One Punch Reviews #2: All Schoolgirl Edition (Minus, Aki Alliance, Alma Mater)
As Japanese manga and anime artists have long known, schoolgirls make for compelling storytelling. There’s probably a good reason for their popularity. Maybe it’s because it reaches out to a female readership while appealing, aesthetically, to the core male readership. However, I won’t go any further with that train of thought because it’ll probably lead to something perverted and more than slightly misogynistic. The genre is so prevalent in Japan that I suspect it’s practically impossible to turn your shoulders without smacking into yet another adventure involving girls in school uniform (usually skimpy).
However, as if to challenge the Eastern dominance on the genre, several Western webcomic artists have created their own stories with schoolgirl protagonists. And you know what? They’re surprisingly good. So join me, reader, in a series of three short reviews for Minus, Aki Alliance, and Alma Mater.
Minus, created by Ryan Armand, is a webcomic about little girl (the title character) who has magical powers to alter reality, speak to ghosts, and whatever else is required of the storyline. In a way, it’s not unlike Bart Simpson from Treehouse of Horror II; anything that Minus thinks, happens. The webcomic, though, is filled with whimsy rather than horror. Other characters in her world get annoyed from time to time with her pranks, but otherwise don’t give second thought to her supernatural powers. It helps that Minus’ antics seem more good-natured than mean-spirited. For example, when she sends two of her friends into an alternate dimension, they’re entertained or enobled, but never truly endangered. The story is so sweet that serious things like death and aging are treated like minor inconveniences. Armand’s art is beautifully simplistic and recalls the minimalist style of European comics. (Armand himself cites “Little Nemo” as an influence.) Minus is one of the best webcomics I’ve ever read. It’s the sort of comic that causes you to smile and to contemplate the meaning of life at the same time. It’s a shame that its nomination for the 2007 Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic went nowhere. Rating: 5 stars (out of 5).
Aki Akuyama has got some severe ADD. She’s joined every club at her school, but they couldn’t keep her attention for very long. Everyone at the all-girl’s school feels slighted, and now Aki has no friends. What’s a friendless, multi-talented girl to do? Why, take on the greatest challenge of all: to make friends with every girl in her class! It’s a super-cheesy premise for a webcomic, but Ryan Estrada makes it work. Thus far, Aki has won over friends in in the unlikeliest ways possible (an unchallenging initial confrontation, followed by a combination boxing match/Scrabble tournament). While the art itself is nothing that hasn’t been seen in several other webcomics (and possibly the Cartoon Network), the layouts are pretty nifty. They sometimes resemble a scrapbook held together with Scotch tape or split the page between video game and real life action. The webcomic may only be 36 pages long as of this writing, but I’ve got a good feeling that the humor, screwy plotlines, and general overall quality will continue to the end, where I fully expect Aki to be the best friends with the whole wide world. Rating: 5 stars.
So far, I’ve given two schoolgirl-based comics a 5 star rating. Can Whitney Robinson’s Alma Mater pull off the hat trick? One of the first things a potential reader will notice — and, in fact, may turn them off of reading this comic — is the highly unorthodox artistic style. The squiggly and simple artwork — where colors refuse to stay between the lines — resembles the sort of illustrations you’d find on print ads aimed at women … yet it also looks rather sloppy. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the illustrations, which I feel impart the comic with a distinct feminine touch. (As a minor quibble, I do have a problem with the lack of word balloons, which forces the dialogue inside thick white outlines.) However, if you look beyond the artwork, you may be surprised to find yourself roped in by the fine storytelling and the painfully accurate anecdotes about school life.
Alma Mater follows, in real time, the trials and tribulations of a group of students at the Blenheim School for Girls. However, you don’t have to be an alumni of an all-girls’ school to relate to their experiences. It’s been 13 years since my senior year at my high school (which, coincidentally, was an all boys’ school), and I’d forgotten how painful high school had been. Robinson brought it all back. The futility of joining school clubs (like being assigned to the dreaded back page of the school newspaper), spacing out in class, the onset of panic at the beginning of a test, and the crippling sense of loneliness felt when you’re the school’s most socially inept outcast. It’s a high school world of insecurity and embarassment, and where “accomplishments” feel strangely hollow. That was Robinson’s experience. That was my experience. And chances are you can relate too.
Alma Mater would have easily earned the third 5 star rating if it had ended after the girls’ first year. However, I felt that the second year, thus far, has been suffering the sophomore jinx. It’s still enjoyable to watch the girls struggle and mature at Blenheim. However, I get the sneaky feeling that Robinson may have exhausted most of her real-life anecdotes in the first year. Instead, Alma Mater is starting to focus on character development and side plots. Jessica, the brash one of the group, is starting to question herself. Laurel is in the middle of a noir fiction (of her own imagination) regarding a coffee conspiracy plot — which, honestly, I skipped over for the most part because it wasn’t very interesting and strayed too far from any semblance of a realistic school situation. And the relentless focus on the awkwardness of my favorite character, the mousy mouth-breather Eileen, has made me like her a little less. Still, I have a feeling that these recent developments are temporary hiccups that will be smoothed out over time. Robinson plans to keep her comic going comic until 2013, the year the girls graduate. If a pinch of drama and goofy sidequests are what you need to keep the reader interested, then so be it.
Like the previous two schoolgirl comics, Alma Mater is highly recommended. If you’re currently attending school, you will find yourself commiserating with the characters. And if your school years are already several years behind you, Alma Mater will give you fits of nostalgia like you won’t believe. Rating: 4 Stars.
Posted on November 12, 2007, in 4 Stars, 5 Stars, all ages webcomic, comedy webcomic, dramatic webcomic, One Punch Reviews, The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics and tagged Aki Alliance, Alma Mater, Minus. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.