When I first got into comics, Clan of the Cats and College Roomies from Hell was starting up a rather amusing crossover involving zombies, imps, and other things that go bump in the dark. It was October of 2000, and the storyline was a perfect October surprise for someone new to the webcomic world… and it even ended in time for CotC to have a second Halloween-based storyline, this one involving witches and ghosts. Since that time, I’ve enjoyed the seasonal stories that crop up in a number of webcomics, as well as the more-common filler art and one-shot seasonal strips.
Seasonal strips tend to appear more often in gag-a-day comics and webcomics that specialize on shorter storylines more than in the epic storyline comics I enjoy. Part of this lies with the difficulty in inserting a seasonal reference in the midst of a storyline (and possibly even a different season than where the story is in the epic arc). CotC is one such example where seasonal comics have mostly vanished due to the longevity of its epic Dracula storyline. Other epic comics don’t even bother with these references (outside of the above-mentioned filler arts), with Schlock Mercenary being a notable exception with its traditional “Schlocktoberfest” story every October.
The timing of The Phoenix Requiem’s current rather haunting chapter is perhaps fortuitous, with Anya Katsukova, the central protagonist of this epic tale, flitting through the halls clad in naught but a nightdress ethereal enough to make a ghost blush, in pursuit of a less-than-pleasant spectral intruder clad in the ashes of her mentor’s dead wife. The scene harkens back to classic ghost stories when film makers utilized atmosphere and mood to leave the audience at the edge of their seats, rather than the random butchery so common to modern horror.
This should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Sarah Ellerton’s work. Ellerton has taken many of the lessons she learned when crafting her previous comic, Inverloch, and used that knowledge in building a world that is both intriguing and beautiful. But rather than tell another fantasy adventure, The Phoenix Requiem is a combination mystery and horror story. In her own words, “The Phoenix Requiem is a Victorian-inspired supernatural fantasy story about faith, love, death, and the things we believe in.” In short, it’s a combination of ghost story and mystery, and we’re just now getting to the point where the ghosts are coming out to play.
Ellerton’s artwork has improved significantly since her days with Inverloch. The characters are drawn with a combination of soft-shading and painting, while the backgrounds appear fully painted and lack the inked lines found in the vast majority of other comics. The effect is breathtaking, though I wonder why Ellerton didn’t forgo the use of inked lines for the character art. In some places she does, such as with Anya’s nightdress in the latest chapter. Some elements (such as the curtains here and Anya’s gown in the latter half of the current chapter) of Ellerton’s artwork reveal an attention to detail and craftsmanship that few cartoonists have met, especially on a regular basis. TRP is Ellerton’s opus, and if her future projects improve in art and storytelling as much as TRP has over Inverloch, then she will likely become among the best webcartoonists out there, and perhaps among the best graphic novelists in the print world.
Of course, all the pretty pictures in the world wouldn’t matter much if TPR didn’t have a story to match. Ellerton has crafted a plot as intricate as her artwork. One problem that a number of webcomics suffer from is an inadequate foundation. This may be because the comic evolved from a different format (such as El Goonish Shive, Sluggy Freelance, and Megatokyo, all of which began as humor comics and evolved into epic story-comics). While some of my peers may wax elegant on “Cerebus Syndromes” and the like, the truth is that these comics were not intended to be epic stories with a set beginning, middle and end. TPR has a more classical beginning, and it shows with the strength of its foundation. It may not start out as exciting as other comics, but TPR is far more satisfying the further in you read.
As a result, the characters are more believable and human. Their actions are realistic, and their foibles acceptable. Best of all, these characters have flaws that are more than just window dressings. Jonas Faulkner (whose mysteries the comic slowly spirals around) takes drugs, even though he knows they’re not good for him. Anya Katsukova is a workaholic desperate to prove herself at the expense of being with friends. Dr. Blythe (Anya’s mentor) takes advantage of Anya by using her as a maid and giving her no time for herself. Robyn Hart tends to be a bit too forceful and controlling at times, and may be a tad overprotective as a result. And so on.
We’ve gone from mere hints and teases of the mysteries surrounding Jonas to something far greater. With each new answer, new questions arise. Who is Jonas? Why are the spirits so interested in him? Why do they claim kinship with this most unusual man? How and why did the spirits get imprisoned… and why is he so vital to the spirits that they saved his life on at least one occasion? The mysteries surrounding this man only serve to enhance his charm, as does his own efforts to court Anya (despite her own need to remain buried in work and study). It is these bits of mystery and character that increase the sense of horror when a dark spirit possesses the cremated ashes of the wife of Anya’s mentor and begins to stalk through the shadowed halls of the house for a means of egress.
TPR is not for everyone. Some readers may find the initial pace of the story to be too slow. Indeed, the latest chapter had six pages of Anya wandering through the halls (with varying levels of fanservice imagery), which could have been condensed to maybe two or three pages. Unfortunately, to compress the story to that level would risk damaging the building atmosphere and tension revealed with the appearance of the spectral intruder… and Anya’s trapping it outside. Rather than tell a tale, Ellerton is showing it to us, and that risks segments where the pace slows… because the story and the atmosphere calls for it. But with a combination of skilled storytelling and gifted artwork, The Phoenix Requiem is definitely among my top picks of 2008.