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Eric: State of the Web(cartoonists): Elanor Cooper and J.J. Nääs

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The Webcartoonists: Elanor Cooper and J.J. Nääs

Current Webcomics: The Broken Mirror

You May Remember Them From Such Webcomics As: Desert Rocks and Between Two Worlds

Enthusiasm: Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again?

How Frequently Read: When I Remember To Check

Well, here we are, you and I, and we're checking off the last two 'lists' I have on this here magic carpet ride. And sadly, they're the two lists lowest at the chain. Under enthusiasm, we have "why do I read this webcomic again?" which implies I'm still here out of either hope or inertia... and under frequency we have "when I remember to check," which means one better hope I'm still here out of hope, because inertia doesn't seem to have a strong hold on me.

And it's weird, you know? Because yeah, 'hope' is as good a reason for why I'm still reading The Broken Mirror as anything else. Because...

Well, here's the thing. Cooper and Nääs do so much that's right, that it's almost heartbreaking to decide to drop the comic. And therein lies a tale.

Elanor Cooper, the writer of The Broken Mirror, describes the project as "her futuristic, dystopian romance novel," and so far that makes as much sense as anything I've heard. Is it a romance novel? Not so far but the night is young. Is it futuristic and dystopia? Absolutely. We're clearly a few years in the future -- there are cyberpunk trappings only there isn't really much in the way of 'punk.' Further, unlike a lot of Cyberpunkish stuff I've read over the years, the immersive VR system postulated makes sense to me. It's not the future of the net, it's not where cybernauts run the edges and manipulate computers with their brains to unlock black ice and stick it to the man.

It's a game.

It's an escape.

And if there ever is truly immersive Virtual Reality, that will be why. IBM and Microsoft won't pioneer the Virtual World. EA Games will. Or they'll buy Linden Lab, which is their version of 'pioneering.'

It is a world that very much needs escaping from. Not because it's oppressive -- there are hints that there's something of a police state going on, but for the most part people just live their lives. But those lives are... well, essentially hopeless. Shit rains down from the heavens on our characters, and joy is rather systemically crushed out of their lives. Eventually, Domino -- the virtual world, the game, the escape -- becomes a whole new option.

Eventually.

It's a good setting for a novel, graphic or otherwise. And Cooper and Nääs are both good at their jobs. Cooper's dialogue is spot-on, with most characters having distinctive voices. Nääs is a more than capable artist, and the pages are beautiful -- beautifully drawn, beautifully composed, beautifully laid out. By any reasonable definition every component for an absolutely top notch webcomic or even print graphic novel is in place.

Sadly, they haven't come together into a top notch webcomic, and the reason for that is pacing.

Pacing, when I use the term here on the Websnark, refers to the evolution of the narrative, from one day to the next. (This differentiates it from execution, which is how a specific strip executes from the first panel to the last). A strongly story-based comic like The Broken Mirror is paced more as a graphic novel then a comic strip, so it might take several pages to accomplish a goal that, say, Shortpacked would do in two or three strips. And you have to make certain allowances for the form in those cases. You don't expect Digger to have a last panel payoff each and every day (though Ursula Vernon's got serious game in this regard), and it's not fair to compare it to a strip like Starslip Crisis, where the basic unit is a four panel strip.

However, there's only so many allowances you can give. And to be blunt (I know, too late), The Broken Mirror takes forever to get where it's going. And it's because they don't have a strong editor over them.

I know, it's webcomics. Editors are bad and repressive. Get over it -- this is an object lesson in why editors are a positive thing in the universe. Let's take as our example Galen Gray, one of the leads.

Galen Gray has had a terrible life, suffering abuse both horrible and physical, tragedy of pretty much every kind, the grinding down of his hopes and dreams, the loss of all the relationships that mean anything to him -- in short, he has nothing left to lose. And so he turns to Domino, both because he has no reason not to and because he has nothing left to hold him to the real world.

