Comic: Footloose by Alice Nuttall and Emily Brady
It’s probably obvious by now that I’m a big fan of the fantasy genre. When I was younger, I devoured such stories as The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the varied Arthurian legends. As I grew older, my tastes became more eclectic (and I likewise became a huge fan of science fiction, despite the relative dearth of decent science fiction for someone who could gleefully read a 300+ page novel in a day). When I stumbled across webcomics, my first was Clan of the Cats, the first of a number of fantasy comics that I’d fall in love with. But I must admit, there’s a special place in my heart for Footloose.
Nor is this because Ally and Em gleefully inserted yours truly as a radio announcer in their comic (and on more than one occasion). I’ll admit, I found the thought of being included in a comic quite flattering (though this isn’t the first time; heck, after one glowing review of Girl Genius the Foglios joked that they’d include me as a doomed scientist in their comic), but I’d grown to love Footloose long before they first mentioned possible cameos. No, Footloose won me over with a combination of pretty art, fun characterizations, and one of the more unique fantasy worlds I’ve stumbled across in the webcomic genre.
In their own way, Ally and Em manage to capture a spark of the genius of Terry Pratchett and Discworld with their own creations. Oh don’t get me wrong; if you come to Footloose expecting to see bearded dwarf women and music with rocks in, you’re going to be sadly disappointed. But Footloose has that same sense of not taking itself serious that you can find in many of Pratchett’s novels (especially his earlier works), and Ally and Em’s characters (and indeed the world itself) live by the rules of storytelling (or Generics) rather than by the more elaborate and complex fantasy worlds that the likes of Tolkien, Jordan, and Lackey created. And while this might be confusing for someone relatively new to the fantasy genre, any long-time reader (or any fan of the website TV Tropes) will understand just how this world ticks… and enjoy the twists that Ally and Em throw out there.
Most of all, it’s the cast that has won me over. Ally and Em have created characters that live and breathe and who have their own likes, dislikes, fears, hopes, and more. And whether it’s the deliberately innocent Jin who sees the best in everything just because she wants to, her sardonic brother Daniel who inevitably ends up picked on by the storytellers, or the eternal novice Keti (whose name is said to mean “Oi! Girl!” In Nepalese) who never quite catches on to what’s going to happen (along with many others), you’ll undoubtedly find some character to fall in love with.
Much like many webcartoonists, Footloose artist Emily Brady wasn’t particularly fond of the early artwork for the comic. So she did something about it: she redrew the first two chapters of the comic. Mind you, she did this while still updating the comic regularly, so this wasn’t a traditional “reboot” like some webcomics have undergone, and Em did wrap up the redraw partway through the third chapter (though to be honest, I think she should have wrapped up the redraw five updates later to help disguise the rebooted art a bit better).
Looking back at Em’s early line art (from where the redraw ends) and at her most recent work, and you can see a marked improvement. When you consider Em’s drawn some 300 comics (both redraws and the regular storyline) since, this isn’t surprising (and it’s something I can’t stress enough for new cartoonists: draw a lot because the more you draw, the better you get). What’s more, her characters aren’t all variations of the same face and body. One example lies with what I call Keti’s “mindscape” sequences, where the three aspects of Keti (fae, human, and werewolf – I’ll get into the specifics later) talk among themselves. Fae Keti is taller and more angular of face and body, human Keti is plumper and has softer features, and werewolf Keti is a curly-haired bundle of fun who is visibly not human in features (her nose/mouth structure and her ears, for example).
Nor is Keti alone in this. Jin and her twin brother Daniel, who are both half-werewolf, both have features that differentiate themselves from many of the others (and from each other as well, unlike far too many twins in manga and comics), while An… well, An’s tall, lanky, and very much what would be called a “bishi” by manga and anime fans. Though there’s a very good reason for that which I won’t go into here. Considering the varied species in Footloose, which includes elves, sprites, pixies, imps, werewolves, and of course humans, Em definitely has her work cut out for her. Fortunately, she manages to make each species distinct (without going overboard). Part of this lies with her drawing of the various fae wings (with elves having transparent leaf-wings while imp wings are more… complex in design) and ear structures, but Em doesn’t limit herself to one or two facial designs.
