The Webcomic Overlook #164: The Boy With Nails For Eyes
A small part of me is fascinated by motion comics. Their creators face an uphill battle that stem from the limitations of the interface. Motion comics exist in that strange netherworld between static comics and animation. They are eye-catching, admittedly. And they attract a lot of attention. Several pundits seem to think that motion comics are what a webcomic should strive to be, unencumbered as they from the static limitations of a page and expanding artistically into realms unknown and embracing the liberating tools available to all that use HTML, Flash, Java, XML, etc.
However, there are drawbacks. Most readers are familiar with them. They are issues that bring into question the definition of “comics”. Unlike with traditional comics, the reader of a motion comic has little to no control over the pacing. When reading a motion comic, the flow becomes intermittently interrupted. You tend to cruise along for segments at a time when suddenly you come to a complete stop. There’s a second or two where you hesitate until you click the prompt to continue. Why is this such a big issue? After all, you still click on the “page forward” link as a reader of a traditional webcomic. However, the action becomes such an integral part of the experience that it become barely noticeable. When watching a cartoon, you don’t click anything at all. But when you’re forced to switch between the two modes, you tend to get self-aware for a moment. The jarring transition between hands-free animation and hands-on comic tends to yank me out of a story.
Yet, there are a lot of motion comics that I do like. Nawlz, for instance, which I gave a positive review here. I think one of the biggest reasons that Nawlz works is how natural the controls felt. Cut scenes didn’t feel overly long. Scene transitions weren’t alienating. You retained the sense of control over the dimension of time, one of the key elements that separate comics from movies and videos.
Not too long ago, Shaun Gardiner sent me a request some time ago to check out his motion comic, The Boy With Nails For Eyes. While he’s currently a resident of the UK, he lived in the Middle East until he was 15. During that time, the first Gulf War broke out. While The Boy With Nails For Eyes can be intentionally esoteric, several elements strike me as autobiographical.
TBWNFE is a heavily symbolic comic. The best illustrated portion is the prologue. Ravens blacken the sky. Towering smokestacks spew a paper mache of newspaper headlines. We see a well-illustrated battle between two titans that look like the cathedral-headed guy from DC’s Kingdom Come. It’s a parable about war, oil, and the detached attitudes of people who observe it. Do the titans represent the US forces clashing with the Iraqi Republican Guard? Perhaps.
The comic then dramatically shifts gears. Both the tone and the art changes. The prologue featured sweeping painted vistas. Chapter One, on the other hand, features a kid with hooded eyes who looks like he stepped out of an Edward Gorey poster. The again shift styles sometime later, looking like the woodcuts you’d find in a tome illustrated in the 1800′s.
The narrative transitions for the epic battle of gods in the prologue to something that feels more like a personal journey. We begin with a little boy who has dreams. A block of wood is molded into a puppet. Then the puppet is controlled by a big hairy man with mouths in his beard. There’s eventually a scene where a multitude of fingers spiral around the despondent images of the boy and girl puppet.
My interpretation is that TBWNFE is a comic about lost youth. It’s about how, despite all the potential you had growing up, you end up getting chopped up to conform to the role that everyone in society tells you to be in. As with all symbolic comics there’s a good chance I’m missing something. At least, I hope I’m missing something. Because if TBWNFE boils down to a depressing LiveJournal entry, then I’m forced to conclude that it’s a little shallow.
The presentation, too, is a little flawed. The font is too small for most computers. I tried reading it on my laptop, which isn’t some tiny tablet reader but a fairly hefty Powerbook with a 15″ screen. And it was a chore. Unless you’ve got a 24″ screen (which is what I used to view this comic the second time), you’re going to be constantly zooming in to the text.
The problem compounds if you read the comic with the “motion comic” option. I suggest you turn off this feature and view TBWNFE in a more static format. You lose the full “motion comic” effect, but you do gain an advantage: you don’t have to wait for the entire Flash presentation to zoom in and read what’s being said.
One “page” took sixteen seconds to load. This involved dissolving each panel individually, and then, once the entire page is populated by pictures, dissolving in the caption boxes. Sixteen seconds doesn’t seem like much. However, without these special effects, the comic would’ve probably only taken four to read. When you multiply that time by the number of pages in this comic, you can begin to understand why The Boy With Nails For Eyes starts to drag.
Why does Mr. Gardiner allow the comic to drag so much? My guess is that he’s trying to sync it up with the musical score. This was a misstep, I think. First of all, it undermines visuals, which are more effective when viewed in stasis simply because we, the reader, are less self-conscious about our mood being manipulated. Second, it’s strange to see words flash on the screen without an accompanying vocal track. It feels like a Powerpoint presentation at the office. At least at those, someone’s usually on hand to explain the slides.
The effects, too, are also not that creative. A majority of the motion comic effects are used for zooming in or zooming out, or dissolving in and dissolving out. If you’re really lucky, sometimes the comic pans left or pans right. There’s little in the comic that justifies a non-traditional comic format. I can only recall a couple of moments where the animation was well done: the aforementioned circle of pointing fingers and several sequences where a colorful pattern grows around three portraits like an illuminated manuscript. The rest of the comic, though, would have been much better served in a traditional format.
The last chapter, in fact, doesn’t feel like a comic at all. In later chapters, for example, we’re given a picture on one side of the screen while a poem slowly dissolves in from the other side of the screen. None of this The Boy With Nails For Eyes feels much like a comic in the first place, but the last chapter especially felt more like a book than a comic. This only made me more annoyed by the motion aspect. No one ever says, “This book was good. But you know what would have made it better? If the words sloooooooowwwwwwwyyy flashed across the page. And a built-in musical score.”
The rest of your tolerance in the comic depends on your tolerance for poetry. I personally thought several passages were a little corny. Sometimes, it’s verse type verse like “The boy fell fell out of the world’s bondage,” which sounds like a pale imitation of something written by My Chemical Romance. Passages like “The creature, leering like a furnace, loomed/ Upon the tree, touched it, finger-delved it;/Nodded, and cracked the quiet bones of laughter/ tombed in his throat” tend to sound a little purple. Here is a passage on Bobby’s dream:
He dreamed a tree.
Bobby was the tree.
The soft blade of a year ran through him.
First, spring, running red in swoop, surge and bud-bursting;
slow, cloud-candying, bluesky summer;
and autumn, veined and brittle as a leadlight,
before the icicles crept from their sun hidings.
While I think that it reads little clunky, I’ll freely admit that I have no idea what a good poem looks like. Mr. Gardiner’s poetry is not, in fact, all that different from the works of Elizabeth Browning. (Excerpt: “We walked beside the sea,/ After a day which perished silently/ Of its own glory—like the Princess weird/ Who, combating the Genius, scorched and seared/ Uttered with burning breath, ‘Ho! victory!’”)
Quality aside, though, does this sort of poetry belong in this webcomic, particularly this motion comic? You’ll notice that a lot of that passage is spent on trying to establish a certain visual impression. In a visual medium where “Show, don’t tell,” is held sacrosanct, the effort in including a poem meant to flesh out a mental image seems wasted and unnecessary. After all, The Boy With Nails For Eyes rigidly defines so many other aspects, thus robbing the readers of some customization abilities previously available in a traditional-style comic. We’re told what the comic sounds like in lieu of a soundtrack of choice and how long the comic progresses in lieu of comfortably flipping through the pages at our own pace. Yet, when in comes to visual imagery, we’re supposed to rely on our imagination as shaped by poetic verse?
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)