The problem is, we've seen all of the above. In great, heaping gobs of detail. We saw Galen as a child, suffering under the anger of his parents. We saw Galen get shafted and used by a loved one. We saw Galen's professional life go to shit. We saw Galen get harassed in his everyday life. We saw...

Well, the point is we saw all of it. In detail. And it was well drawn and well written detail, and the sum total of all of it was to get us to "Galen Gray has had a terrible life, suffering abuse both horrible and physical, tragedy of pretty much every kind, the grinding down of his hopes and dreams, the loss of all the relationships that mean anything to him -- in short, he has nothing left to lose. And so he turns to Domino, both because he has no reason not to and because he has nothing left to hold him to the real world."

An editor would look at the outline, say "this is great stuff, but it's backstory. You don't need sixty pages for this. Do it in four." And that editor would be right.

I mentioned that Aeire and Chris Daily were doing a novel, over in Punch an' Pie. And I also mentioned that the essence of the novel, in many if not most cases, is "establish the norm at the open. The novel begins when there is a change from the norm." It's a rule of thumb but a good one. Well, The Broken Mirror is now moving into Chapter Eight, and we are just hitting the change from the norm. Establishment should have been done in the first chapter, and the move into Domino should have closed the chapter. Then, all the lush details that Cooper and Nääs have worked out for their characters could be brought into the light over the course of the actual story, as required by the plot.

It's an easy mistake to make -- science fiction authors often make that mistake when it comes to worldbuilding. They come up with lovingly detailed systems of economics, science, engineering and governance, and they want to show it off. Well, the worldbuilding is amazingly useful in creating a consistent universe, but not one detail in ten actually needs to make it into the book at the end, and not one detail in the book out of twenty needs to be explained. What's less well known is the character-developed side of all this. Cooper and Nääs have created deep, rich backstories for their characters, and they can see tremendous significance in those backstories, and so they want to establish them "on camera." They want us to know Galen, Xara, Aidi and the rest as well as they do. To really understand why they make the choices they make.

But we don't want to know this stuff. We don't need to know this stuff. They're spending so much time developing the characters they're forgetting to actually tell the story, and this is a story-driven comic.

And so it begs the question: why am I reading this webcomic, again?

Well, they do so much so well, I keep hoping... I keep believing we'll get to the point where events take center stage, where they'll start doing, and that it will all gel and become a story. But it's possible that the only way to get there is to wait for the second draft, when they go through, excise a huge amount of stuff, reorder others (flashbacks here and there for when things become relevant) -- in other words, when they're ready to make it into a strong story instead of just a pretty one.

So far, I'm still here, though. And there's hope, still. So we'll see. We'll just see.

Now on Marketplace, let's do the numbers.

Strengths

As stated above, the art, words and layout are all beautiful. Cooper and Nääs can write and draw, respectively, and any given page is going to have something going for it. Their website is also well laid out, with solid navigation, a good cast page, and good value adds. I haven't mentioned color, but color's beautiful in this work, and acts nicely as a counterpoint.

Weaknesses

Beyond the editing and story issues above, there's a telling omission on the site -- there's an "about the story" submenu under "about." But unlike Creators or Characters, it just says "This section will be updated gradually as the story progresses." I'm pretty sure the reason it hasn't been updated yet is because nothing's actually happened yet, and when you're in Chapter Eight, that's kind of unfortunate.

The other thing is... in part because of the setup issues above, the comic has been unremittingly depressing up until now. It's hard to read, sometimes, because they write the characters well enough that you do have empathy for them as their lives continually get ground down into the dirt and made hopeless and bleak, and after a while you decide to do something more positive and uplifting. Like listening to Morrissey albums. Or heroin.

Finally, you'll remember the webcomic is tagged "when I remember to check it?" That's because... well, look. I don't personally believe anyone owes us webcomic updates on any kind of schedule. I really don't. But the more erratic the schedule, the less likely I'm going to check a site with regularity, and (probably wisely, given how detailed the artwork is) this comic doesn't have any consistency in updates. So, sometimes I'll go back after a few weeks and it'll be the same page it was the last time I was there, and sometimes three quarters of a chapter will have posted. And that makes it hard to hold an audience.