While much of Footloose is in greyscale (with several updates that lack greyscale when Em’s tablet was broken), there are three exceptions to this rule. First, chapter covers tend to be colored. Second, An’s flashback sequence on her past was also “colored” (by using shades of green in the greyscaling rather than actual grey). Finally, we have Keti’s “mindscape” comics, which were caused after she was cold-cocked by the “Sword of Slayskull,” a plot device that is responsible for the current quest-related storyline. (Indeed, word from the creators has it that if you see blue sparkles, it bodes, usually for the worse.) The mindscape art is actually rather interesting, as Em creates a “glow” effect with the line-art (though sadly some of the colors introduced in the first mindscape (skin tones and hair colors) are missing in the second; it might be that this extra detail was forgotten or more likely left out due to time constraints).
Recently, Ally has started assisting in adding greyscale “colors” to the comic. She handles the flats, textures, and shading, while Em does finishing work and determines if light sources are correct or if the final product needs textures. Em still works on the special effects such as sound effects, magic, and any actual color effects (such as the current mindscape comic and bits with the Sword of Slayskull). This has had the benefit of freeing up more time for Em to work on her line art, and there are several instances where the artwork is absolutely breathtaking. Those strips naturally take the longest, but are extra treats for readers when they appear.
Of course, there’s more to art than just the crispness of the line-art or the coloring skill. Em excels at drawing characters that possess life. They suggest movement, rather than the artificial posted panels that quite a few artists (both beginning and experienced) tend to draw. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of backgrounds. Much like many of her contemporaries, Em’s backgrounds tend to be lackluster at best. Trees and other environments are rudimentary at best or disguised with fills and the occasional white-space. It’s a common failing (one that I suffered from as an artist), but fortunately does not detract from the comic itself (which relies more on character interaction than background setting to set the scene).
Character Development: 4 ribbons
Primary cast: 4.5 ribbons
Secondary cast: 3 ribbons
Antagonists: 4 ribbons
Character Chemistry: 4.25 ribbons
While the world of Faerie and its fairly unique treatment of storytelling traditions and rules is a huge draw for Footloose, it is the cast which I ultimately fell in love with. That said, there are some flaws with the cast that keeps me from just blithely awarding the comic a “5″ in character development. While Keti and her immediate friends are well fleshed-out, the background cast sadly was neglected, partly due to the huge number of background characters located at the Dojo where the story takes place. This may change now that the comic has shifted gears and gone from “school adventures” to “epic quest” mode. This has resulted in the secondary cast shrinking from over 20 characters to around five (not including adversaries).
Footloose keeps with the tradition of many stories with a primary protagonist, Keti Jones. As such, the comic focuses either on Keti’s perspective on things or on events directly concerning her. Indeed, Keti is revealed to be suffering from “Primary Protagonist Syndrome” which she inherited from her mother (who in the prequel fanfic InubuYAKasha likewise suffered from this syndrome). It is pretty much mandated that Keti is going to end up in the middle of any story that comes along. Considering the varied convoluted reasons writers have come up with over the centuries to involve protagonists, you have to admire the straightforward nature of the author here: Keti is genetically predisposed to be the protagonist, and she gets admitted to the Dojo so she won’t be completely pathetic as one.
Despite being the center of the comic, Keti’s no heroine. She’s not naturally adept in her Kung Shoe classes (think of it as a combination of kickboxing and using shoes as projectile weapons to incapacitate foes), she has a blindspot when it comes to the rules of generics (a failing shared with Keti’s mother and most humans in the comic for that matter), and a tendency toward ineptitude (though with practice she can overcome that tendency). In fact, Keti is perhaps the least Mary Sue-like protagonist I’ve come across in a while. She isn’t beloved by everyone, she isn’t better than other people with minimal effort, she isn’t an annoying git, and she even shows intelligence and cunning when she has a moment to think (and yet can be a complete idiot in other ways). In short… Keti is balanced, and her growth has been a gradual careful thing.
