One sign of good fiction writing is the presence of sympathetic antagonists. Mind you, I’m not talking kinder, gentler antagonists here; instead, I refer to antagonists that readers can identify with, and who can, with a truly gifted writer, end up a character that readers could root for along with the protagonist. These characters can be difficult to create even in a prose setting; time spent on the antagonist detracts from the protagonist’s story, and can even lead to confusion as to just who the protagonist of the story is. With webcomics, this trend is even more difficult due to issues with pacing and on balancing an update schedule that allows the cartoonist to have a life, and yet still tell a timely tale.
The latest update of Footloose has done just this; former antagonist and current damsel-in-distress Sparkle has managed in one update to become a sympathetic character. Oh, she’s not going around saving kittens from trees or saving the environment; she’s not even been beaten by the pirate faeries that kidnapped her (which makes sense, considering how many female pirates are in this band, including their Captain; they might not think highly of Sparkle and consider her just a “wench” to serve them drinks and food, but they’re not going to let the guys start getting ideas on what they can get away with. Besides, Footloose’s Faerie appears to be a matriarchal society, so the male fae probably don’t get away with much).
Instead, her latest attempt to escape captivity has failed. What’s worse, she wasn’t even caught trying to escape. She couldn’t even pick the lock on the hatch leading out of the building she’s kept in at night. Defeated by a mere door, we’re given a glimpse of her, huddled on the bench below the trapdoor, wishing, daydreaming, that she had her wand, and could escape her prison by herself. But it’s the final two panels that have helped reveal much more of who Sparkle is than in any prior scene, as she pulls her cell phone out from her cleavage and scrolls through her call list looking for someone who could help.
Now, think on that for a moment. Sparkle managed to keep her cell phone concealed on her person since being captured. During this entire time, not once did she call out to let anyone know where she was, or that she needed help. She looked within and relied on her own skills to try and get her out of the jam she’s in. What’s more, the look on her face in the second-to-last panel as she pulls the phone out… well, I’m not exactly the best at identifying facial features, but I could easily see a sense of defeat and loss there. Maybe, just maybe, there’s also a bit of concern; whoever she calls for help is going to be in danger in trying to get her out.
The calling list is also very telling. First, there are two names missing among her teammates: Claire, and Cherry. Of them, Claire is a hyperactive fan-girl who speaks in broken Japanese and seems to lack the common sense given to a squirrel facing oncoming traffic (or in other words, not someone you want to call on the phone and chat with), and Cherry? I’m unsure if Cherry isn’t included because he’s a guy, or if it’s because I suspect he’s the newest student among the magical girls. But there’s two other numbers included that humanize Sparkle: her mum, and “Wolf boy” (obviously Daniel).
Of these names, it is Daniel’s name that Sparkle pauses on. Of course, this was a process of elimination there, but when you consider that Sparkle is fairly proud and self-reliant, I could easily see her run off the entire list and decide none of them would be of any use and go back to trying to free herself. The nickname could be considered an insult, but it’s a fairly lackluster one (especially considering Daniel’s half-werewolf: calling him “dog boy” or “dog breath” would be much more of an insult than “wolf boy”); I could actually see it as a term of endearment. It’s not exactly the nicest of things to call someone you’re dating, but this is Sparkle we’re talking about; I suspect that “wolf boy” was pleasant by her standards. It also put Daniel’s number at the bottom of the call list, and thus easier to scroll to.
It also says something that even though Daniel broke up with her (which Sparkle didn’t take too nicely), Sparkle still has his number on her phone. Nor did she dismiss him out of hand. She considers his number. The pause… the sigh… and suddenly all of the past comments and snarkiness between Sparkle and Daniel takes on an added dimension. For all that Sparkle dated Daniel because she felt it was expected (with her being the top Magical Girl student and Daniel the top Indiscriminant Whacking student), I have to wonder if maybe Sparkle did (and still does) feel something for him.
This also might throws a monkey-wrench into the growing relationship between An and Daniel. Just as Sparkle seems to have some conflicted feelings toward Daniel so too have we seen Daniel with conflicted feelings about Sparkle. And now Daniel’s ex-girlfriend is a damsel in distress, unable to save herself and forced to ask for aid. The cynic in me wonders if (now that Daniel is a “rival” to Keti’s affections toward An) the Plot (which is Keti-centric) may be deliberately manipulating these old feelings and doing their best to break Sparkle’s resolve. Of all the times for Sparkle to call, why should she call now? Why right when Daniel and An appear to be getting close… and right after Keti walked in on An and Daniel acting guilty around her (given Keti’s own attraction toward An)?
Whatever Sparkle’s motivations are, this character growth in a former antagonist is a long time coming, and is quite welcome in my eyes. Nor do I expect her growth to stop here. Sparkle’s freedom won’t happen quickly; what’s more, if Sparkle does manage to get a hold of Daniel and gain some glimmer of hope that she’s got someone coming for her, she’ll still have to hide that ember of hope from her captors lest she endanger the others (which will undoubtedly happen in any event; I’d not be at all surprised if the Pirate Captain left her the phone deliberately to lure in any would-be heroes). The fact that Sparkle’s call for aid will add stress to Daniel’s life (which may help flesh out his own character further and lead to growth in him as well) is merely icing on the cake.