Webcomics

Opportunities You Should Not Miss

After mucking around with (imaginary) TV shows, I’m overdue to write about webcomics again.

When Chapter 8 begun, when the pacing accelerated and the plot started to pay off promises made in earlier chapters, I noticed that in many posts about the Opportunities webcomic I have written about individual pages, panels, or specific techniques, but never given a broad overview.

It’s time to present the large-scale picture and praise the excellent storytelling of Opportunities.

tl;dr -> Opportunities is a great comic: Go read it now!

If you haven’t read the comic yet, nor any of my previous posts, here’s a summary:

Opportunities, created by sincerely and Elliwiny, is about a posse of professional assassins posing as proper businesspeople negotiating with alien spacefarers, because they want to extort a means of space travel to leave Earth behind for good, and about those who stand against them. (See the blurb!)

Be aware that this post contains some SPOILERS; Yet another reason to read the comic right now.

Evolution

Like many webcomics, Opportunities is being created over the course of several years (even if the story itself takes places in just five days). It is no wonder that writing and art improve over time.

That said, since the story has been written – or at least drafted – in its entirety beforehand, from the very beginning the plot is rock-solid, the pacing is great, the character voices are distinctive, and the dialog is snappy and poignant. Everything goes from very good to truly excellent.

The way the story unfolds and is presented is strongly reminiscent of TV shows. This leads to another kind of improvement, as the story builds up a stronger foundation and gathers steam with each chapter, like the episodes of an excellent serial show. (It also means that if you are into great TV drama, you should really have a look at Opportunities.)

One improvement that is more marked than these is the way Opportunities handles exposition. The first two chapters contain quite a bit of expository dialog that feels slightly artificial, but in the later chapters dialog that performs similar function works seamlessly and sounds natural.

Similar to the writing, the art improves over time, but it is very good from the start. The artistic expression becomes even more versatile, even more powerful, and even more intense.

Art

Disclaimer: I’m not an artist or art expert, which means I’m talking out off my a** here.

The art of Opportunities is really good. Compared to the intense black-and-white, gray-scale, or limited palette look of noir detective or dark sci-fi comics, it has a rather laid-back quality, and compared to gloriously colorful fantasy comics, it is a lot more accessible. It is also easy on the eyes in the usual as well as in the strictly literal sense; Places look like places you’d like to be in, people look like people you’d like to be with (in case you’d like to be with ruthless criminals).

The faces and figures of both humans and aliens all look great, believable, adorable, and distinct.

The art quality is very consistent, and the art is always there to serve the story.

On some special occasions the art is unusually fancy and breaks out of the story to highlight character moments and to give the reader something extra to think about.

Page & Panel Layout

Most of the pages have standard rectangular panels arranged in a regular grid. Panel size and grid layout are varied deliberately to emphasize particular story elements and to support rhythm and pacing. Sometimes a layout with many small panels is used for dramatic interpersonal moments, which works well, makes the drama intense, and gives the distinct feeling of an excellent TV show. Often, there are inserts or overlays showing a character’s face in close-up or some important small detail. Sometimes important objects are placed on top of the panel layout.

World Building

The world-building is consistent and supports the story very well.

Since the story takes place in a world that looks a lot like today’s, with a couple of aliens and a few spaceships added, it doesn’t need to be extraordinarily extensive or mind-blowing.

Make no mistake, the focus on the mundane, if lush, business environment is a feature, not a bug; it creates the perfect stage for the amazing characters to act.

Characters & Characterization

The best feature of Opportunities is, without question, its incredible cast.

(You may remember that I dedicated an entire blog post to finding real-life actors that would play Opportunities’ cast in a hypothetical TV adaptation.)