I'm not one to read these things via RSS, as I mentioned back in the Gurewitch essay, but this wouldn't be an option here either, as as near as I can tell they don't have an RSS option, and with this irregular a posting schedule they really should.

On the Whole

Man, this is a pretty webcomic. Man, these are well considered characters. Man, I don't know how much longer I can hold on.

But I am. One more day, and maybe it'll all come together. They're actually in Domino now. Maybe now....

...maybe now, at a hundred and thirty pages in, the story is actually about to start.

Right! One week down! Our next essay's on the docket for Monday -- I figure five of these a week, for as long as I can sustain the output, should be sufficient for anyone's needs. And we roll the dice and--

Oh. Huh. Well, that should be a fun one to write. Cool! If something non-State-Of comes up, I'll post it, but otherwise we'll see you in the new week!

Posted by Eric Burns-White at February 22, 2008 8:00 AM

Comments

Comment from: davidcl [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 9:07 AM

Can I just say that you've been right on the money with all of your "state of" reviews so far?

But I wanted to mention that The Broken Mirror does have an RSS feed:

http://www.the-broken-mirror.net/files/rss.xml

Comment from: William_G [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 9:39 AM

And now you're back on my must read list... :D

Comment from: Tangent [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 10:01 AM

I've been struggling over writing a review on this comic for over a week now... and you beat me to it. Damn. Ah well, time to shelve it for a month.

Rob H.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 10:17 AM

William -- it was the Morrissey line, wasn't it?

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 10:27 AM

David -- now that you've mentioned it, I went back and found it. It doesn't show up at least on my Firefox's automatic RSS detection sensor grid. Which is a way of saying it didn't have the HTML/XHTML markup to put the RSS logo in my menu bar, but my way sounds cooler.

So, revise the above to say "they should make sure their RSS feed is autodetected by browsers."

Of course, it's possible it's just a problem in my browser.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 11:13 AM

You know, there's some irony in taking that long to say that the webcomic in question takes too long to get to the point, and hash over that in great detail.

Webcomics like this one drive me nuts with their update schedules, and in some ways I find it almost worse when they're good - it's agonizing not knowing when the next eagerly-awaited chapter is coming (there's one in particular I have in mind, and I'm hoping it's on your list). I might actually give this a try, because I could probably tolerate the erratic schedule better if I'm not anxious about the next chapter.

Comment from: Confusador [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 11:31 AM

Since it's come up again, I'm going to jump on the RSS bandwagon here. I don't much like reading comics in an aggregator, but it means I didn't have to constantly endure the disappointment of checking dead posts to know that the Snark is back in force (let the rejoicing commence). And while you're focusing over here, I don't have to be saddened by the lack of action over at Banter Latte.

Even something like OOTS, which updates frequently and still has me captivated, was driving me into "sporadically checked" and consequently "less likely to spend money on" until I started using the feed.

Truly, if you can't update regularly, RSS is one of your greatest allies. (And making sure that the automatic RSS detection sensor grid works is a definite plus.)

Comment from: Tangent [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 12:48 PM

Well, that's why my livejournal backup site gained a couple of categories: updates randomly several times a week and updates randomly several times a month. Though I really should just check the random monthly site at the end of the week, and perhaps choose a couple specific days to check the others.

Rob H.

Comment from: Bo Lindbergh [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 1:34 PM

Anyone else miss the apparently abandoned Desert Rocks?

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 6:42 PM

I know that whenever I make a change to my site that accidentally kills my rss feed I get a lot of emails from people complaining about it, so I can attest that it is a popular site feature, at least in my case. And for a while I got to the point where I would *only* follow comics that had an rss feed that included the images simply because it was so darn convenient.

Comment from: lark [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 7:44 PM

Pretty much exactly the reason I stopped reading this one, stopped with Errant Story, and barely read Tales of Pylea. In the case of Pylea, the artz are so pretty that I can't give up on it, but I don't bother actually reading the story anymore.

