The Webcomic Overlook #107: The Dreamland Chronicles
3D CG Art webcomics. Brrrrrrr!!!!
The very term sends shivers down the spines of right-thinking webcomic readers and reviewers alike. In the past, I’ve mocked pixel art and stick figure comics as the aesthetic nadir of webcomics. However, no one practicing these two “art forms” ever tries to convince the readers that the artwork is actually good, and the good webcomics compensate fairly well with writing. I don’t know if you can ever make the same excuse for CG art, because in this case the art itself will always be front and center. So I’m not exagerrating when I say that 3D CG Art webcomics, hands down, are the worst looking webcomics EVER.
It’s counterintuitive, because 3D animation does pretty well with respect to movies. It’s gotten so mainstream that we can ignore the technical nuts and bolts and focus on the content… like how both Up and Avatar are both nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Motion Picture and not just for the technical categories. Unfortunately, your average webcomic creator doesn’t have access to James Cameron money, and, as a result, the stuff coming out of their cheap-o 3D programs is the epitome of terrible.
When you think 3D CG art webcomics, you think dead, unemotional faces. Eyes not fully lodged in their sockets. Stiff marionette poses. Plastic skin textures. On one hand, you have waifish and impossibly smooth 3D Poser lookalikes with slightly different hairstyles. On the other hand, you have the “artists” who put so little effort in their work that they’re basically just captioned screenshots from Sims 3 and Team Fortress 2.
Given that you work with 3D stuff, I’m guessing you should already be familiar with the Uncanny Valley Syndrome…. I think this is the biggest obstacle you are going to have to overcome. People are weird with regards to this thing. The more realistic the art looks, the less they tend to like it. Especially if it’s 3D. I experienced a little bit of this when I started reading your comic, it took a couple of chapters before I could stop feeling uncomfortable about it.
So why am I so keen on reviewing Scott Christian Sava’s The Dreamland Chronicles, a webcomic full of 3D artwork? Chalk it up to an ineffable curiosity and an unshakable faith that any medium can be tamed by a good storyteller. Can the worst artform in webcomics be redeemed by a skillful artist? Or can an artform be so bad that all it can deliver is migraines? Will The Dreamland Chronicles forever be doomed to wander the Uncanny Valley as well?
Writing a review of The Dreamland Chronicles has been a personal goal of mine for a very long time now. It intersects several points of interest. The CG aspect feeds my editorializing bug. Then fantasy aspect stokes my love of fantasy literature, which I quaff by the tankloads. Plus, it’s an all-ages webcomic, which is always appreciated in a world where “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” articles are a huge joke.
Unfortunately, I always hesitated for one simple reason: the length. The Dreamland Chronicles is now over 1000 pages. Daunting doesn’t even begin to cover it. Fortunately, Scott and Donna Sava are good people, and when they came across my blog and discovered my predicament, they helpfully offered to send me Volumes 1-3 of the comic (self-published, by the way), hoping that the print version would be easier to dive into. After a few mail-related mixups over the Christmas Break, I finally got the trades … and let me tell you, my dear readers, the package that the books came in was surprisingly hefty. If I got to say anything off the bat, The Dreamland Chronicles TPBs will give you your money’s worth in bulk content.
So now that you’ve seen a few sample pages: how about that 3D CG art? it is, without a doubt, ithe best looking comic featuring computer-generated illustrations that I have ever seen. It helps that Scott Sava is no amateur when it comes to the 3D arts. In fact, you might say that the man’s a 3D art kung-fu master. According to Wikipedia, Sava has worked on video games, a movie (Casper), and several 3D comics, including one at Marvel written by Greg Rucka (Spider-Man: Quality of Life). All that experience shows.
As a result, the art of The Dreamland Chronicles is very pleasant and easy on the eyes. There are some missteps, and I go over them later in this review. But first, the good.