There’s the bunch of human assassins:

  • Sara Emmet is one of my favorite femme fatales in any medium, and one of my favorite female character in general. Headstrong, ruthless, irascible, charming, manipulating, luxurious, and drop-dead (in a figurative and a literal way) sexy: You name any quality you can admire in a woman (who is one ocean and one continent away from you), she has it.
  • Jack Frost sees himself as the cornerstone of the team. He’s still very much infatuated with Sara, even since it’s been a long time since they were lovers, and she’s clearly moved on, long ago, and multiple times. But he still believes that deep in her heart she still loves him. Nobody else shares these beliefs, so you might call him delusional. He’s a loose cannon, but his unpredictability can give him a great tactical advantage. If you ever need an excellent action hero with a big heart and a violent mind, call Jack!
  • Dr. Stone is the evil mastermind. He’s good a reading people, analyzing situations, planning and directing, leading a team, and solving technical as well as interpersonal problems. In what’s truly extraordinary storytelling, none of these qualities is an Informed Ability, rather, every single one is actually shown in action. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything comparable since Gus Frings and Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad.
  • Baron is the most mysterious character. He knows how to prick on people to get them where he wants them, and to put people in places they’d rather not be, and he can kill swiftly and without remorse, all of which is as highly commendable in a fictional character as it would be deplorable in a real person. But he enjoys doing so to a degree that can compromise his professionalism. Dr. Stone says they can rely on him; So there’s that.
  • Atticus is an alien who serves as the tech guy for the team. The great thing about him is that he combines the typical hacker working habits with an uneven team player attitude and an adorable nerdiness.

Then there are the alien security officers who they have to fight against:

  • Kyan is the leader of the security team. She is well characterized as the most professionally competent protagonist, but she is also the most conflicted, which makes for great drama. It is a testament for the author’s storytelling prowess that her conflicts doesn’t come from psycho-rabble-babble, but from the serious problems inflicted on her due to political requirements for keeping up peaceful appearance that are at odds with security concerns.
  • Rex is her subordinate, who loves to make fun of Kyan’s seriousness. He has a rather laid-back attitude when it comes to security, and prefers to check out the women at the pool instead. Of all things, his peculiar interest in Sara’s fine feminine figure makes him realize that there is some deep deception going on.
  • Nathan is pretty much Rex’ buddy, classically different in attitude and temper.

Two supporting characters have an important function and interaction with those two groups:

  • Marco Santiago aka Cortez is an employee of Pursuit International, the organisation the assassins want to infiltrate. He’s well characterized as an incredibly suave hispanic gentleman (not my words, mind you, but certainly accurate) and becomes Sara’s lover, smokescreen, and manipulation target. The relationship is well depicted, and we get to love him enough to become severely impacted when his interaction with the assassins will get him in harm’s way.
  • Vigi is an alien of a unique species in the comic. She has a history with Kyan, which made them deadly enemies. She tries to expose the Pursuit business deal as fraud with corruption, and gets in the crossfire of the fight between the assassins and the alien security force. She is funny, sometimes almost a comic relief character, but she is characterized seriously, has agency, and if her actions betray more enthusiasm than professional tradecraft, that is her problem, not the author’s fault.

Finally we have a supporting cast of excellent characters who give additional richness to the story. (Remember how much Breaking Bad profited from its great supporting cast?)

Action, Drama & Comedy

Opportunities has an excellent mix of action, drama, and comedy.

After the flash forward at the start which shows us that there will be murder, mayhem, and explosions later on, we see only occasional action until chapter 8, but when we see it, it’s well choreographed and depicted. Opportunities’ focus is rather on drama, and it’s the kind of drama that comes with slow build-up. There’s constantly increasing tension as the plot gets more complex and intertwined, and the reader gets sucked into the story more and more.

There’s great humor mixed into action and drama: Some slapstick, some wordplay, some dramatic irony, but mostly character humor of the finest variety. It is always well-placed, and never undercuts the drama, but more often than not supports and strengthens it.

