’s eyes. It is also a glimpse into the imagination of Jennifer Reitz and a look into realities that are far beyond what you will find with Heinlein or Lovecraft. It is hard to imagine how this story could be told with the cold hard sterility of text alone. It is the imagery and artistry of this comic that brings it to life and brings us along for the ride.

Art – Inking: 4.5 ribbons
Art – Backgrounds: 4.75 ribbons
Art – Coloring: 5 ribbons

One thing that I grew to realize the more I reviewed comics is that there is one true way of improving one’s artwork: practice. Those comics that update most often will often have the best improvement of their art. If you look at the early works of Unicorn Jelly and then the last few, you can see this evolution of style and skill. Jennifer went from a young lady with the seeds of talent to a truly skilled artist. She took these skills with her when starting up on PDH.

It’s interesting then to go through the art of PDH and watch how it changes and flows. Jennifer doesn’t limit herself to one form. Instead, she shifts from style to style depending on her mood and the mood of the comic itself. One instance is the character of Dr. Aoi, whose nose can vary from a cartoony beak to a realistic (and large) nose in one strip. Likewise, PDH itself ranges from cartoony to realism to manga in a matter of a few updates, depending on where Jennifer is going with the story.

One such instance was the fight between the comic’s heroine Heliotrope and Chartreuse, a girl whom Heliotrope previous saved from a suicide attempt. This battle is shown in a golden-age comics style (and the comments below talk about classic “superhero vs. supervillain” stories that started centuries ago in mythology and is continued even here in PDH).

Another thing of interest is watching Jennifer experiment with coloring. One subtle effect Jennifer used is her drawing noses through shading rather than with the classic flipped “7″ that many artists use for noses, or the more “cutesy” and cartoonish “c” nose. (Of course, Dr. Aoi’s nose is entirely too huge to not draw in.) The shading and coloring that goes into an update of PDH is absolutely amazing, possibly surpassing the skills of Jamie Robertson (of CotC fame). Considering I feel Jamie is at the top of his game with coloring, this is no little praise.

But where Jennifer truly excels is in her landscapes. The universe of Pastel is alien to anything we’re familiar with. Their worlds are rectangular blocks, each side with its own gravitational attraction (and indeed, which way is “down” in a world without true gravity?) but without following the mass-driven gravitational fields we’re familiar with in our own universe. Tryslmaistan itself (from UJ though the Tryslmaistan universe does appear in the comic) is a universe of triangles and triangular shapes. Yet another universe glimpsed for but an instant is a series of ring-worlds, looking for some god-like hand to reach down and put each world on its fingers. These worlds appear to be something from Escher’s imaginings but taken to the next level, with a thought as to what might exist in these worlds and how they might exist within them.

Character Development: 3.25 ribbons
Character Chemistry: 3 ribbons

PDH is a comic about a golem named Heliotrope. There’s a specific reason I name her “golem” as not only Jennifer thinks of her as such, but Heliotrope herself mentions the story despite the fact it does not exist in the Pastel universe. And while the comic is about Heliotrope, we don’t actually get introduced to her until the comic itself had run over a year. Everything leading up to that, from the very first comic to the exploration of other universes were pieces leading up to Heliotrope’s “birth” and the events that would change the culture of Pastel forever.

Heliotrope starts out as a child in an “adult” body. Part of this has to do with the fears her “papa”, Dr. Aoi had concerning the Omnipitor that empowers Heliotrope’s form. The first two times Aoi “activated” Heliotrope, it was for relatively short periods of time. However, when Chartreuse (a former student of his) went berserk he activated Heliotrope to deal with her, and while doing so she met Fuschia Shiro, who became a friend, lover, and advocate. Fuschia forced Aoi to let Heliotrope continue to live, with a little media attention, and it’s then that Heliotrope begins to grow as a person.

Unfortunately, we’ve not seen much of that growth. Instead, we skip ahead. Heliotrope goes to school and starts to learn and is in a relationship with Fuschia and all thatÖ and she goes from child to young woman in that time. Some aspects of her still are child-like, but others are entirely too mature. Without seeing these steps and this progression, it’s difficult to really get a hold on Heliotrope’s personality, especially as she’s only been “alive” and an active part of the comic for so few updates.

