While some people joke that Steampunk is what happens when Goths are introduced to the color brown, the truth is a bit more complex. In many ways Steampunk allows fans to indulge in the wistfulness for the past while retaining some element of the comforts of today’s technology… only with an added “coolness” factor of visible gears, glowing lights, and odd tubes that ultimately do nothing more than to add character to devices (and prevent them from fitting easily into pockets or the like).
That said, Steampunk has become to be less of a genre and more of a flavour for storytellers who wish to mix and match tropes to create something unique. This is definitely the case with Next Town Over, with the Steampunk elements being part of the amalgam of genres to craft a truly unique feel that includes Western, Fantasy, and Alternative Reality. Truth be told, NTO is more of a Fantasy Western than anything else; the Steampunk elements are barely hinted at four pages in, and only come into their glory nearly 50 pages in with a Steampunk-cyborg horse.
Nor is that the most surreal element in the story, which starts with the fiery funeral and rebirth of someone I assume to be the bounty hunter Vane Black as she seeks the outlaw sorcerer John Henry Hunter; a man who apparently knew Black back in civilization and who has the ability to summon and control fire (and a few other tricks as well). And while it would be easy to claim that Hunter is the Devil and Black seeks his demise, as fragments of their past and more of their present comes to pass, it becomes increasingly clear that neither character is a hero… or villain.
Both live in shades of dark grey; Hunter will kill or maim those who try to claim the bounty on his head or who threaten him, but he’ll leave innocents untouched even as his flames burn buildings down and end livelihoods. Black has robbed men, shot others, and then in the next town allies herself with men who Hunter has tried to con and treats them with a modicum of respect. And even when he had Black at his mercy, he left her unharmed (though I wonder if she can be harmed; she was shot through the hand to little effect when she first confronted Hunter).
Cartoonist Erin Mehlo has managed to craft a fascinating story and the world surrounding Black and Hunter, though she’s not yet revealed if Hunter’s “talents” are unique to him or if others in this world can utilize similar powers (though one of the side-stories hints that Hunter may not be unique to this world). What’s more, Mehlo’s artwork is detailed and quite skilled; each new character differs in structure and form, with an individuality that is rarely seen even in print comics. In short, this is one of the more fascinating comics I’ve come across, and definitely worth the time to read. Fair warning though, the comic can get violent. I mean, we’ve horses brought back from the dead with clockwork at the very least. And oh yes, there will be blood.
It’s been said, more than once, that all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. While this is true even if a story isn’t good, far too often I’ve seen webcomics continue on well past their expiration date. Fortunately, I’ve also seen instances when an artist has realized he or she has told all that can be said about that story… and that it’s time to move on. This time has now come for Michael Terracciano’s 3,000th and final update of his fantasy comic Dominic Deegan.
Unlike some of Terracciano’s naysayers, I’ve enjoyed DD more often than not. While there were times the comic dragged and even a few times I stopped reading, there was one thing that drew me back: the sense of fun that could often be found in the comic. Much akin to anime, DD was a cyclical comic that would gleefully descend into rampant silliness and goofiness until finally a larger story would evolve and things would get worse and worse. And even then Terracciano would sneak in a few moments of humor to make the darkness even deeper… until the dawn would break.
That said, the comic had run its course. There wasn’t much else for Dominic to do (having saved the world a couple of times already; it was becoming old hat). I do wonder if Terracciano could have allowed Dominic to die (and when he was catching glimpses of the future of his kingdom and not seeing himself in those glimpses I had to wonder if he had died and these were his last moments). Yet given everything that has happened to Dominic (with his magic and second-sight torn from him even as he defeated his final foe), a traditional end with the hero living out his days in peace may work well for this comic.
Not that this is the end for Terracciano; I believe he has plans in the works for a new comic (steampunk-related, if memory serves, but I may be mistaken) (I was – it’s a science fiction/super hero comic, and does look quite good). And let’s face it; while starting anew risks alienating and losing old fans, eventually archives grow so large that it’s ni-impossible to attract new readers… while the increased back-story risks getting in the way of new tales. But for now, Dominic Deegan has come to an end. Not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but just a farewell.
Of all the characters in Rich Burlew’s epic fantasy stick-figure comic Order of the Stick, the least useful character has, up ‘til now, been the bard Elan. While he has had occasional moments of awesomeness (such as his training in a prestige class and rescuing Haley from his evil twin brother Nale), for the most part Elan has been the fifth wheel of the Order of the Stick and hasn’t showed any real effectiveness, especially when Roy has been around.