In an interesting twist, she’s also quietly insane, and is manifesting signs of Multiple Generic-induced Sanity Dysfunction (MGSD), which allows the cartoonists to “switch” personas of established characters, send them on violent rampages, and generally behave in methods that normally would be contrary to the norms of character development. Oddly enough, this works. Initial manifestations had Keti talking to imaginary “shoulder friends” that took the form of her friends Jin and Daniel – this was less “good and evil” like traditional shoulder-angels and -devils and more “ditz and sarcasm” but has since evolved to the above-mentioned “mindscape” comics where her genetic aspects (fae, werewolf, and human) appeared after Keti was smacked upside the head with the “Sword of Slayskull,” a plot device from the comic’s fanfic past. Seeing that Keti’s ultimate nature is one of balance, and that several storylines have focused on some aspect of that balance, it’s likely that in time Keti will manage to balance the various aspects of herself and achieve some form of mental unity.
Keeping with the storytelling traditions of the vast majority of fiction out there, Keti has a small circle of friends (and a love interest, though the Keti/An dynamic is a subversion of this). While Footloose is a mixture of high and contemporary fantasy, the comic settled firmly into the School Story genre until recently (where it shifted into a variation of the monomyth, or hero’s journey). As such, Keti’s friendships are formed freshly at the Dojo itself, sparing readers from the tired old trope of the “lifelong childhood friend.” Jin and Daniel have filled out the roles of the lighthearted ditz and snarky cynic respectively (at least, until they get drunk).
On the surface, it would be easy to mischaracterize Jin as a blonde ditz and comedic relief. While on the surface Jin may fit this mold, it doesn’t take much effort to find Jin is a multi-layered person who is deeper and more serious than she pretends to be. Her good nature and high spirits are deliberate masks that Jin dons. It is evident fairly early on that this is not always easy for her. One of Jin’s early catch-phrases in fact is “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” which her twin brother Daniel uses to try and cheer her up at one point and that she used as a mantra when she found herself getting angry.
Jin’s friendship with Keti is one Jin initiated, partly due to the fact her parents had adventured with Keti’s parents (though the two sets of parents weren’t exactly friends) and also partly due to their shared werewolf heritage. In many ways, Keti, Daniel, and Jin have formed a small pack, with Keti and Daniel squabbling over dominance, while Jin watches over and protects both her best friend and brother. I hesitate in calling Jin the “Alpha” of this pack (especially as Keti has led the way on more than one occasion), but given her protectiveness of Keti and Daniel, and how easily she cows her brother, it’s as apt a description as any.
The second of Keti’s close friends is Daniel, Jin’s twin brother. Much like Jin, Daniel’s a fairly complex character who on the surface appears fairly cynical and sarcastic (a tradition which earns him beat-downs from his sister and from Keti). But while we might not have learned (yet) exactly why Jin plays the part of the scatterbrained optimist, we do learn that Daniel dated Sparkle (top magical girl and antagonist for the first six chapters of the story). Jin’s description of the relationship (in that she doesn’t remember Daniel smiling once in the six months he dated Sparkle) makes me wonder if he’d originally been more cheerful and outgoing until Sparkle got her claws into him.
It’s difficult nailing down exactly what makes Daniel tick. It’s easy to define him, but only in regards to other characters; he’s the straight-man to Jin’s antics (and is naturally protective of his younger twin, even as she’s protective of him). Daniel plays a similar role with Keti at times while also giving Keti someone she can safely snarl at. His competitive nature also led to his conflict with An, partly because An proved better than him in their “Indiscriminate Whacking” classes and partly because whenever Daniel tried to challenge An, events would conspire to incapacitate Daniel so he couldn’t fight An and find out just who was the better fighter. But as to who the real Daniel is… I don’t know if we’ve seen him yet.
The final member of the primary cast is An. I must admit to being conflicted on revealing a key aspect about An that Ally and Em managed to conceal from readers for the first five chapters of the comic: An is a girl who was pretending to be a boy. While part of me hates spoiling the surprise for new readers, this is an important factor as the relationship between An and Keti obviously changes once An is revealed to be a girl. (There’s another secret An was hiding as well, but that one isn’t nearly as vital to the character chemistry between An and Keti as Keti learning her big crush was in fact for another girl.) Looking back, there are clues. There’s nothing sufficient for anyone who’s not Sherlock Holmes to put together, but you can see little hints of An’s secret (well, this one at least) that make sense after the fact.