Plotting & Pacing

Plotting has been done with great skill and dedication: The plot thickens continuously, there are multiple plot strands interwoven and feeding into each other, things get a lot more complex in a very natural way, but the plot always makes sense, and the reader can develop complete trust into the writer’s ability to keep up.

The are numerous twists and surprises, even though the reader is let in on most of the protagonists’ secrets early on; there are only a couple of mysteries, but there is plenty of intrigue. You don’t see this done so well very often.

Pacing is always difficult with webcomics, and so it takes some effort to get into the groove with Opportunities. Once this effort has been expended, the reader will notice that the pacing is really good, there is a rhythm that flows very naturally, and the switch between fast moments, tense moments, and quiet moments is always smooth.

Dialog & Depiction

The dialog is well-written. Each character speaks in their own way, there’s lively back-and-forth in conversations and discussions, emotional state and thinking process are revealed, the aliens speak in a different ways depending on the degree of alien-ness, and everything is done subtly or markedly, with or without exaggeration, whatever style works best.

The art enhances the dialog in the most beautiful way. Facial expression and body language always fit incredibly well. Page composition and panel layout support the dialog wonderfully: They set the stage, establish the tone, keep or switch focus as required, and provide the feel of movement that serves best to engage the reader with every conversation, or even monologue.

If the characters and their interaction are the best features of Opportunities (and they are), the dialog scenes are the perfect presentation of both.

Details & The Big Picture

Another outstanding feature of Opportunities is the diligence on details, and the way small details are used to create an incredible depth for the big picture:

There are many more examples where the eye for detail shows, both in the writing and the art, and the story is so much netter for it.

To say it once again: Opportunities is a great comic: Go read it!

What do YOU think about Opportunities? Tell us in the comments!

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Drive: Pushing The Limits Of Space Opera

Today I’m talking about the webcomic Drive, created by Dave Kellett, which is a story that’s Pushing The Limits Of Space Opera. I already mentioned Drive in several blog posts.

Space Operas are awesome!

In movies, the coolest Space Opera lately was Guardians Of The Galaxy. Facilitated by technological progress, it sported amazing visuals. The combination of Space Opera and Superhero Movie was done very well.

Guardians Of The Galaxy even profited from the fact that it came late to join a long history of Space Opera movies: Non-human characters as part of an ensemble cast are no longer something that stands out too much, which enabled the film-makers to integrate all these genetically enhanced/modified/created characters so seamlessly that they could perform any imaginable movie character function. Paradoxically, by adding a raccoon and a tree to the cast, Guardians Of The Galaxy manged to make both the Superhero and the Space Opera genre appear more human.

Space Opera Webcomics are eve more awesome

I have no considered opinion what the latest, greatest Space Opera is on TV, in novels, or in printed comics, but I do have an opinion about webcomics:

Since Space Operas as stories are awesome, and webcomics as a storytelling medium are awesome, it come to no surprise that Space Opera Webcomics are super awesome.

Ever since the great webcomic Space Trawler by Christopher Baldwin (which will be the topic of another blog post here, some day in the future) came to its brutal conclusion, which was most fulfilling, if also very sad, there can no longer be any question that the webcomic Drive, created by Dave Kellett, is the current apex of Space Opera in webcomics.

What do I mean with: Pushing The Limits Of Space Opera? The possibilities to enlarge the size and scope of space operas in a numerical sense are endless: Adding more planets (or even galaxies), more races, more weapons, more magic, greater time spans; you name it, someone has done it. And this approach isn’t necessarily bad, as evidenced by a couple of great works which do this, for example one of my favorite webcomics, Schlock Mercenary. (Just to be clear, Schlock Mercenary does a lot of other cool things as well.)

Also, science fiction stories or space operas that do not push the limit as described in this post can still be totally awesome: Space Mullet (see also these posts), Trekker (see also those posts), Opportunities (see also those other posts), and Space Junk Arlia are fine examples.

Drive: Beware The SPOILERS!