Part of this might be because Roy thinks of Elan as useless; seeing that he’s the nominal leader of the group, his constant dismissal of Elan as an effective member of the group may have ended up subconsciously sabotaging Elan’s own self-esteem and usefulness. But even when Roy’s not around to dismiss Elan’s often-inane suggestions, Elan often plays the idiot who bumbles through life relying on his good looks and luck to prevail against whatever he faces. In short, Elan’s his own worst enemy, and often makes things worse than they should be.
Thus I must admit I was absolutely shocked by the latest OotS when it was Elan of all people who saw through the illusionary trap they were trapped in. Ironically enough, it was his own immaturity and idiocy that broke the illusion for him… and allowed him to drag the others out of the trap and back into reality. As Elan himself admitted to Roy, his own desires and dreams were foolish and childish whims. The big buildup leading to this was not his marriage to Haley (which says something about his and Haley’s relationship) but rather his parents getting back together. Just because.
In short, the village idiot looked in the mirror and realized the King of Fools was wearing no clothes. In a way it makes sense for Elan to see through the illusion, seeing he’s grown increasingly adept at using illusions with his bardic magic. Sadly, I suspect it would be too much to ask for Elan to show sustained growth from this; much like Belkar, Elan is trapped by reader expectations to truly see any lasting character growth. Oh, there’ll be hints here and there, but both characters at their heart are two-dimensional caricatures who rarely show true growth.
Then again, Belkar’s shown some signs of growth, if only with the cat Mr. Scruffy (and I must admit some vague curiosity as to if Belkar’s illusionary world is one of hedonism, or if it’ll show a glimpse of character growth and the lesson that Durkon’s death may have taught him). Perhaps now that Roy has no choice but to rely on him, Elan may start to emerge from the tangle of idiocy and comic relief that have long prevented him from being what he’s long wanted to be: a hero.
While recent updates over at OotS have tempted me to comment once again on the comic (a testament to Rich Burlew’s storytelling skills), ultimately it was Ashley Cope’s epic fantasy webcomic Unsounded that drew my attention and demanded I follow up on my previous review of the comic. As I had mentioned previously, while the child thief Sette plays the part of the primary protagonist, it is her undead wizardly companion Duane who I find especially interesting, and whose past is starting to unfold in the most recent storyline. Along the way, Cope has managed to increase my sympathy for Sette and also reveal some disturbing aspects to the inner demons Duane struggles with.
One of these is the fact Duane is, in essence, a ghoul (in essence, a monster that consumes human flesh)… and would restrain himself every night to ensure he couldn’t act on those urges when his will was weakest. Unfortunately, during the last chapter a thug sent to capture Sette entered the room where Duane was being kept… and let’s just say I would not want to be the cleaners who have to clean up the room. When Sette tried to “wake” Duane by revealing the light of day to him, she ended up falling through his shadow and into the “khert” or magic of the world… which seems comprised of the memories and dreams of all of the world.
It has been a wild and mad ride that would have Alice wondering who spiked her tea with LSD. I’m also not entirely sure how Cope will adapt this over to a print version, seeing that she indulges in segments that break outside the traditional full-page format the comic normally takes. The world of the khert is insanity manifested and I must applaud Cope as I have no idea how she imagined such bizarre aspects as floating babies held to the ground by umbilical cords (and who thank Sette as she cuts them free), giant multi-limbed hairless dog-beings that seem oddly endearing, or the multitude of insane forms that float through this realm.
But it is the latest bit that has me truly impressed as Sette falls into one of Duane’s memories… back when he was alive and married to a woman named Leysa, with a family… and his conflict as he tells his wife he was selected to become a Spell Composer as part of a plan by the temple he works at to spy on the nobility. These glimpses help fill out the humanity in the monster, and help flesh out the tragedy of what he has become. No doubt in time we’ll learn just what it was that led him to be transformed into the form he’s become. Along the way, I suspect Sette may grow as well. And while I don’t know if I’ll ever truly like her, her character is intriguing enough to rise above that. To craft a character that is both unsympathetic and yet a joy to read is a sign of true storytelling skill.
For those of you who only check on the fantasy stick-figure webcomic Order of the Stick once a week (or less often) due to its… irregular updating schedule (resulting from a conflict between broken glass and cartoonist Rich Burlew’s thumb, though let’s be honest – the comic never had a set update schedule even before Burlew was hurt), for the last week OotS has been updating daily. This has continued into the weekend, and includes multiple twists… including several revelations about Malach that were quite the shock to me (and to poor Durkon).
In many ways Moloch has proven to be a far greater threat to the group than the rest of the Linear Guild (or Tarquin), even though the only two protagonists to face him have been our fuzzy-headed halfling and Durkon. And given his abilities, I suspect Malach would prove a threat to the rest of the crew as well; whether or not the inevitable appearance of Vaarsuvius will tip the tide or merely continue the mad caper to include yet more of our adventuring band remains to be seen (though I must admit some amusement that Durkon considers Roy to be stronger-willed than most of their companions – not that I dispute this, but as a gamer I’m familiar with the vulnerabilities warriors have to enchantments).