Much like Daniel, An is difficult to nail down without defining him in regards of other characters. It’s spelled out in no uncertain terms that Keti likes An (to the point that Keti still has conflicted feelings over An even after learning the truth). Daniel saw An as competition and perhaps as a threat of his masculinity (an issue which ironically vanishes once An is outed – he doesn’t have a problem with women being better than him, just other men). Daniel may also be attracted to An on some level. But as for An herself? Recent developments suggest that An may be driven by guilt, guilt over her past and perhaps on the consequences of her actions. And when you consider that An was living a lie for so long… you have to wonder if An might have felt tremendously alone. She couldn’t trust anyone with her secrets… because of the danger to others. Indeed, much of An’s odd relationship with Keti could be viewed as a desperate need to have a friend… and Keti read too much into it.
Existing in a sort of ambiguous area between the primary and secondary cast is Sparkle, the primary antagonist for six of the chapters. As the initial antagonist (until Keti traded up for faerie pirates), Sparkle plays the part of foil and competition for An’s interests (obviously before An was revealed to be a girl). She also played a rather cruel prank on Keti just because she could (though Keti managed to turn the tables nicely). The psychological profile of Sparkle in the Cast page sums up Sparkle perfectly: she [is] a charming, highly intelligent and talented young woman … she is also a manipulative little bitch who thoroughly deserves to be taken down a peg or two. She plays the traditional part of “snobby bully” perfectly, and watching her get taken down a peg (several times) is admittedly a guilty pleasure of mine.
In an interesting subversion for Ally and Em’s usual skills in character development, we don’t see much development for Sparkle, or even any back-story that might explain her behavior. At the end of Chapter Six the above-mentioned faerie pirates kidnap her to be a wench/serving girl for them. To date, we’ve seen neither signs of Stockholm syndrome or anything reminiscent of O’ Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief (which makes sense; Sparkle is mostly defenseless and surrounded by armed pirates who could hurt her if they wanted to), though she’s remained snarky and fairly insolent even in the face of servitude. This seems to be classic Sparkle, so I’m unsure whether to lament at the theoretical lack of character growth in this situation, or applaud Sparkle for remaining defiant even when facing possible pointy doom. Considering her snarkiness in the face of adversity has me cheering for her… I’m applauding while hoping for some further chances at character growth.
As might be expected for any comic with a “school story” focus, the secondary (and tertiary) cast is fairly sizeable. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the vast majority of the cast remaining untouched. We’ve had maybe three members of the secondary cast with any significant fleshing out and development (that being Cherry/Steve, Jimmy, and Iordan). The rest of the cast has remained pretty much background detail that serves little purpose except as setting. Yes, it makes sense that a school (or dojo) would have a goodly number of students, but few secondary characters have had an opportunity to shine. We’ve seen remarkably little about Keti’s classmates in Kung-Shoe, which is surprising when you consider these are the girls Keti has the most contact with on a daily basis. Outside of Jin, Keti’s formed no friendships with her classmates, which is a shame as these extra friendships would have given these characters a chance to be fleshed out and grow.
Likewise, we’ve seen little of the Antagonist Squad, aka the Magical Girls (and Cherry) of the School of Marketable Magic. They pretty much serve as little foot troopers and yes-women for Sparkle to command, and a couple of them are given bare-bones detailing to give them a tiny bit of individuality, but outside of Sparkle and Cherry, I couldn’t name any of them or really mention what purpose they serve besides giving Magical Girls a bad name. Mind you, I have to applaud at a most unique depiction of magical girls as completely contrary to the traditions – not only are most of the magical girls not heroic, but they are in fact quite despicable, with Magical Transvestite Cherry being the odd duck out (in more ways than one) in that outside of doing what Sparkle tells him to do, he’s a fairly decent person. Cherry’s a favorite of both Ally and Em, and has been fleshed out further in his own mini-comic, which I suppose makes him a subversion as he’s both a secondary and primary character as a result.
