Demon Archives Critique

Today is a new day with new blood. It’s time for a critique of Demon Archives! Brought to you by the minds and hands of Daniel Sharp (writer), Sebastian Piriz (artist) and Nickolas Sharp (webmaster).

I’ll be talking about story details in some depth, so even though the comic is only about three chapters in thus far, the following critique may contain spoilers depending on your definition of spoilers.

Let’s start off with a quick summary.

The apocalypse happens because the comic’s cameraman blew up Dubai, then everybody blew up everybody.

smile you’re on apocalypse camera

This dude Tenzin is the captain of an elite military squadron charged with generally making things less fucked up and the soil less fertile for budding Mad Max extras.

Tenzin has a super intelligent AI named Jane patched into his battle suit in order to aid him in the fray. He is also the proud owner of his very own Dark Past in which he Lost Many, it is implied, through his own hubris.

Man’s Hubris comes in many fab flavors

At first he wasn’t too keen on having this lady in his head telling him where to shoot, but then he realized she was supes smart and he should be cool with it.

Story start! Tenzin and his team are sent to a town that is suspiciously probably a huge trap where everyone will die, and Tenzin is like “HEY I THINK WE SHOULD GO IN” and super intelligent AI Jane is like “maybe not” and Tenzin is like “LET’S LISTEN TO WHOEVER HERE CAN TOUCH THEIR OWN TOES OH IT IS ME THE MEATBAG LET’S GO IN” and currently in the comic’s timeline it looks like one of them was right and it wasn’t the one who could touch his meatbag toes

so everyone is exploding a little

pictured: hubris.

All right let’s come back to that, first we will look at:

So, this is the first thing I see when I go to your website:

Latest page? Start from the beginning? Archives that I can also easily access through the top navigation?? I’m fairly certain the common response to this kind of front page layout is: “dammit now I have to click something”

I think there are some solid reasons why the front page of most webcomic sites is the most recent page of the comic. For one, loyal readers get straight to what they want when they come back to check updates. For two, new readers get a face full of your best and most recent work.

You may say to yourself: “but I don’t want to spoil anything!”

implied spoiler: your mom and I went to funky town

But really, anyone who cares about spoilers will be ready to dash for the archives or the back button. I know the number one thing I appreciate is when navigation between pages is easy to access, and at the top of the webpage. That way I can make a quick break for it, and I don’t have to scroll over the newest page just to get to the links to the pages I missed. And that’s exactly what you do! So good on you.

Here’s a small thing that caught my attention on the home page:

sarcasm meter: hot diggity levels

When you make a point of highlighting features almost every webcomic can boast, it doesn’t exactly sound like a bonus. It just looks sorta tacky.

Something really good about the navigation I felt the need to note: the thumbnail pictures in the archives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to revisit a specific page in a long running comic and had to keep clicking through links of a bunch of page titles that didn’t spark my memory.

but just look at this bad mother:

beautiful

A lot of important story elements hinge on the the artful use of Show Don’t Tell. Showing us a character’s turmoil forges a much deeper emotional connection to them than telling us about it ever will, and similarly, showing us the action as it happens in a story will always get us more invested than we could get by being presented with a summary.

For this reason, the prologue about how the world apocalypsed feels a little extraneous to me. It’s all background and no meat, it takes just a little too long to tell us not a great deal of information, and it’s right at the beginning where you’re supposed to be sucking us in.

Once we get to our main dude Tenzin, you’ve got a lot of clues about that backstory anyway. The technology suggests this is in the future, the tensions with marauders give us an idea of the setting, and (if I’m not misinterpreting this clue) all the different languages being thrown around in a condensed area implies that people from a variety of places have come into closer-knit groups to survive together.

Right at the outset you’ve given us a buttload of information simply by letting us watch the story unfold, as opposed to in the prologue, where you give us information by…giving us information. Both ways can catch an audience up to speed, but one of those methods of storytelling is subtler and smoother and goes down easier. It’s worth considering which one you’re asking us to swallow.

is this some kind of hazing

And this isn’t the only place I see you infodumping.

shh…shh. it doesn’t have to be this way

So basically, Tenzin feels guilty for past mistakes that had a human cost, and now he has Jane to protect him from himself.