I can't tell you how many times I find a really well drawn and thematic webcomic and think, "Jesus, they need an editor." But I doubt the authors want to hear that, and it would be disrespectful to presume to tell them such, so I keep my big mouth shut. :)

Comment from: Andrew [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 8:35 PM

Lark: Editor for Hire!

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 8:41 PM

I dunno...in Errant Story, it paces more like a gag strip with a plot in there somewhere. Sure, it's taking forever to get wherever they're going, but *usually* each strip is worth reading on its own. However, when they shift to a new setting and new characters, it can take a couple of weeks to figure out what the krunk is going on, I'll admit.

Comment from: Tom Lynch [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 22, 2008 10:08 PM

In re the cyberspace-as-believability thing, Eric, I'd like to recommend Charles Stross' latest, Halting State. A significantly more believable evolution into a virtual world.

Comment from: Britta [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 23, 2008 7:59 PM

I've only stuck with this one because Piperka keeps track of it for me. I'm glad we're starting to see a plot--but after Desert Rocks and Between Two Worlds, I have to wonder how long The Broken Mirror will keep updating. (Actually, now that I've checked, Between Two Worlds seems to have reached an ending. Which I hadn't known, because I'd given up on it--my expectation of their comics has become "pretty, but will go on indefinite hiatus just when things start to grind into motion." Which is a pity; I really liked Desert Rocks.)

Comment from: lark [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 25, 2008 5:02 PM

Andrew: The webcartoonist in black fled across the desert, and the editor followed.

Dave: Errant Story's tendency to put itself down combined with the Poison Elves-esque wall-o'-text turned me off. After two years of trying to stay with the story, I finally realized one day I was only reading it for the art, and half the time I couldn't make that out because it was covered by word balloons I didn't care about.

If you want to write a novel, write a novel. But I'm of the opinion that an artist of Poe's talent shouldn't need to resort to endless dialog to get across what his characters are doing. It's harder, it's more work, but it's what gives a comic its impact.

Comment from: Morgan Wick [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 2, 2008 3:48 AM

Quote:
Even something like OOTS, which updates frequently and still has me captivated, was driving me into "sporadically checked" and consequently "less likely to spend money on" until I started using the feed.

That's odd, because I subscribe to OOTS's RSS feed... and almost never use it. It's set up so that it can't be automatically checked more than once a day (at least with IE7's RSS reader), and I end up manually checking (by having a tab open with a random strip up and occasionally refreshing) about three times a day. And as much as I like OOTS, I suspect Eric will definitely be able to fill the "weaknesses" section whenever he gets around to it, and it might not be "regularly checked" either. Maybe it's the fact that we're currently in a rather plot-critical section of the story, where we have a lot of questions and a key plot turn can happen in any strip, as I think I was using the RSS more when we were just establishing what was going on with the Resistance. But then, I wasn't as involved in the forum then, either...

(Also, the comment form needs some sort of primer on formatting somewhere, dammit!)

Comment from: Morgan Wick [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 2, 2008 3:48 AM

Quote:
Even something like OOTS, which updates frequently and still has me captivated, was driving me into "sporadically checked" and consequently "less likely to spend money on" until I started using the feed.

That's odd, because I subscribe to OOTS's RSS feed... and almost never use it. It's set up so that it can't be automatically checked more than once a day (at least with IE7's RSS reader), and I end up manually checking (by having a tab open with a random strip up and occasionally refreshing) about three times a day. And as much as I like OOTS, I suspect Eric will definitely be able to fill the "weaknesses" section whenever he gets around to it, and it might not be "regularly checked" either. Maybe it's the fact that we're currently in a rather plot-critical section of the story, where we have a lot of questions and a key plot turn can happen in any strip, as I think I was using the RSS more when we were just establishing what was going on with the Resistance. But then, I wasn't as involved in the forum then, either...

(Also, the comment form needs some sort of primer on formatting somewhere, dammit! I can't be certain how you do those quote effects!)

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