The vast cast of characters are all very distinctive. You will find no Poser clones here. This is thanks in big part to Karen Krajenbrink and Robin Mitchell, who, as part of the huge Dreamland Chronicles team, were responsible for character designs. (I should mention, by the way, that it takes an awful lot of folks to create The Dreamland Chronicles, and they hail from all corners of the world. The appendix lists 26 contributors, including a whopping 11 people for something called “Character Rigging and Morphs.”) You will find none of the robotic missteps that plague the typical 3D CG art webcomic. There are times when the frame zooms in a character’s face, and you’ll notice that their faces can display a wide range of emotions. True, the most common expression in the comic is shock. (And why not? Weird things happen in Dreamland.) But subtle touches, like characters averting their eyes during moments of romantic tension, come off just as well as they would in ink. Touches like these keepThe Dreamland Chronicles out of the Uncanny Valley.
Secondly, you won’t find the jagged pixel edges that plague most 3D art comics. The rendering tool Team Dreamland Chronicles uses seems to make textures look smoother than output from his contemporaries. In particular, skin textures look less like plastic doll parts and appear more natural, like the skin textures you’d find on a Pixar character.
Also appreciated: the time Sava takes to set up some scenes. Some may find this a waste of panel space, but I personally think the expanded visual time frame is key to selling the reader on the illusion of movement in a CG environment. The library poster (a reprint of which was included at the end of Volume 3) calls it “The Greatest Animated Movie … You’ve Ever Read!”, and given the painstaking frame-by-frame sequences, I think the description is apt.
Finally, The Dreamland Chronicles boasts a pleasantly muted color palette. I mentioned in a previous review of a CG comic that perhaps the best option for most would be to render the panels in black-and-white, since the comparable color versions looked mind-bogglingly fake and awful. Fortunately, The Dreamland Chronicles doesn’t suffer the same issues. From the beginning, the world of Dreamland is bathed in a golden glow that is visually sound. The lighting gets even better in later pages, where I assume Team Dreamland Chronicles has access to better 3D rendering tools. Small flecks of light dance across the pages like tiny flames, and they paint a very serene and mystical setting.
“Yak, yak, yak, El Santo,” you say, making mocking puppet gestures with your fingers. “So you’re fawning over all the pretty pictures. Big whoopty-do, Roger Ebert. But you and I both know that some of the best fantasy webcomics were drawn with pixels and stick figures. What about the story, you logarrheic luchador?”
OK, wise guy. The Dreamland Chronicles an all-ages webcomic about a regular run of the mill college student named Alexander who becomes a dashing hero of sorts after falling asleep and journeying into the land of fairy tales. And, no, it’s not because he had too many tacos the night before. Wikipedia cites Windsor McKay’s Little Nemo as The Dreamland Chronicles‘ prime inspiration. I have never read Little Nemo, and I probably wouldn’t have heard of it if not for the NES game of the same name, so I’ll just say that the flora, fauna, and geopolitical situation of the Dreamland world is not all that different from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia.
Alexander once voyaged Dreamland as a child in the company of Kiwi the chipper fairy, Paddington the jolly rumble giant, and Nastajia the purple-haired elf princess. After recovering a sword from a huge dragon, little Alex wakes up, never to dream again. That is, until one day while chilling in his college dorm he receives a fateful care package from home, which includes a necklace with a sword pendant. That night, when he goes to sleep, he is once again teleported to Dreamland.
He finds his friends again, who are more or less how he remembered them. They’re slightly larger, but from the standpoint of personality they’re pretty much the same. Well, except for Nastajia, who is now a Queen. She’s little frigid, burned with loads of responsibility, and now a major hottie. She’s a little upset that Alexander’s sorta been MIA for a decade or so, but … well, you know girls in these stories don’t stay angry for too long. She lets Alexander in on her little quest: she’s looking for her parents, who are in turn looking for some legendary tablets that may save Dreamland from the rule of King Nicodemus, a wicked king who wants nothing more than to banish children away to the nightmare realm.
Alex is more than happy to help, because … well, it’s Nastajia, the hottie Elven Queen who is also a childhood friend. Who wouldn’t? Also, he’s in possession of a kickin’ Final Fantasy-grade giant sword! The sword has the power to cut through anything, like the Miracle Blade. It cuts through rocks, towers, giant seamonsters, gargoyles, vegetables, beef, poultry… BUT WAIT! Act now and Alex gets a magical suit of armor that turns him into a Medieval Iron Man absolutely free!
