The Webcomic Overlook #113: Xylia Tales
Top o’ the mornin’ to ya! St. Patty’s Day is coming along later this week, and I thought it would be nice to do a piece on a webcomic dealing with tiny creatures of fables central to Irish culture. Unfortunately, I think very few folks are very interested in doing a webcomic specifically about leprechauns, so we have to dig a little deeper into Celtic mythology to find other diminutive folk better suited for long term narratives: fairies.
Every so often, somebody comes along and tries to make fairies (or faeries) cool again. I mean, cool for people who aren’t pre-teen girls. And why not? Fairies were once the mythological creature of choice of the Celtic nations. They were either tiny folk who had been driven into hiding by humans or a race of spirits who lived in a parallel Otherworld that may or may not be the realm of the dead. There are already existing myths of people wandering into these magic worlds, which opens up a myriad of storytelling possibilities.
Modern writers are emboldened by how Tolkien took elves out of Santa’s workshop and turned them into stoic and sexy warriors with serious larper cred. But no matter how hard writers like Tad Williams and Susannah Clarke try, fairies are doomed to roam the world’s Trapper Keepers alongside killer whales, sad unicorns, and Edward Cullen. Perhaps Tinkerbell’s hold on the modern notion of fairies is too strong for even the Fairy King John Uskglass to break. Or maybe centering stories in a world where pain and disgrace are absent are serious handicaps when stories need conflict.
But that doesn’t mean writers won’t stop trying. Today, on the Webcomic Overlook, we’ll take a look at an attempt to put together a compelling fairy-centric story in webcomics: Xylia Tales, written and illustrated by Barb Jacobs.
The “About” page of Xylia Tales lists several contributors. There’s a Xylia radio play written by Peg, whose profile reads thusly: “Peg is also wanted in three states of mind for practicing random minstrelsy, and wearing a purple wig on alternate Whirrsdays.” My, how quirky! The driving force behind the webcomic, though, is Barb Jacobs, an artist of 20 years, a mother of two, a guitar player, and “more than a little crazy.” (Hey, don’t ask me. That’s what the profile says.) The comic itself has been going on since October 2007 and is currently in its ninth chapter.
Xylia Tales begins with the phrase, “I’m going to tell you a different tale about the day the Normans conquered England.” Ooh, a historical war epic! Unfortunately, when the narrator tells you about “a different tale,” he means it. As in, it’s a romance, specifically one between a dying soldier and a blue-haired girl with giant kewpie-doll eyes who could be one of those Sky Dancer toys. Her name is Xylia. She gives him the fantasy-approved Chosen One spiel (“You are the only one who can save Azloe!”). The she gets super sparkly, pitches some woo, and asks the apparently now-dead soldier to “Find me, Claudius.”
And thus we are introduced to an unbreakable love that will last to all eternity. (Seriously.)
Afterwards, we find out that Christopher Lee — or someone who bears an uncanny resemblance to the man behind Dracula and Count Dooku — has been telling these fantasy stories to a young kid named Charles Ravensdale. Little Charles is a little skeptical at first when Christopher Lee claims that these stories are a true account of history, but he’s eventually swayed when the old man gives him an old journal where the pages are left unwritten. (Huh?) Curiously, the old man disappears, his drawing room magically transforming into a broom closet. The old man returns to see Charles several times later in life, appearing in other broom closets where Charles’ friends won’t see, and … whoa, that sounds kinda inappropriate. Let’s flash forward a bit.
As Charles gets older, he begins to doubt that his visits with the old man are grounded in reality. After a psychological evaluation, he reaches a frightening conclusion: Christopher Lee isn’t real! (But … how do explain his chilling work as the villainous wizard, Saruman? That’s acting no man can fake!) Despondent, older Charles says goodbye to his imaginary friend for what he thinks is the last time. For all his troubles, Charles does does get a lovable Corgi as a parting gift, though.
Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a comic if it ends there, though. Charles’ stories of a magical world eventually catch up with him. First, he’s seduced by a girl with a blonde afro and Marylin Manson face paint. It turns out she also has wings, and, worse, a truly atrocious accent. Second, he’s attacked by a winged monkey who can talk. Now a true believer in the existence of girls with blonde afros, Charles makes his escape to the magic fairyland with the help of his Corgi, who can now apparently communicate mentally and change sizes at will.
But that’s not all. To the surprise of no one, it turns out that Charles is the “Chosen One” spoken of in the collected tales of our Christopher Lee doppleganger. Yes, my friends, Charles … is … CLAUDIUS. Though, really, he prefers to be called Claude, probably because he’s a huge fan of Claude Rains.
