The Webcomic Overlook #40: Alpha Shade
Welcome back to the Webcomic Overlook! After a longer-than-expected hiatus — where I traveled across the country, went to the final Sonics game, injured my foot, and wined and dined like there was no tomorrow — it’s time I plunge myself into the weird, wonderful world of digital comics.
But first, let’s talk about anime.
In today’s Saturday Adult Swim world — where blonde haired ninjas dress up in orange jumpsuits, squiggly-shaped characters do battle at the bidding of their trainers, and guys with spiky hair scream real loud and spend some ninety episodes beating the crap out of each other — it’s easy to forget that there was a much smaller but very devoted anime fanbase in the 1980’s. Now, I personally wasn’t part of this fanbase. I cut my teeth a decade later when I watched a little series about where a boy turns into a girl with a splash of cold water. I also made the mistake telling a girl in college all about it with naive, unbridled enthusiasm. (Her piercing accusing eyes … they still penetrate my soul.)
There was a time, though, when anime was filled with space-faring adventures, huge plasma rifles, men who piloted transforming robots, ominous spaceships, and women whose hair looked impossibly shellacked. In short, a time when all anime was pretty much influenced by Star Wars. Robotech is the most famous of these cartoons. There were many, many more, though.
Which brings me to the subject of today’s Webcomic Overlook: Alpha Shade, which looks and feels inspired by those 1980’s sci-fi anime.
Alpha Shade is written and illustrated by brothers Chris and Joe Brudlos. In an interview on Comics Bulletin, the Alpha males, in fact, cite anime as a strong influence. No surprise there. As their artwork bears all the touch tones, from the impossibly large doe-like eyes to the youthful proportions to the use of coloring. They claim that their strongest influence is the anime Wings of Honneamise. I’ve only heard of that movie, but I’ve never seen it. From my experience, though, Alpha Shade stylistically shares many similarities of Leiji Matsumoto’s world (Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato) of space-faring locomotives and submarine-like spaceships piloted by a cool, one-eyed pirate.
(Incidentally, I totally agree with their assessment that Evangelion was a good series that screwed up at the end … but, really, who doesn’t share that exact same sentiment nowadays?)
Alpha Shade exists — or at least during the first chapter — in a vast, scenic world that seems cobbled together from bits and pieces of human history and from Anne McCaffrey novels. Humans pilot WWI biplanes and flying airships that look like steamliners from the early 20th century. An epic war rages. The mechanized forces engage in balletic dogfights and exchange volleys against other fighters who ride majestic, birdlike creatures that resemble the wyverns from Lord of the Rings and the noble chocobo.
Oh, and apparently our soldiers are taking marching orders from house cats.
Small. God. Damn. House cats.
To make it worse, everything is played absolutely straight. There is no indication that this is the set up for a huge joke. The story goes on to explain that the cats are really just one form for a creature that is really a large, hulking panther. There are also attempts to imbue them with mystical powers, which I assume make them more eerie and frightening. To me sounds like some major heavy lifting to sell this absolutely ridiculous concept. Nothing the Brundlos brothers do changes the fact that soldiers and assassins are kow-towing to tiny, mewling house cats.
(You know what’s even more silly? That those sweet biplanes are ruined because those goddamn cats painted on them as decals. Sigh.)
And if that weren’t annoying enough, there are the character designs of our “battle hardened” soldiers. Everybody seems to be either a teenage girl (and some who look disturbingly younger than that) or boys who have the build of a teenage girl.
Granted, Alpha Shade is anime-influenced, and the Japanese art form has an awfully high proportion of men with luxuriously long hair, lilting eyelashes, and sensuously pouty lips. Still, most of these feminine men — from Final Fantasy‘s Sepiroth to Escaflowne‘s Allen Schezar to Berzerk‘s Griffiths — at least have broad shoulders and sturdy builds that are passably male. (OK, maybe not Griffiths.) Maybe I’m a chauvinist, but there’s something a little disturbing about the barely legal curviness of Alpha Shade‘s he-hoochies.