Along the way, they meet a racial melting pot of storybook characters. He strikes a friendship with a catgirl named Felicity. At the the same time, she immediately raises Nastajia’s suspicions and/or jealousy that Alex may be developing some catgirl fever. Elsewhere in the webcomic, they fly around on airships and meet mermaids and dwarves and centaurs. From time to time they get into some violent scrapes, which involved a lot of stabbing but is bloodless enough to be kid friendly. Dreamland may be in the thrall of an evil king, but that doesn’t mean that the place isn’t basically one huge amusement park.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Alex has a dickens of a time trying to convince his brother, Dan, that his dreams aren’t just dreams. And also there’s Nicole, who works at the University labs and remains quite skeptical that Alex is really, truly chilling with fairies and elves. She also discovers that when Alex goes into his dream state, he’s legally brain dead. Together, can they figure out how exactly Alex is transporting to a world full of whimsy and magic?
The entire comic proceeds in a standard quest structure. The team travels the length and breath of Dreamland to ferret out the messages behind the tablets. Like I said, it’s an all-ages comic, so the plot and characterizations may come off as being overly simple (and somewhat video-gamey) for older readers. Those looking for the next Harry Potter, i.e. those looking for a dark undercurrent with the fanciful storyline, may be disappointed. In my opinion, though, I think it’s much more difficult to keep a webcomic kid friendly while, at the same time, elevating the stakes. Sure, there’s something to be said for maturing a storyline to keep pace with the age of the readership, but there’s also something to be said for narrative consistency. However, eventhough I am admittedly an older reader, I still enjoyed immersing myself in an old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure. While reading The Dreamland Chronicles, I was reminded of the fine times I spent long ago thrilling to the derring-do Robin Hood or Treasure Island.
Despite the fact that all of the comic is online for free, I think that, especially for younger readers, it’s easier and more rewarding to read the The Dreamland Chronicles in book form. I mean, the print version is an incredibly attractive package. There’s a map of Dreamland in the inner covers to give that extra oomph of fantasy flavor. The appendices of the book is crammed full of goodies, too. There are pages of Krajenbrink’s wonderful sketches that have a great Walt Disney feel to them. Also, there are a few pages of Sava’s initial attempts at a hand-drawn Dreamland Chronicles before he went the CG route. Sometimes I wonder if there’s an alternate universe out there where The Dreamland Chronicles came out as a traditional hand-drawn effort rather than a CG comic … but then, where’s the pioneering spirit in that? The appendices also include pages of fan art, some of them from comic vets like Mike Wieringo and practicing webcomic artists like Sarah Ellerton (of Phoenix Requiem and Dreamless, reviewed here and here)!
Now, for some nitpicks: The Dreamland Chronicles does make a few visual missteps. Take one of the major villains: the big red dragon. I know he’s supposed to look fearsome. Yet, he looks like he’s made out of injection molded plastic, like a Megatron action figure from the old Transformers: Beast Wars line. The other disappointment was Kraken. This seemed like a no-lose proposition: all traditional depictions of the Kraken show him as a terrifying, tentacled Lovecraftian monster. (The Pirates of the Caribbean version being one of my favorite depictions.) What could possibly undermine this briny terror of the deep? How about portraying him with a really goofy face?
Additionally, some of the exteriors, especially early on are unconvincing. Take the dorm settings, for example. First of all, it looks far too neat to be any dorm room shared by two 18 to 22 year old guys. Second, and most importantly, doesn’t it look a little too spacious? The beds, especially, seem a bit too generously proportioned. There are also times in Dreamland where the buildings seem to be built for giants (look at the size of the characters in relation to the chimney).
Fortunately, these are minor nitpicks, and none of them are dealbreakers. Overall, the graphics from early in the run hold up pretty well, which is amazing when you consider the rapid obsolescence of CG artwork. Besides, most of these graphic issues I mentioned are remedied later on in the run. The team behind the comic gets several props for successfully proving that comics rendered in CG art can, in fact, be good (even if it means you have to assemble a large team to do it), and The Dreamland Chronicles is still the only webcomic that CG art has ever been implemented well.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Posted on February 8, 2010, in 4 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, all ages webcomic, CG webcomic, fantasy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged The Dreamland Chronicles. Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.