You really couldn’t come up with two more different stories, but I think there’s actually a thread pulling these two together. In any event, I’ve been spending way too much time reading and re-reading both of them — Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity by Dave Roman since the :01 Books folks were kind enough to send me an advanced review copy (which may see changes prior to release in June), and Finder: Voice by Carla Speed McNeil since I picked it up yesterday. Let’s take AA: ZG first, shall we?
- Hakata Soy is the new kid at school — which just happens to be a Space School on a Space Station, where you learn all kinds of Space Things. He also used to the be the leader of a Voltron-like robotics hero team and is joining a term already in progress. There are predecessors for this story — substitute magic or mythosteampunk in various proportions and you’d in Harry Potter or Gunnerkrigg Court territory — but Roman hits on a story technique that sets this story apart.
Yes, this is Hakata’s story, but each chapter (some as short as a page, some ten or more pages) is told from the point of view of a different character. There’s an overall story arc, but it’s told in bits from many angles; it’s not quite Rashomon (there’s not just one incident in play here), it’s more like an oral history where the interview subjects sometimes have only the slightest desire to be associated with each other. There’s nominal villains, but there’s nobody that can’t be understood or redeemed, even the vain and spoiled Maribelle Mellonbelly (who rules the school as the richest and prettiest girl) learns that friendship and selflessness are admirable.
But the best character literally wafts his way through the narrative, trying to avoid all entanglements and spend his time floating in the emptiness of space under the distant stars. All of the students are refreshingly direct about what they’re thinking and why (young kids can, after all, be one step away from sociopaths in their concern about nothing other than themselves), about abilities and possessions that they just remembered they have (ditto on kids being generally scatterbrained), but Doug absolutely wins for honesty. During an emergency anti-gravity drill, Maliik Mehendale floats close to Doug for mutual support:
M: Hey, Doug. Looks like we’re partners.
D: If you turn out to be dead weight, I’ll cut you loose without hesitation.
What keeps Doug (and Maribelle, and Scab Wellington, and Cybert the killer robot) from coming off as evil is that they’re just so darned cute. Roman’s art is equal parts cartoony-style Tezuka (think more Mighty Atom and less Black Jack) and Dig-Dug, with thick, chunky lines and art that plays well in silhouette — reduce any character to a filled-in black shape and you’ll still be able to tell who it is and what they’re feeling from body language. It’s a delight to read from start to finish.
- Finder, by contrast, is a deep, deep study of a culture-clashing powderkeg of a domed city, with art that has found the ideal balance point between “utterly realistic people” and “but some things need to be exaggerated for the story”, with nary a hint of the Uncanny Valley. It’s a long, long story of goin’-on 2000 pages, with Voice being the ninth collection released, and the first since McNeil shifted from a print-pamphlets-then-collect-the-trade model to a release-pages-as-a-webcomic-then-release-the-trade model. It is also an absolute refutation of the notion that webcomics can’t do longform stories, considering it’s not just a 200 page story, but a portion of the larger, interlocking tale.
The focus of Voice is on 18 year old Rachel Grosvenor and her immediate challenge to gain a full membership her clan — it’s one of the oldest and most prestigious in her society, full membership will allow her to care for her siblings and see them educated, and failure to achieve means her best alternative is to become somebody’s mistress. Oh, and you get one shot at winning membership, there are only a limited number of slots open, and the legal right to attempt is tied to an heirloom ring that was just taken off her in a mugging.
Rachel needs something found, and nominal main character of the overall story arc is Jaeger, the titular Finder (who can not only find things that you ask him to, but by virtue of the title is obligated to do so, and without payment), and he doesn’t appear in this story at all. With the sort-of hero (Jaeger is half Campbellian Hero, half capricious wanderer, and half trickster figure) appearing only in bits of memory, this isn’t going to be a conventional story. In order to find her ring (which may allow her to find a place in her clan), Rachel must find the Finder — or learn to make do herself without the need for the hero to save her.
This is where Finder and Astronaut Academy converge. Take the many viewpoints of AA and expand them from short chapters to entire books — each volume of Finder has a different POV character, the stories overlap and happen around the fringes of each other, and contribute to a single (albeit loosely connected) narrative.
It’s not so much dealing with how the characters interact as how entire cultures do, with Jaeger’s status as outsider (literally — his legal right to be in the domed city is at times tenuous) allowing him to cross the metaphorical and physical boundaries and see how their mores interact. For sheer depth of backstory and implication and untold stories around every streetcorner (much of which is hinted at in her page-by-page endnotes, as detailed as you’d find in Family Man or Templar, AZ) McNeil has no peer.
This is as good as [web]comics gets, and Voice works well enough as a standalone story that you won’t lose out having not read the previous eight collections — but when you’re done reading (and re-reading, and re-re-reading) Voice, make sure you’ve got some budget to get those earlier collections, because you’re going to be drawn back to Jaeger’s meandering path again and gain. Fortunately, Dark Horse (who are now McNeil’s publishers) will be releasing the first four volumes in a highly-affordable (more than 600 pages for $24.95!) collected edition in less than a month. Start saving, you’re going to want it.