Fuschia Shiro is the second part of this story, and she’s an essential part of PDH. Fuschia is a young lesbian in a society that is strongly patriarchal and also strongly prejudiced against homosexuality. She appeared early on in the story, with a mother who threatened her life when she came out of the closet. Her father doesn’t know of the threats (well, the initial one at least) or of his daughter’s homosexuality, but when she turned down a marriage offer from a young man, he did keep her location safe from his wife (who apparently again tried to hurt Fuschia).

In many ways Fuschia is a strong young woman who’s been tempered with adversity and prevailed. She didn’t let it drag her down or turn her against others. Instead, despite what she’s gone through she’s kept her innocence and belief in people. What truly makes her stand out is something from outside. Fuschia was chosen by some entity as the personality template for another character, one from the Tryslmaistan universe, one that is trying to get at the Omnipitor that animates Heliotrope.

I’m not sure if Cursor counts as a main character or not. While it hasn’t appeared in many comics, Cursor is a manipulative presence in the comic, and one who is the most mysterious. It is driven by a need to survive, to live. But its purpose, the reason why it was activated in the first place? What we suspect is what Cursor has intuited upon its initial activation. “You still need an interface, only not for communicating your wishes to a device… no, you need something that can translate the wishes of a people that has forgotten what being Human even means.” There is a clue as to Cursor’s purpose in this strip. Cursor is trying to find something and fix it, and finally have it “finish its job”. In all likelihood, “it” is the Omnipitor. It’s possible to reason out what the unfinished job is as well. As such, Cursor is a puppeteer, manipulating events in the Pastel universe and trying to manipulate Fuschia as well.

Unfortunately for Cursor, its link to Fuschia goes both ways. It was unable to maintain control over Fuschia when she first ran across Heliotrope, even after taking direct control of Fuschia. While Cursor thinks something is broken in it, I suspect that the entities that activated Cursor expected this scenario. Indeed, the manipulations that Cursor inflicted upon Fuschia led her to meeting Heliotrope, which then led to Fuschia restoring Heliotrope’s Omnipitor when it was knocked out of her during a fight. Thus it may very well be that Cursor exists to ensure Heliotrope and Fuschia met; this said, Cursor’s continued existence suggests it has a further role to play.

Dr. Aoi may be one of the more interesting characters of the series. The story began with him and has revolved around him (and Fuschia) in many ways. Part of this is because of Heliotrope, whom he is responsible for activating (and for that matter for smuggling the Omnipitor into the world of Pastel). It seems likely that the Omnipitor has some limited control over those who handle it; it probably doesn’t have mind control abilities, but it might be able to “suggest” actions subconsciously. No doubt this is why Aoi carved a hole into the chest of the sex-doll that is the “flesh” Heliotrope currently inhabits.

Of the main cast of PDH, Aoi is the most fundamentally flawed of the characters. Early comics show him crying in shame after buying the sex-doll that would eventually become Heliotrope’s “flesh”, and smacking his head into a wall until he leaves a blood stain because he panicked when an attractive woman he likes asked him out. (Of course, the Pastellian society is patriarchal in nature, so Hannya’s assertive nature might leave him nonplussed and unsure how to act.)

Aoi resists Heliotrope’s claims of him being her “papa” when she initially bonded with him (sort of like a baby chick bonding with the first creature it sees when out of its shell). Despite his attempts to remain cold and callus toward Heliotrope, he still tells her to be careful when he sends her to confront a former student of his on a murderous rampage. Aoi might be flawed, but fundamentally he’s a good person and he does care for Heliotrope.

Finally, there’s Hannya, a female scientist in a male-dominated universe. She’s assertive, self-assured, and has managed to achieve success in this world despite the patriarchal society. Much of this will be attributed to her father, who is the head of the Science Academy on the floating continent where our heroes live. This is not to say that Hannya owes her discoveries to her father, or her successes. Instead, it’s her father’s position in society that has enabled her to utilize her own skills and to succeed despite the forces that repress women in Pastellian society.