That’s some good characterization, but presented like this as a solid lump of thought bubble, it doesn’t have any of the necessary emotional pull behind it. Instead of seeing a bunch of people I don’t know and will never see again blow up in the prologue, I sure would’ve liked to see some of the stuff Tenzin’s talking about actually play out in front of me. We’re in a comic, give me something a little more visual and with some higher emotional stakes than tepid stares drowning in text.

I’m firmly in the corner of comic makers that believe writing and art in comics should be working together to create effects neither could do on their own. Pasting whole paragraphs of your novel on top of pretty pictures feels like a waste of potential. Although to be fair, even in a novel, I think it would be inadvisable to have Tenzin directly tell us about all his feelings and history like this. It robs us of the chance for discovery and turns the magic of the character arc into an information briefing session instead.

And then there’s the dialogue.

yes please tell me more about your recent exploits while never quite making eye contact

Sometimes the dialogue feels forced, like if the characters don’t push a particular bit of plot-relevant conversation out of their mouths, a motion-sensitive bomb currently tracking their lip flaps will pop their head as punishment.

But other times I think it’s the fault of the art and not the writing when it comes to the storytelling in the comic.

The action is often difficult to follow:

Since you’ve cropped the shot so much at the bottom, it’s hard to see the connection between why there are suddenly rocks and the action happening on the page. When I think about it for a moment, I know that there was an explosion that blocked their escape with rubble, but I think the close-ups aren’t doing you any favors as far as clarity goes.

You also have some staging problems.

One second Jorge is close enough to Tenzin to pass him the girl, but then the next second he’s way far away and Tenzin’s bestest bud Viktor developed magical friendship teleportation powers just in time to shield Tenzin from friend shrapnel.

It doesn’t help that the characters are all pretty hard to tell apart when they’re in their big suits.

Also “tuck” is just kind of an unfortunate sound effect choice here, because I spent like a minute trying to figure out what Jorge was “tucking” before I realized one of those explodey flechettes must have hit him in the back.

Such a cruel fate. But why is all of this happening? It begs the question…

Or: was all this totally avoidable and is everyone getting killed for no reason?

Are you…are you sure you wanna ignore the super intelligent AI? Not even a bit of curiosity with what she was trying to warn you about? How about those calculations?

Hey Tenzin

hey

Isn’t this exactly what your were complaining you had bad dreams about this morning?

you know, when you said that you have nightmares about the people you lost, and at first you were mad that you had Jane ordering you around, but you warmed up to her when you realized she helped you avoid casualties?

Don’t you think you should listen to her if you’re that worried about it?

no? nothing?

kay

I feel like this is one of the collateral victims of the Show Don’t Tell problems. If you had just shown that Tenzin had a difficult past rather than having Tenzin infospew us about his past mistakes, he’d seem less fourth-wall-breakingly self-aware, and more realistic. And also we’d have a really good setup for a Hubris of Man story.

I mean, something you’ve well established is that Tenzin is kind of a distracted, oblivious snot.

that is stone cold, man

and of course

Yes, I’m sure the woman who designed the super intelligent AI that gives you tactical advice that keeps you from dying in battle couldn’t have anything important to say to you.

And for goodness sake, Tenzin straight up admits to Jane that he never read his contract. That is some hardcore carelessness.

All of the set up is there. But just because of this one wordspill:

This whole plot point unravels for me. If he knows all this, why did he go into the obviously booby trapped town in the first place? If the information he’s thinking about above was given to us through actions and scenes rather than in one panel of Tenzin’s thoughts, the whole plot would be more believable.

For heavy plot arcs, you want your audience to feel bad, but you don’t want them thinking you want them to feel bad. And when the plot feels forced, the emotional pull of the characters is weakened. And so, unfortunately…

Spoilers!

After all the good times we had with Jorge, I am very sad he is gone. You know, like that time that he

told Tenzin he might have a concussion

or that time when he

that time when he was hit by a bomb

Jorge’s death obviously affects Tenzin very deeply, as he immediately goes into full flashback freezeframe, but it would be nice if he could take us along for the emotions ride.

sure will miss whatshisname

This is a really powerful composition that would be completely effective if we had any character development to back it up. But we haven’t seen Jorge do any of the things in those sad flashback panels.

