Establishing Sense (Of Scale) And Sensibility

Many of my favorite webcomics are science fiction stories, and especially stories set in space.

Some of those you would call Space Opera. Others are of the type X IN SPACE, where X can be just about everything imaginable: Crime, drug trafficking, law enforcement, scientific research, pest removal, system maintenance, romance (with varying degree of explicitness), politics, and of course many different styles of military operations.

Comics that are set in space need to convey a sense of space, of being in space, of having left Earth-That-Was, in addition to everything else that a comic needs to convey: The experience of dynamics, of motion and emotion, that transcends the comparatively static nature of the medium.

This sense of space is to a large degree a sense of scale: The hugeness of moons, planets and stars, the endless void between those, the small or big (or gargantuan) spacecraft traveling. And the emotion instilled by all this has to fit in with the tone and style of the story: Cheerful, adventurous, mysterious, or dark and dangerous.

In theory, establishing a proper sense of scale for science fiction comics set in space should be impossible. The TV Tropes article called SciFi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale explains why. However, I find that there are many webcomics that excel at Etablishing Sense & Sensibility. My examples in today’s post are Space Pest Removal, Drive, Greasy Space Monkeys, and Space Mullet.

Since today the focus is on visual effects and not on plotting, there will only be minor spoilers, but I still want to give you the opportunity to get up-to-date with them.

Now, if you are back, or if you don’t mind the MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss (that’s what the comments are for, duh).

One way that comics can avoid the problems described in the TV Tropes article called SciFi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale is by applying a cartoonish style to the depiction of space and spaceships/stations.

A good example of this is the really funny webcomic Space Pest Removal, which has cartoon style characters, environments, and storylines, so that cartoonish space contraptions like this giant flask that can capture a spaceship are as natural as this symbolic depiction of a wormhole.

The fantastic webcomic Drive uses similar effects: It has slightly more realistically drawn, but still pretty cartoonish characters, and really funny looking spaceships, so that neither a close encounter of two spaceships, a large fleet leaving a planet, or another large fleet landing on a planet look unnatural in any way. And this is despite the fact that this comics is, at least to my understanding,  a satire, by background, environment and plot, which requires funny but somewhat realistic imagery.

Another approach, very different in style, is taken by one of my favorite (if you are wondering if it is possible to have so many favorite webcomics, or if I’m just afraid to choose: I’ve got at least a dozen favorites, because each one is my favorite for some particular reason) webcomics, Greasy Space Monkeys. Here the technology is presented in what I would call a highly stylized, but not at all cartoonish, imagery. If the depiction of the exterior and interior of spaceships and stations is somewhat symbolic, it looks rather serious. It is also quite beautiful, despite the basic idea that much of the station where most of the story is set is supposed to be old and greasy – hence the title.

The space station gives a convincing impression, somehow, even if it looks ridiculously small. An asteroid field is really an object lesson with regard to the SciFi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale trope, and the page that shows a space freighter maneuvering through the asteroid field even more so, but I experience this scene perfectly naturally as in-space.

Another example from this great comic is the space battleship, which is quite beautiful, while still conveying its intimidating design for brute force application in combat, and looks just about right whether it is parked just outside the window or approaching the jumpgate.

The scene where the battleship is threatening immediate destruction to the station where our heroes are temporarily placed looks cool, even if the panel with the ship is very small, almost insignificant, because the dire situation is expressed in the dialog, with a close-up on the captain to begin with, and the small panel is, again, rather more a symbol that a depiction of the promised mayhem.

And the annihilating the abandoned station is again drawn as an image of beauty, which should be inappropriate given the theme, but somehow just isn’t.

So this is really one of the places where my all of analysis and deep thinking fails to provide an explanation. Of course, I’m happy with this; even though my blog is dedicated to scrutinizing superb storytelling, it is never my intent to take away all the mystery.

The true master of establishing both the sense of space in its glorious scale, and the sensibility of the people interacting in front of this mighty canvas, is in my opinion the creator of  Space Mullet, the wonderful webcomic I mentioned already in previous posts. Its style is dark, gritty, and just realistic enough, but not too much, to depict, during a deep space voyage, the intimacy of the cockpit versus the immense void of space and the sheer beauty of approaching your home planet with a fine touching effect.

In a storyline set on a spacestation we get an incredibly emotional picture of  the edge of space, the void of space symbolising the void of death at a moment where the story has reached its darkest, saddest, but also most deeply moving point.

When we see the mindblowingly huge New Mars City, floating on its orbit around the planet for the first time, it leaves us in awe.

There would be many more examples for todays theme, but for the next couple of articles I will switch the focus from visual effects to dialog and characterisation, and especially look at how different types of humor are established in webcomics.

See you next Tuesday.


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