Now I will have to back up this bold claim with hard facts, but to do so requires countless SPOILERS, so I encourage you to check up on Drive first.

It’s about 200 pages in, so reading it all will take some time, but it will be totally worth it: You will you avoid SPOILERS, and it will also be one of the best stories you have read in a long time.

Now, if you have read Drive, or are not afraid of SPOILERS anyway, you can proceed.

Drive: The Promises

Drive is very upfront and open with its promises to the reader:

  • By the end of the prologue, at page three, we know the main premise of the world-building, namely the Ring Drive and the Second Spanish Empire build from it. Tone and style are already being established.
  • About two dozen pages later, we know the main characters, but one, and also much more about the world-building, and most of the premise for the story. We have also seen a couple of amazing backmatter pages from the Enciclopedia Xenobiologia.
  • When the last addition to the main ensemble cast is introduced, it takes little more than a dozen pages till it is revealed that Orla keeps some secrets from the rest of the crew.
  • When the Filipods are introduced, it is made clear that they are poets whose loquaciousness can bore people to death, but also super awesome scientists and engineers.
  • Further into the story, we are presented with a map of the galactic powers that tells us about every place we will ever encounter.
  • When their home planet is cracked in half, the Filipods, because of their unique evolutionary development, are kept alive, and not thrown into the air like every Tesskan who lives on the same planet.
  • We also see, quite early on, an organisational chart that hints at a super-secret unit called Jinyiwei, headed by the Puno Gris.

Drive: The Surprises

But despite being so upfront, and never playing hide-and-seek or smoke-and-mirrors, Drive manages to surprise the reader, again and again, and on so many different levels:

There are many, many more. Which one are your favorites? Tell us in the comments!

Drive: The Big Payoffs

What makes Drive truly extraordinary is how the different surprising developments interact with each other and form a fabric of world-building that has few equals with regard to complexity, creativity, cohesion and clarity.

There is no hokus-pokus, mumbo-jumbo, yadda-yadda bullsh*t going on; everything in this story is mind-blowing exactly because it all makes sense, it all comes together.

Here are the examples for payoffs that fulfill the promises, surprise the reader, pull story elements together, and also intrigue us by promising even more fantastic story developments:

Just to make it clear, there are a couple more important developments that could be listed here as well, time and space permitting. This is a blog post, and not an epic!

Drive: The Future

The best thing about Drive is that we are just a little into the second act now, which means that the best is still to come. I’m really excited about the future of Drive and so should you; go check it out!

Now, what do you think? Please tell us in the comments!

Talking, Thinking, Threshold

For a couple of years, Firefly was the only screwed-by-the-network (I believe that’s the technical term) sci-fi TV show that I cared about. I can’t say I care about it less, now – and if I could, it would certainly be imprudent to do so – but I recently added another item to that ticket: Threshold, which aired on CBS in 2005. To be clear, Threshold is a very different kind of science fiction story than Firefly. In my opinion there is no meaningful way to compare them as such. I like both kinds of science fiction, just as I like many other, different kinds just as well. And while we are speaking, let me use this opportunity to harp on my favorite theme: One of the best things about webcomics is that they span so wide an area, and so many different styles and themes are covered. You will probably know what Firefly is about – a small crew of outcasts, making their live as freelance smugglers or mercenaries, in space, in a ‘verse that contains worlds with very different societies – but you will maybe not know Threshold, so here are the main points:

  • In our world, in our time (2005), an unidentified alien object, a probe ship, goes down over the Atlantic Ocean, in the vicinity of a Navy transport ship.
  • The probe emits strong visual, aural, and radio signals; and some radiation that can deform metal
  • The ship’s crew is affected in multiple ways: Some are disfigured and die, some go violently crazy and kill themselves or others, etc.
  • This multi-faceted infection spreads over to the US, the infected humans form a conspiracy to transform all humanity
  • Following a protocol that was created for worst-case scenarios, the US government forms a secret team to plan and apply measures to contain the threat (infection)
  • There is much strain on the team, and on its relations to other agencies, because the measures they need to apply are a conspiracy as well