So what do you do about these problems? In answer I present to you: your own comic!

There are times when the art and writing work in perfect harmony to tell a clear and engaging story. For me, those times usually seem to be point-of-view shots like this:

The action is very clear because we’re given all the information we need–Tenzin’s hand gesturing, the helmet display pinpointing a sighting of interest, and Tenzin’s request to Jane. We get a good idea of how Tenzin’s suit works, what he can have Jane do technology-wise, and what kind of enemy they might be facing here (a very, very fast one). But that’s just clear storytelling as far as action goes. What about emotional storytelling?

Well, let’s look at my favorite page:

Right here you tell me that you are fully capable of Show Don’t Tell. I’ve got all the information I need in four panels without even a bit of dialogue.

First panel: Tenzin is holding a girl who seems to be fading fast. He’s been hit, and his vision is obstructed by blood.

Second panel: The team is in trouble too! But Tenzin doesn’t seem capable of getting up to help them at the moment. Given the angle they’re shooting, it looks like they’re being ambushed from above.

Third panel: Part of the team may be down for good. The battlefield becomes a haze in which the only thing clear at the moment is how difficult it will be to scrape up a victory out of this, or even come out alive.

Fourth panel: aaaand Tenzin’s down for the count.

That’s a pretty amazing amount of information for a single page with no dialogue, don’t you think? You’ve got me worried about the girl, worried about Tenzin, wondering what he’ll wake up to, and thinking about that mysterious enemy again. I’m even worried about Tenzin’s mental state in regards to the very real possibility that the girl will die in his arms.

The emotion of the page is brought to life by a few things: that pitifully sad and tired look on the girl’s face. The ambiguity of Tenzin’s expressive hands–either they’re fearfully curled and not quite touching her even as he cradles her life in them, or desperately grasping to make sure he’s still protecting her after the blast knocked him off his feet (or maybe he’s just flailing, but it’s provocative regardless). The confusion as Tenzin’s team shoots wildly and seemingly hopelessly into the air. The fact that Tenzin’s vision fades rapidly just as one of his men is shot. The note of finality in the screen blanking completely.

You’ve got Show Don’t Tell here, you’ve got a totally non-contrived honest and fearful moment, you’ve got great visuals, and you’ve got me engaged in the characters and their emotions on multiple levels.

And just in case you’re starting to think I have a vendetta against dialogue or something, here’s a great piece of dialogue that’s also good on the Show and light on the Tell. (Spoilers again!) Tenzin’s best droogan Viktor offers to take the possibly fatal role of the bait in a two-man plan where Tenzin has the pressure of pulling off the game ending shot. But Tenzin is finding it difficult:

….ouch, my heart

On the small scale it’s a nice bit of continuity showing Jane’s ability to control the suit, but most importantly there’s a whole range of emotional flavors in very few words. Tenzin’s lost a lot of folks in front of us on this mission, and now his bestest buddy is on the line, too. And slightly more subtly, Tenzin’s showing Jane some trust and humility by letting her take control over him, even if for a short while.

So what I’m saying is don’t do wordspill from now on okay it is beneath you.

Really if you only take one piece of advice from this critique I hope it’s this bit because I’d be eager to see what Demon Archives would be like if it were all scenes like those directly above and zero percent of it were thousand-yard stares into the depths of hubris while lengthily recounting bad dreams (of hubris).

but my dreeeams they aren’t as empty, as my cooonscience seems to be

All right I think that’s everything. Many thanks to the brave souls offering this comic up for critique; I hope I’ve been helpful.

….I feel like the word hubris doesn’t mean anything anymore, guys

7 comments

  1. Thanks again for the review/critique, Snark. You nailed some of the very things that I’ve noticed as well, and been working on improving. It sounds like the Showing vs Telling dynamic has gotten better since Chapter 1, which is good. Unfortunately, I can’t really redo those pages right now too much, although I am trying to trim and improve that dialogue a bit 😉

    1. No problem. And I think it’s pretty much expected that a webcomic author won’t be able to do a whole lot to change parts that are already out there in the internet æther. I believe what’s important is keeping things in mind for the future and continuing to move forward. So, here’s to the future of Demon Archives!

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