Ultimately this only serves to weaken the crew to the point that they will not be able to stand up to Xykon and Redcloak (remember them?) when they inevitably return at the worse possible moment. And return they will; I very much doubt our heroes will have a chance to rest and recuperate, leaving our heroes the horrific choice of destroying yet another Gate (assuming there’s a way to do so or that they can even find the Gate in time) or retreating in the hopes they can wrest it back from our foes in time. In short, Burlew is back in grand style, and so too is his magnificent fantasy comic. OoTS is still as powerful as it was when it started, and best of all, there’s nowhere for it to go but up.
Addendum note: And as usual I’m wrong. I must admit, I did not expect what happened to Durkon. I can see several plot twists ahead… and it works quite well with the prophecy concerning Durkon which also suggests that he’s not going to be restored. Still… what should truly be interesting is how this changes Belkar. He’s already started to walk away from the path of evil by caring for a mere cat. But to witness the loss of Durkon… and to wonder why he himself still lives when Durkon fell? That’s enough to change anyone.
I thought I’d send my congratulations to Mithandir and Alien, the writer-artist team behind the fantasy webcomic Chasing the Sunset; CtS is celebrating its 10th Anniversary this year (starting today). To celebrate, Mithandir and Alien decided to add a few extras below the main strip to call in the anniversary, including fanart submissions, a quiz for readers to test their knowledge (I’ll admit to having been tempted to deliberately answer everything wrong to see if I was declared to have the memory of a pixie), and even a brief word from Alien and Mithandir on just what brought about the start of CtS. And at 728 strips, its archives aren’t quite long enough to drive new readers into despair, while still providing enough content to draw people in. Anyway, congratulations on ten years, and I look forward to plenty more to come.
When people think about fantasy literature, often their views are colored by the works of Tolkien (who himself raided North European mythology when crafting his own world). The vast majority of fantasy stories since Tolkien’s time have been populated by dwarves, elves, short humanoids with furry feet and trademarked names, and related critters. But every so often a fantasy writer will go out on a limb and craft something new, either taking elements of lesser-known fantasies (such as from Asia, India or Africa) or sometimes crafting something entirely new as with Elsa Kroese and Charlotte English’s modern fantasy Spindrift.
Spindrift is the story of Morwenna Agenar, a young woman who is a halfblooded member of the Alar and Ildra races – and while on first glance the Alar could be mistaken for elves with their upswept ears and pale features, their Goddess-given ability to summon wings and fly help them stand out from Tolkien’s elves. The Ildrei are even more interesting with horns growing from various parts of their body (differing with each Ildrei) and in one case possessing taloned feet. In some ways I suppose the Alar and Ildrei could be descended from the mythologies of angels and demons (especially as at least some of the Ildrei have the ability to possess and control their descendants), but I suspect any similarities are coincidental.
While Morwenna was born out of love (or at least mutual lust), the Alar and Ildrei don’t hold one another in high regard; Morwenna’s mother Neva ended up leaving her with her brother… and didn’t even have the courage to admit the truth of Morwenna’s heritage (instead claiming she’d slept with a human, though to date we’ve seen no humans in the comic and they likely will remain a background species as the story grows). This has ended up proving unfortunate once Morwenna’s father, Lord Neburas Rugon, learns of her existence and is convinced by his sister Inez to use her in his quest to gain wings for himself and his tribe so he can gain an advantage over his enemies in the Ildrei.
Given that there’s only been 54 pages of story to date (with ten of those the comic’s prologue), the story has actually come along at a fair clip. We’ve already been exposed to the disdain that Morwenna is held to (and her tendency to just ignore it as she learns to be a blacksmith; it’s her cousin Hayden who often takes offense to how she’s treated), and the immediate reaction of Inez upon learning of Morwenna that the halfbreed should be killed… or used. Interestingly, Neburas himself seems to be a more sympathetic character that actually does care for Neva and even for the daughter he’s never known. It’s just his people mean more to him.
As for the path the story will take, the introductory page hints at more than the current storyline with the ldrei’s efforts to gain their own wings (and the cast page includes one character that hasn’t even appeared in the comic at this point). While the comic updates on a weekly schedule, the artwork is striking, while the pacing is far better than the vast majority of its peers; in fact, I suspect Kroese and English have crafted the start of an epic storyline here. Given the update schedule, I suspect it will take several years for the story to be told. As such, now is the best time to start reading, while the archives are still small enough to be read in one sitting.