The same lack of development holds true for the School of Useless Mecha, and if not for the relative dearth of students in Indiscriminate Whacking (with two of the four students being part of the primary cast), I’m sure it would hold true for this school as well. Alice Nuttall created a beautiful and detailed setting with the dojo for Footloose, but ultimately this was meant to be a stepping stone for Keti to prepare her for the bigger adventure ahead. As I mentioned earlier, at the end of Chapter Seven Keti has left the dojo while following An, and the secondary/tertiary cast has been slashed from 20-something to five (six if you include the captive Sparkle), which should make it easier for the secondary cast to be fleshed out further.
One problem with just about every webcomic lies with the fact they are incomplete works that are put up slowly over time. This gives the cartoonists or writers time to change their mind about details and existing continuity. Unfortunately, this past continuity is still quite visible in the archives, and can create discontinuity for new readers skimming through the archives. (I suspect this is one reason for comic relaunches.) One way around this is by writing out the entire script of the story before the comic even goes online (though even then discontinuities can creep in if the writer isn’t careful).
Footloose is part of a growing number of storytelling webcomics that have done just this. The background setting has been extensively prepared, and much of the past was already written down in the prequel fanfic that Alice Nuttall and Emily Brady wrote several years back (and which actually inspired the current comic). As such, Footloose has a well-written and fairly concise story, and within the comic itself there are no inconsistencies that stood out. (This doesn’t hold true for InubuYAKasha, but Ally and Em found an imaginative method of explaining those inconsistencies away; seeing as the fanfic has minimal bearing on the comic outside of background material, it’s not a factor anyway.)
There is a remarkable level of continuity in the characters behavior and reactions as well; even Keti’s recent odd behavior was built upon layers and layers of previous content which informed all but the most unobservant readers that Keti was going to go nuts. If anything, the level of foreshadowing concerning Keti has been overkill, though some of the shout-outs have been subtly done. Even recent events such as An flirting with Daniel have their roots in the past (though this is more evident in hindsight).
That’s not to say there are no incongruities. The problem is discerning what aspects are mistakes, and which ones just haven’t come to fruition yet. One case in point is with Keti’s mom, Beansprout, who Flibbage initially asked to come to the Dojo to teach. It would not be for just over 190 updates when Beansprout would land the job Flibbage had offered way back when. Add in the presence of a Deus Ex Machina (literally) from the InubuYAKasha prequel story, and almost any incongruity can ultimately be hand-waved away. Hopefully, Ally and Em will take the time and effort to deal with these incongruities before they’re a problem, rather than rely on their Deus Ex Machina (unless, of course, the DEM is in fact the point of said storyline).
Footloose is rated PG. I don’t recall any swearing (though swear-substitution has occurred, with “Folk” and “Folking” being the primary “curse word” of choice (Folk undoubtedly referring to the “Fair Folk”). That said, there are a couple of scenes with some nudity (full rear nudity for Sparkle, and An’s breast is visible when Daniel “exposed” her during their duel), and some violence as well. The nudity in question was not gratuitous (well, maybe showing Sparkle’s butt was, but seeing that she was the butt of the joke…), and the violence isn’t nearly as bad as that shown on television, so I feel safe in keeping the PG rating. (That said, as always I urge parents to read the entire comic before letting young children read it themselves. What I find tame, others might find objectionable.)
Punctuality: Monday/Tuesday and some Wednesday/Thursdays (see below).
Footloose has had an odd update schedule for a while. Initially, it updated weekly with two pages (one new page, one redrawn art), often on Thursday but sometimes posted earlier if Emily Brady finished the artwork quickly enough. With the launch of the spin-off prequel comic Magical Transvestite Cherry (which updates when sufficient funds are donated toward the comic), the update schedule shifted to two comics a week, with one update for Footloose and the second either Footloose or Cherry. This is the current state of things, with updates often appearing on Mondays and Wednesdays in the U.S. (or very early Tuesday/Thursday in England, where Ally and Em live). There have been occasional missed updates, but for the most part the comic updates on time (or early) and regularly.