Claude escapes the snow-covered world of Digonia, which he enters by walking into a painting. The scene was perhaps inspired by Voyage of the Dawn Treader… or Looney Tunes, perhaps? There, he meets his all-new family, finds out he’s some sort of fairy-human hybrid, he’s the “Chosen One” who will save/destroy this fairy realm, blah blah blah. Oh, yeah, and Christopher Lee is his dad, who, it turns out really wasn’t visiting younger Charles after all because he was astrally projecting himself. Okay.
Which is all in good fun, because by the end of Chapter 4, it’s time to take leave of Claude and follow the adventures of the girl with the blonde afro. And, heck, why not? Compared with the sad sack who’s the main lead of Xylia Tales, Blondie and her posse of merry misfits are actually interesting. While I understand this tangent the story takes — it does tie back into the narrative some time later — it’s hard not to conclude that Barb Jacobs herself has lost interest in the main character. (The most recent story takes another tangent, by the way. We leave Claude in the dust yet again to follow two lovable hobos named April and December who have their own sordid backstories.) Blondie and company pick a fight with a monk on flying unicorn-pegasus. And just when things are starting to get interesting….
…we return to Claude, who has received an Extreme Makeover. No longer a nerdy bookworm, he’s now a rugged fantasy hero with the most punchably smug face imaginable. We learn that we have now flash-forwarded 200 days later, where Claude has grown wiser and … wait, what? Time out, Xylia Tales. It’s bad enough that we have to take the not inconsiderable leap of logic that the nebbish loser from the first chapters is now our “dashing” man of action. We don’t see how this happens. This is a really bad case of a reader being told rather than shown.
Second, were there no good stories to be told about Claude adjusting to life and learning magic in Digonia? It seemed like a huge missed opportunity here. We were JUST introduced to a veritable poo-pile of characters: Claude’s parents, sisters, the neighborhood girl…. Wouldn’t it be nice to see his relationship develop with them? Apparently not, since their follow-up stories are relegated to a wordy one-page flashback. There’s a very good chance that their fates are chronicled in those radio plays written by that one lady who wears a purple wig on alternate Whirrsdays… but it would be nice if webcomic readers were given a reason for care about these side characters, dontcha think?
Instead, Claudius’ family is treated like window dressing. They’re forgettable bystanders that only matter when they’re associated to the supposed glorious destiny that awaits Claudius. They’re there simply as an excuse for Ms. Jacobs to draw fairies. Pretty, pretty fairies whose prettiness is their sole reason for existence. For example, we’re introduced to a red-head fairy who tries to trick Claude by appearing as Xylia. She turns out to be highly disposable: she appears, makes the sole point that Claude’s heart belongs to Xylia and Xylia alone, and then disappears forever.
By the way, this “eternal bond” between Xylia and Claude: is it romantic, or is it just lazy storytelling? I tend to side with the latter. We learn very little of Xylia herself, beyond the fact that she and Claudius are meant to be together. It’s always “My heart will belong to you, beloved,”, “Find me,” etc. etc. etc. Talk about a one-track mind. With every passing page it becomes harder to believe that Claude would waste his time and his energies in pursuit of a woman that develops beyond the doe-eyed Sky Dancer from the first few pages.
But perhaps you’ll feel differently. For example, how do you feel about these pearls of heart-wrenching dialogue?
“All those years I never told you how I felt about you — and now… it’s too late. You were the only one who believed the stories. The only one who didn’t think I was daft. How could I let you go, Alli? I let so many things go.”
Do you find these lines to be incredibly romantic? Or are they unbearably cheesy? I don’t know about you, but all this syrupy chatter is putting me on the verge of a diabetic coma.
And then we get an exchange like this:
That, in a nutshell, is everything that’s wrong with nomenclature in fantasy literature. To be fair, a Banneret is a real thing… at least according to Wikipedia. Berobos and Amphekeron — the name of those unicorn-pegasi — is unique to Xylia Tales. Pro-tip: there’s a limit to how many of these tongue-twister words you can stick on one page without it looking laughably absurd.
Overall, Xylia Tales felt like a paint-by-the-numbers fantasy tale, only effectively neutered by the bland hero, the unfocused storytelling, and the unremarkable conflict-free world of fairies with paper-thin personalities. You know what? Tinkerbell has more personality than most of the characters in Xylia Tales. Well, except for that one gal with the afro (whose name is Tychia, by the way). I bet Tychia and Tink would’ve gotten along fine… and gone on a two-woman multi-fairy realm shooting spree. Now that would be a Xylia Tale worthy of a Purple Wig Whirrsday.
Rating: 2 Stars (out of 5)
Posted on March 15, 2010, in 2 Stars, adventure webcomic, dramatic webcomic, fantasy webcomic, romance webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged faeries, fairies, St. Patrick's Day, Xylia Tales. Bookmark the permalink. 48 Comments.