Interestingly, Hannya’s focus is on rescuing her father, who vanished during an exploration of another universe. Aoi knows the truth and refuses to tell Hannya (or for that matter, anyone else, even in the government, partly out of fear for his life on what they’d do to him). But she is willing to manipulate Aoi and force him to use Heliotrope in her quest to recover her father.

There is one last character actually that I should mention: Chartreuse. She also was an early member of the cast, and one who was not in a good situation. Indeed, the first two times Heliotrope was allowed out in the world was in response to this girl; first to rescue her when she tried to commit suicide, the second to stop her when she went on a murderous rampage. Chartreuse holds a position more of antagonist than protagonist, and I’d not mention her except for the fact she has had a profound influence on Heliotrope.

In order to stop Chartreuse from hurting others, and also in an attempt to heal the anger and pain that was such a fundamental part of Chartreuse’s being, Heliotrope hit her with an attack that regressed her into a more innocent form. In doing so, Heliotrope literally wiped away Chartreuse’s personal past. Bad things no longer had happened to her. Good things also were wiped away. Instead, everything in Chartreuse’s life that was significant in any way was wiped clean. Her innocence did not stop a mob of those people Chartreuse had been hurting from killing her in vengeance.

What Heliotrope did to Chartreuse has hurt Heliotrope. It changed Heliotrope fundamentally, and will have echoes through the rest of the comic. Indeed, Jennifer commented once that what Heliotrope did to Chartreuse would have repercussions even to the final update. Heliotrope’s initial forays into the world were because of Chartreuse. This was her childhood, and with Chartreuse’s end, so too ended Heliotrope’s childhood and innocence.

Indeed, even as the conflict with Chartreuse was a coming to age for Heliotrope, so too was her new relationship with Fuschia. The two became lovers, and Fuschia became Heliotrope’s protector against Aoi. She ensured that Aoi could not just remove Heliotrope’s Omnipitor and sweep things under the rug. So too did she help become Heliotrope’s mentor and guide, helping teach her what it was to be human.

Aoi and Hannya’s relationship is a bit more complex. Hannya appears to be the dominant one of the two, a powerful woman in a culture that frowns upon women in power (and indeed works hard to squash them). I do wonder if part of Aoi’s issues are as a result of being unsure how to react to a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to try and seize what she desires. Still, Hannya appears to care for Aoi despite his failings. It may very well be she’s what he needs; someone who is willing to give him a push when he falters, unsure of what path to take. With what is to come, Aoi will need all the help and guidance he can get; hopefully it will be enough.

Story Continuity: 5 ribbons
Story Type: Storyline and Epic
Story Style: Science Fiction, Graphic Novel

When I think of some of the storyline comics I’ve read, especially the older ones, I’ve noticed that often the comic will start without a set path. After a little bit the comic will find a focus and continue down that path, but as a result these comics may have conflicting continuity. Of course, this isn’t just with webcomics. I’ve had reason recently to reread a lot of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels and noticed how Lackey has contradictory stories (such as the character Skif mentioning his mother was a thief in the Mage Wind novels and then drastically changing that in her novel Take a Thief). Perhaps it’s to be expected when a story runs long enough that continuity glitches will creep in. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to continuity, so when I notice a story is contradicting previous stories… well, it feels a tad sloppy.

Some more recent comics such as Inverloch and Alpha-Shade were created with a set beginning, middle, and end in mind. These stories differ from such classics as College Roomies from Hell or Clan of the Cats in that an ending is planned, which allows for a tighter story without hiccups in continuity. Pastel Defender Heliotrope is such a story. I’m quite sure that Jennifer Reitz had the ending of PDH in mind even as she drew the first page. Everything in the comic is leading toward that end.

Thus PDH becomes a different sort of vehicle. It’s not so much an online comic as an online Graphic Novel. PDH could easily go to print once it ends. Its sister comic, Unicorn Jelly, did the same (and UJ easily could be Meta-reviewed in its own right; it might be complete, but it is a masterpiece of production that is well worth reading and may provide extra insight into PDH).