Additional Web Content: 3.5 ribbons
One thing I should note about the Footloose website is that some of the content is not related to the comic itself. While the site includes links to the comic, the spin-off prequel comic, and the fanfic prequel, there are also links to a third comic unrelated to Footloose, as well as an art gallery of artwork Emily Brady offers for sale. The art gallery does include Footloose-related artwork and fan-art, though I must admit I wish the art had a sorting system that differentiated new work from existing art. Most art galleries have similar problems with efficient sorting, so it’s more of a personal gripe than something I’d mark off on.
Comic-related content also includes a cast page written up as files for each student in the four classes. While this was imaginatively done, the lack of attached pictures or information on Jin and Keti’s parents (and Flibbage for that matter) does lessen the impact of the page. Oddly enough, it also increases the importance of the secondary characters in my eyes. I’d probably have never noticed most of the secondary cast except for that page. I’m unsure if they’re included because schools (or dojos) would have a large selection of students, or because Ally plans on fleshing them out if and when the story eventually returns to the dojo.
Unfortunately, there are no separate pages for species information, history, or similar categories. This is not to say the information is missing from the comic; instead, Ally and Em integrated it into the comic as a whole. I suspect Ally and Em want to avoid cluttering the site with too much detail, even if it would be easy to reuse specific pages from the comic for these sections. While it would be nice to have a map of Faerie, I can understand why Ally and Em have been reluctant to create one (or at least show the readers this map).
As I stated earlier, I first fell in love with Footloose because of its characters. But while Keti, Daniel, Jin, and An may have drawn me into the comic, it was the mixture of story and effective use of storytelling tropes that have kept me here. While I’ve managed to guess a few plot points (to the point that Ally and Em have a standing policy not to tease me with hints any longer), more often than not the plot contains enough elements I didn’t foresee that even when I get something right, I never quite guessed at the entire picture. (But let’s face it; those sky blue pieces are almost impossible to put together in jigsaw puzzles.)
Recent updates have been following up on Keti’s fracturing mental state (as a result of Keti’s MGSD) and its effect on the people around Keti and their relationships with her. One obvious focus will be the relationship between Keti and An; while part of Keti is in denial of her attraction to An, that part of Keti’s not in control any longer. This may actually force An to finally state her intentions, which are probably “just” friendship. While I’ll admit part of me would enjoy seeing An and Keti pair up, An honestly hasn’t shown that level of attraction to Keti (especially when compared to her occasional flirtations with Dan). What’s refreshing about this is the honesty of this character interaction, with An’s refusal to confront Keti up until now for fear of hurting the feelings of what may very well be her only friend.
Other character relations and interactions likewise flow naturally, whether it’s Iordan’s unassertive nature and quiet interest in Keti or the growing relationship between Jin and Cherry. As several members of the secondary cast have slowly grown, their personalities likewise have evolved and come to share the limelight with the primary cast. This is not always obvious and as I mentioned before, only three of the cast (Iordan, Jimmy, and Cherry) have shown significant growth. With the shift of venue (and the reduction of secondary cast), this has been changing, giving Claudette and Sylphia more time in the sun as well. It remains to be seen if the secondary and tertiary cast at the Dojo will see similar attention when the story returns that way, but hopefully with time their stories can also be told.
That is not to say that the relative lack of development in the secondary cast is deliberate; when you consider there’s only been a little over 300 updates for the comic, it’s more understandable that the majority of the secondary cast hasn’t had time to shine. And while the comic’s concept (of Keti being a “story magnet” due to her “primary protagonist syndrome”) is suggestive that the vast majority of Footloose’s stories will involve her, that doesn’t lessen the possibilities of secondary cast development. Keti’s interactions and the development of friendships with the others in the Dojo would give both Keti and her fellow students the time to shine in the spotlight and become individuals, instead of background fodder.
It is this mixture of storytelling skill and distinctive characters that makes Footloose well worth reading. The story mixes both humor and more dramatic moments nicely, without letting either aspect dominate the comic as a whole. This is a refreshing change over the majority of storyline comics, which tend to lose much of their humor for the sake of dramatic storytelling. It is the spots of light humor that help alleviate and contrast the darker moments of stories, and hopefully Footloose will manage to maintain that balance as the story continues to grow.