Foreword: I must admit I tend to feel a little bad when I write a fairly negative review. I realize that the cartoonist may take it personally, as I’m talking about something they’ve poured their heart and soul into. This review isn’t an attack on the cartoonist (if you want that, there are plenty of wannabe reviewers out there who think personal attacks are kosher) but rather a more critical look at the work itself. And if I get sardonic while talking about it… well, levity helps lighten the mood. Meanwhile, enjoy the review.
As should be obvious by now, I’m rather fond of comics with decent storylines. The best comics for me are those that have an intelligent detailed plot that consists more than just the characters moving from place to place picking up widgets needed to continue the adventure. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy random or gag-a-day strips; I’m quite fond of Penny Arcade for the cast, and xkcd for the sheer insanity and intelligence that goes into the strip. What I don’t enjoy are storyline comics that rely on idiot ball plots and odd coincidences to draw characters together.
Heather Penn’s Happy Medium is this strange little comic about shapeshifting teenagers. We start with Zurui, a foxgirl who wanders into the city (in fox form) and runs into Itochi, a pickpocket and shoplifter who promptly threatens to harm the fox when an outraged parent chases after Itochi because she stole the kid’s candy. Yes, you heard me right, this girl stole candy from a child and sees nothing wrong with this. However, rather than being a petty villain or antagonist, Itochi seems to be one of the protagonists. But hey! I guess we… um… need candy-stealing protagonists? Because hey, stealing candy from kids is funny (as is robbing innocent people on trains so they can’t pay their bills or get food or take the train home as they don’t have their train pass now).
Anyway, Zurui ends up following Itochi home and through canid facial expressions Itochi realizes the fox is actually a shapeshifter. But rather than brains being the reason why she figured it out, we learn that Itochi is a shapeshifting stoat and thus can somehow sense that the fox that snuck into her apartment is a shapeshifter. I kid you not. I’m not making this up.
Naturally enough, when shapeshifters turns into human form, they still have animal ears and (usually) a tail. Yet no one (except other shapeshifters) seems to notice this. And this isn’t always obvious as later on Itochi encounters another shapeshifter who turns into a horse… but he has a ponytail rather than an actual tail. Yes, these shapeshifters start tumbling out of the rafters at this point and I suspect we’ll soon find out that the only five people in this city who aren’t shapeshifters are the ones who got robbed. So we can wave bye-bye to little things that count. You know, cohesive storylines, decent sense of narrative pacing, and of course everyone’s favorite, making sense and being plausible.
Forget about rational. I’m afraid rationality was found swinging from the rafters with a note next to an overturned chair after the catboy got involved. Yes, you heard me right, there is a catboy in the comic named Chesuta, and he’s not the twin brother of a hot catgirl that even the female cast is drooling over. The funny thing is that I actually found Chesuta to be a breath of originality. I’m not sure how many other comics (or manga) have bobtailed tomcat male anthrofelines in them. So I have to take my hat off for that one bit, even if the EMTs are trying desperately to breathe life back into rationality. But seeing that these shapeshifting teenagers seem to live alone without any parental presence at all, I suspect rationality isn’t going to make it.
So, what makes HM worth reading? Well, if you enjoy watching train wrecks as they occur, you might have a morbid sense of curiosity about the comic. And I will admit, I kind of like a couple of the characters, Zurui and Chesuta. I love her reasoning for not going to school, that because she’s a wild animal, she doesn’t need to go to school. Of course, stoats are wild animals too, but I guess Itochi never thought it through, or has several marks there that she shakes down for extra dough. Also, I found the artwork was fairly decent, and avoids the saucer-eyes found in far too many mangas.
HM also is a good example on why cartoonists should not only plot out their comics in advance, but also bounce that plot off of someone willing to give them an honest assessment rather than blithely saying “it’s great, I love it!” while cringing inside. And while it may seem like I’m raining on Penn’s parade here, I see potential here that could have become a genuinely interesting story if a little thought and planning had gone into it. Instead, we have outlandish coincidences and random idiocy driving the story. If you enjoy that sort of thing, Happy Medium is the perfect comic for you. But if you prefer comics that take more care in crafting the story like I do, then you might be happier giving HM a pass. At least until the inevitable reboot.