There is one small problem with PDH. For all of its epic storyline, the comic itself has only had 187 story comics (though they are full-page comics). Compare this to comics such as CotC or Dominic Deegan which have thousands of strips, and we have what’s basically an epic short story as far as comics go. The weekly full-page format allows for some beautifully rendered comics but also focuses the story tremendously. We’ve not had the number of subplots or storylines found in other comics, which is both boon and bane for the comic as a whole.

Of course, with such a tightly focused story with shorter subplots, there is less chance of tangential stories erupting and shifting focus away from what’s important. Further, there aren’t any loose ends that I’ve seen, which helps keep the comic’s continuity strong. I’m not quite sure why I am having issues with the shortness of the comic; perhaps it’s because I enjoy the minutia found in other comics, while PDH doesn’t see the trees for the forest.

Another aspect of PDH which is fascinating is Jennifer Reitz’s notes under each comic. Jennifer put tremendous thought into the comic and its background. Information is given on each universe visited in the first part of the comic, with little tidbits that are both amusing and tantalizing. Perhaps the minutia I’m looking for isn’t found in the strips so much as in the detail behind the strips. PDH doesn’t focus as much on the characters as on the story itself, and thus character development isn’t as rich as the story itself.

Rating: R – Well, I never thought I’d see the kittens hiding behind their yarn balls…

Pastel Defender Heliotrope has nudity, violence, sexual situations, and a storyline that will make you think. You may very well be offended by the story in places. I mean, Jennifer has scenes such as a bloodied skull flying from an explosion, or a character being regressed into an almost child-like state, her clothes evaporating from her body. And of course there’s sex; the sex isn’t onscreen, but Jennifer doesn’t hide it from the reader.

Children these days tend to be growing up faster and faster. But even so, this is a comic I fully recommend that if parents let their children read it, to talk it over with them afterward. It can be viewed on many levels. At its most basic form it’s a story. You can look deeper and find social commentary within its depths (and if you read the comments, some of that social commentary can be quite pointed), philosophical context, and more. PDH is that most special of stories: a story that makes you think.

Punctuality: Wednesday update.

PDH updates usually on Wednesdays. There have been the occasional missed update, but for the most part it updates without problem.

Overall: 4.25 ribbons

At its heart, PDH is an examination of our own culture, distorted into extremes. The religion of Godan, much like Christianity, is the divinization of a mortal man into God that is used to relegate women into second class citizens (and while Christianity isn’t now deliberately used to declare women as inferior to men, it has been in its past). The revelation as to Godan’s true identity and motivations in sending humanity to the universe of Pastel adds a horrific twist on this reflection, revealing partly how this religion could become so distorted and evil (and yes, I do consider the religion of Godan to be evil in that it violently represses those in Pastel and attempts to command peoples actions rather than guide them).

The culture of Pastel is also flawed. The leaders of Pastel believe in their own Manifest Destiny and seek to expand into other universes even though they have not filled their own universe or driven out the threats to their patriarchal homocentric rule. They enslaved a “lesser” species which we later learn had a diverse and rich technological culture. These “lesser” beings (the Jellese from Unicorn Jelly) are no more noble than humanity, however; their leader sees the Jellese as a “master” race and fashion their own beliefs from Hitler’s Mein Kamp (which made its way to the Jellese universe along with humanity).

This happened in steps; each universe has different rules and laws, and those of Pastel are inimical toward Jellese physiology. The Jellese are constantly hungry and in pain from this universe; initial attempts from their human companions to lessen their pain and find a constructive place in society for them led eventually to the feelings of human superiority and enslavement of the Jellese. This led to the war brewing between humanity and their former comrades (much as what happened in the Unicorn Jelly universe). But these two factions are insignificant compared to events brewing; theirs is a minor reflection of a multiversal conflict of which Heliotrope herself was once a part.

Unfortunately, in forming such an epic and reaching storyline, something has to give. This is the characters and their growth. The central character, Heliotrope, is not even in the comic for the first quarter of the comic, and after that is only an intermittent character. Thus she’s an enigma. Further, we don’t get to witness her growth as a person. Thus the reader invests less interest in her; what does it matter if she survives or not? There is more interest in those around her than in this central character; like a singularity her core remains hidden while the other characters revolve around her gravitational well. It is only when something outside brushes against her that we have a burst of personification letting us see what makes her tick.

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