I guess you could call this Serious Spy Drama meets Men In Black, which would offer an instant explanation for my love for Threshold. For all their thematic differences, Firefly and Threshold have a lot in common:

  • The visual effects are from decent up to pretty good, but not extraordinary, especially if compared to feature films which can spend a lot more time and money
  • The plot is solid, the pacing pretty fast, the narrative rhythm really good
  • The world-building is very consistent and makes sense in context
  • The characters are really good, and especially the mixture is excellent
  • The most important focus of the story is on character interaction and dialog (the style is quite different, though)

I love consistency in world-building more than scientific accuracy; I don’t care if the science is correct – whatever that may even mean in the context of speculative fiction – but I care if the behavior of the scientists and the processes used make sense (given that they are dramatized versions, not realistic depictions). And thinking about Threshold as I binge-watched it lead me to the observation that I love dramatic moments that involve people talking. Which is kind of curious, looking at the genres that I read or watch, which are all mostly about action and fast pacing: Science Fiction, Espionage, Techno-Thriller, Crime (Procedurals and Thrillers), etc.  With a couple of exceptions, I do not like genres very much that rely on talking per se. But my favorite examples of the genres I love are all, to an astonishing degree, about drama expressed as people talking (or occasionally, very noticeably not talking).

  • My favorite spy novels are the books by John Le Carre, my favorite crime thriller is The Silence Of The Lambs, my favorite naval history novels are the Master & Commander series by Patrick O’ Brian.
  • What I admire the most in Breaking Bad and The Good Wife are character interaction and dialog (though I’ll readily admit that I love TV shows with smart and sexy women).
  • The visuals in both Guardians Of The Galaxy and Kingsman are certainly awesome, but the best parts of each movie are, again, character interaction and dialog.
  • And my favorite webcomics combine character interaction and dialog with great visuals and cool action (most of the examples I’ve talked about in earlier post will fall into that category)

When it comes to dialog, webcomics seem to have severe disadvantages:

  • The word count is limited
  • If the limits of word count are actually tested, the comic can become visually uninteresting (wall of text)
  • The dynamic of the speech act cannot be depicted directly
  • There is no music

But excellent comics apply a couple of tricks to achieve dynamic and create drama when depicting people who talk:

  • Dynamic camera work can be simulated by panel composition and layout
  • Even few words can amount too much if they are emphasized by visual focus on the speaker or the listener
  • The effect of words can be conveyed by depicting the listener(s), and the effort to speak them by depicting the speaker
  • Good lettering can provide clues to context, emphasis, and meaning of the words that are spoken

A very good example for these techniques is the webcomic Validation, which updates twice a week with a three-panel strip. Most of the strips are about people talking while sitting around a table or standing in a group. Many strips show only a single person – the protagonist – sitting at a keyboard or thinking. None of these activities looks very dynamic in itself, but the depiction in the comic is very dynamic:

Set in a very different world, Space Mullet, which has many astonishing visual effect for epic establishing shots or dramatic action scenes, uses exploration of the setting as framing for discussions to make them more interesting, sometimes combined with great camera movement.

And quite different methods, all of them reminiscent of TV show or movie techniques, are used in Opportunities to create dynamic dialog pages:

There are many more examples in the webcomics that I love, and I could talk about these a long time – in fact, I plan to revisit this topic and talk about more examples in the future. But for now, I will leave it at that and ask you:

  • What do you think of the importance of dialog in action-oriented stories?
  • What do you like or dislike about dialog in (web)comics?
  • What are your favorite examples?

You can answer all these questions in the comments. You may have noticed that I changed the claim beneath the photo to Updates Every Other Tuesday, in an attempt to align promise and reality. So lets hope I will see you again in two weeks.