That’s only a few of the detriments with doing an anime style comic. Here’s another one: in Alpha Shade, all of the characters look the same. The story makes an abrupt and confusing transition from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2. The first chapter draws the reader in with a brutal, otherworldly war. The second chapter, on the other hand, goes back in time and retells main character Laura Stone’s college experiences. This is set in the real world. Laura is no longer a soldier and is, instead, the school’s star gymnast. (A side note: ever since Jurassic Park II, gymnastics is easily the lamest attribute to ever give a hero.) Why do the Brundlos’ brothers make such a staggering narrative shift? Hey, your guess is as good as mine.
Anyway, I’d incorrectly assumed that Laura Stone’s college friends were members of the squadron we saw earlier. After re-reading the first chapter and the character summaries (which, oddly, only have profiles of Laura and her high school pals), it turns out I was wrong: Laura was hanging out with a completely new set of characters. For the love of God, why? Keeping track of the first crew was challenge in itself; now there’s a whole new set of names and slightly differentiated faces to keep track of?
Not that the character designs are endearing at all. See this collection of smug, sneering teenagers? These are your heroes, ladies and gentlemen.
Of course, when your protagonists are unpleansant, how are you going to tell them apart from the bad guys? By making the bad guys laughably villainous. I could talk about one character who utterly fails to be a cool badass, or the team of thieves who are supposed to be veterans, yet look like a high school theater club putting on a production of Guys and Dolls.
However, I’d like to focus attention on a villain who made me guffaw the minute he made his appearance: a large, older gentlemen sitting in the shadows and touching his fingers together in the shape of a peak while glaring ominously. It’s as if he were a not-so-subtle bad guy from a Captain Planet cartoon. He even gets hammy dialogue like “I tire of your excuses” and “When the fool arrives, we’ll eliminate him.” I gotta admit, the minute “villainous old guy” showed up on the scene, I laughed (which, I assume, was not the Brundlos brothers’ original intent). Can’t you see this guy being played, or at least voiced, by John Saxon?
Son of a gun, I’m starting to think the Brundlos boys might be doing this on purpose.
I wish I could comment on the story, but it’s so confusing that I couldn’t make head nor tails of it. Alpha Shade starts simple enough. Planes dueling giants birds in an epic war. Cats are apparently field generals. Gotcha. But things get out of control, fast. There’s some sort of mystical connection from an artifact in Peru. Thieves trying to steal a gem are gunned down by an outside assailant. There’s … some sort of talk about royal houses. Brundlos & Brundlos introduce what seems like fifty characters, and no one person really standing out from the other. In fact, outside of Laura Stone, I struggle to remember the names of any of the other characters. Alpha Shade is a serious chore to follow, and my brain, in protest, refused to absorb any of it.
According to Wikipedia, Alpha Shade has won a total of four Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards: Outstanding Long Form Comic, Outstanding Environment Design, and twice for Outstanding Use of Flash. I can almost guarantee you that these awards were based solely on the scenes featuring the avian creatures. I’ll admit, any scene featuring these creatures is utterly stunning. I especially love their rather simple designs — as if these creatures were a collection of thin blue feathers — and the different angles and perspectives Mssr. Brundlos draws them at. The illustrations impart a tangible sense of soaring, gliding, diving, and high speed flight.
Joe Brudlos struggles with illustrating humans, though. He’s improved his style a lot since the series started five years ago. Yet Joe still struggles with human poses. His characters look positively uncomfortable sometimes, especially in scenes where he depicts them reaching out.
Overall, I can’t really recommend Alpha Shade. The series gets an extra star for on the strength of its bird art. However, the confusing story and the blandness of the characters make the series a less than ideal reading experience.
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
EDIT: By the way, I was recently reminded of that ridiculous Korean movie, Dragon Wars. And the it hit me: Alpha Shade is basically Dragon Wars in comic form. Both are approached with ridiculous wide-eyed optimism and adorned with attractive CGI/illustrations, yet the oppressing crush of so many “cool,” incongruous ideas and poor characterizations just sinks the entire project in a sea of headache inducing confusion and blandness.
Maybe this is good news for the Brundlos brothers: Dragon Wars was slammed by critics, yet made a bunch of money in Korea. Perhaps the Brundloses are just one overseas distribution agreement away from making a bunch of money on Alpha Shade. Hey, dream the dream, eh?
Posted on April 18, 2008, in 2 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, anime, manga style webcomic, sci-fi webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Alpha Shade. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.