(From Prime of Ambition. Click on image to see it full-sized.)
Prime of Ambition was one of the more pleasant surprises I had at ConnectiCon. While there were a number of professional webcomics at the convention, PoA amazed me at the sheer quality of its artwork. Considerable detail had gone into little aspects of the comic and not just once or twice, but consistently. Backgrounds were drawn with a level of quality rarely seen in a comic, and with colors that may actually be better than anything I’ve seen before. And while the artwork coloring may not be consistent (with some updates still in inks or in flat colors), I was impressed at the level of detail in even the black and white strips.
Part of this may lie in the genre. PoA is a fantasy comic, with a number of traditions upheld within the genre. Thus we have dragons (drawn with detailed scale work most of the time, with work that must have taken hours for an individual panel; and these dragons weren’t shown once, but multiple times), drow elves (which have become a bit of a fantasy staple even outside of D&D), fae that look inhumanly beautiful… and forests and landscapes that go far beyond what most artists would do in regular updates.
The story itself also drew me in fairly quickly, starting with the typical fantasy staple of a group of stalwart heroes at the start of the comic who rush in to save a maiden from a dragon. At this point the comic takes the first twist of many as these young heroes are cut down by archers protecting the dragon. These young heroes aren’t the focus of the story. Instead, they are a means to an end to tell the story of Thanatos K’al Hamaad, a young dark elf wandering the world, and of Audriel Sillendrey, a sun elf who ends up traveling with the drow against his better instincts.
Breaking with a literary tradition started by R.A. Salvatore, our lone drow isn’t an exile because he has morals in a society devoid of any essence of mercy and goodwill. While Than appears polite and well-mannered, I don’t get a feel of him doing this out of a sense of decency or the like. Instead, Than is very calculating and deliberate. He chooses his words and his actions. The reason for his politeness is to gain the trust and goodwill of his traveling companions, not because he wants to be friends.
He even states to Audriel, the sun elf who is the narrator of the story, that they would never be friends. I had the feeling he said this not teasingly, but in a matter-of-fact tone of stating a fact. Audriel hates the Sh’bera (or desert) drow, because his home village was wiped out by Sh’bera raiders. Than is a scapegoat for Audriel’s prejudice and hate, but Audriel also fears Than after Than fearlessly negotiates passage with a leaf dragon.
Audriel is a more interesting character in many ways. We can see his thoughts and fears, and this makes him more immediate and approachable than Than. Indeed, the very start of the story presents us with an older Audriel, one who has walked a path no doubt he never expected to take. He has done things he has severe qualms about, but feels there is nothing left for him but this path. If he forsakes it, then he’s forsaken the last of his principles. He’ll have forsaken his honor. And it’s something he fears.
Fear seems to be a deep part of Audriel’s existence. Early on he grows to fear Than. But he also fears himself. He looks at his reactions with distrust. He doesn’t trust his instincts. It is this fear that no doubt led him down the path of becoming the right-hand man of Tariq (who may or may not be Than; we’re not entirely sure, though it seems rather likely) in the future.
It’s when you read the author’s notes that you start getting a deeper understanding of the characters. Those notes reveal a deeper truth about Than: he is evil. However, rather than being the over-the-top maniacal evil of so much literature and shaped by the “alignments” created in fantasy role-playing games, he’s a more functional, realistic evil. Just where that evil manifests, I’m not entirely sure. Than manipulates people, sure. If he’s the Tariq in the future, willing to sacrifice people to dragons to keep the peace… then he shows a certain level of ruthlessness and a disregard for life. But it could also be seen as pragmatism. The effort to cut down a fully-grown ember dragon, one known as the “most vile dragon known to the world today,” would be entirely too high. What is a few lives lost in pacifying the beast instead?
Is this level of meta-thinking, of considering the large picture and no longer considering that individual lives matter, evil? Is the good of the many less important than the good of the few, or the one? Or is it the path taken to reach this point? At this point of PoA’s life, we don’t honestly know enough about Than to tell (even assuming Than and Tariq are the same person).
As fascinating as the story is, what truly drew me in was the artwork. Even incomplete art, presented to get updates up weekly, shows a level of skill and quality that a number of webcartoonists would kill to attain. When Alyssa Follansbee and Naomi Craig have the time to actually finish up their art and color it to their satisfaction, the comic leaps out at you and drags you into its depths. Each leaf is lovingly shaded. Tree trunks are shaded. Moss grows up the sides of trees, and you can tell this is moss. Even lighting is often done rather well, with light coming from specific sources or reflections, rather than the ambient lighting so many webcomics utilize.
I also found it fascinating how character sound-balloons were semi-transparent. Often sound-balloons mask the art underneath. When there is a lot of dialog, a well-drawn piece can end up butchered for the sake of storyline. Translucent sound-balloons doesn’t fix this, but it helps lessen the intrusive nature of the dialog. It also gives glimpses into the work that went into the art, work that would otherwise be concealed with traditional opaque sound-balloons.
Follansbee and Craig represent a growing trend in webcomics: artistic collaborations. Often these tend to be collaborative efforts of a penciler/inker and a colorist, but in PoA’s case, Follansbee handles backgrounds and beasts, while Craig works on the characters. Each enhances the other’s strengths, and compensates for the other’s weaknesses. They also bounce ideas and concepts off of each other. They’ve worked to bring their characters to life in a way that working alone often fails to do.
That’s not to say that everything is perfect at PoA. There were parts of the dialog that had me shaking my head (such as a dragon going “oh yeah?” early in the comic). At times the dialog feels a tad stilted, as if it was written rather than spoken (and indeed, this is a bit of advice for decent dialog for prose and comics: say it out loud. If your tongue stumbles over it, then rework it until it flows well). Some of this may very well be my own prejudices showing, and my own perceptions on how fantasy literature should “sound,” and it’s a minor quibble at best.
There are also occasional sections of art that feel out of place, moments of cartoonish (if not chibi-ish) art that just doesn’t flow with the rest of the art. But the instances of this are few and rare indeed (and perhaps why they stand out in my mind) and while they draw me out of the story, it’s only because it stands out so much from the level of quality in the mainstream art for PoA.
Taken as a whole, Prime of Ambition is easily among the best of webcomics I’ve seen. It can hold its own against professional works such as Girl Genius or Alpha-Shade, and is easily superior in my mind to the vast majority of professional print comics put out by DC, Marvel, and Image. Flaws, while they exist, are not significant enough to detract from enjoying the comic, and could easily be eliminated should Follansbee and Craig decide to take PoA to print. In the meantime, I highly recommend this comic.
Robert A. Howard