Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether

"Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether" is a webcomic launched this summer by celebrated writer Greg ("Gotham central", "Queen and country") Rucka, and veteran artist Rick ("Batman adventures") Burchett. The announcement registered as a little more than an offbeat Rucka side project following his long tenure at DC, with most of the mainstream news sources preferring to speculate on the hype surrounding the creator's previous publisher's major publishing initiative. And even if not for the relaunched DC superhero line's continued dominance of  the comics news cycle, the traditional outlets would very likely devote little of their time to any kind of new webcomic, despite "Lady Sabre"'s popular genre trappings and the high profile of it's creators.

It goes without saying that such skepticism is unwarranted, especially when it comes to a free offering available twice a week in a tone that is completely accessible, embodying the best qualities of pulp entertainment. In short, "Lady Sabre" is a steampunk fantasy comic, opening with the first chapter that introduces the main character in action, reminding the reader of the opening of "Indiana Jones" movies. The audience is expected to pick up on the particulars without the need of lengthy exposition, and in this regard, the opening chapter of "the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether" does a commendable job. The protagonist is introduced in a lengthy action sequence, her previous relationship with the antagonist and the leader of the guard is alluded to upon in a manner that is both clear and subtle, and following their duel the creators tease the bigger picture by literally zooming out and revealing the rest of the cast in their nearby vessel.

Short and succinct, simple and effective, but not at all simplistic and superfluous. Rucka is a very methodical writer, and seeing him resort to such a slight plot is simply an exercise in understatement and world building, as a way of teasing the readers with the best the property has to offer when it comes to entertainment, before building up to a more elaborate story. A steady hand of a sure craftsman lies beyond every panel, indicating a tight script that called for a set of very specific moments, bringing an almost animated look to the sword fights (aided by the web layouts showing displaying several comics pages in a frame, when the story calls for it) that eases the reader into simply enjoying the presentation.

All the while, the carefully calculated choreography could have easily kept the reader from warming up to "Lady Sabre" if the hand of another skilled professional wasn't there to illustrate the battle in a classic steampunk locale. Rick Burchett proves a master storyteller in creating a clear flow, bringing an illusion of movement, and again clarity to the fight involving multiple personas that could have seemed too long and chaotic in another's hands. On the other hand, relying upon such archetypal characters and cliched adventure story tropes carries over a bit when it comes to character designs, with the protagonist particularly seeming as a too familiar unstoppable adventuress that is both beautiful and deadly.

This is a very real problem, as presenting a webcomic purposely done in a generic, action serial style could very well lead the potential audience to see it as somewhat backwards and not to their tastes. This certainly explains while "Athena Voltaire",  a masterfully executed pulp webcomic that is both gorgeous and seemingly inviting to potential new readers hasn't found a bigger audience. Rucka and Burchett's effort tries to sidestep this problem by taking on the popular steampunk aesthetic, yet it feels somewhat artifical. The creators are clearly much more attuned to the Golden age of comic's own adventure story tradition, than the relatively more recent steampunk fad, but at this point, it's more a matter of branding than anything else.

A good comic will work in any kind of genre and the creator's professionalism leads to a wholesome and quality presentation that, while still in the process of exhibiting it's own unique voice, certainly takes all the right steps in teasing the reader to expect more from the subsequent installments. Yet, ironically, it's not the book's tendency to cling to the cliches that is it's chief point of contention (the website provides text pieces indicating that the Rucka has thoroughly set up the property and is building to a good story, something that is all too often forgotten in the gimmicky world of genre entertainment), but another matter entirely. Strangely, the whole presentation is affected by nothing less than the rushed coloring job, seemingly done by the artist himself.

The high cost of quality production values of new work in a crowded marketplace is traditionally the chief reason why so many of the new offerings come in black and white, despite the subject matter being much better suited to the presentation in color. Likewise, most of the artists receiving low or no pay for such journeyman entries can't or simply won't present the material in a way that utilizes the most of the black and white presentation, perhaps aware that their work, if not on the original episodes, will eventually be enhanced by the coloring studios, or a new contributor, once the financial benefits start coming in. "Lady Sabre" takes the opposite stance, and forgoes the sepia or gray toned black and white work, to be presented in full colors, but in doing so fails to utilize the extent of the modern coloring, leading to a shaky presentation. It is not that the colors are primary and completely without gradation, but they still look gaudy and oft putting when applied to such tight pencils and concrete storytelling.

And while an argument could be made, that what has been presented as primarily a fun adventure story would benefit from the clear, bright coloring, it's an entirely different matter when the resulting effects simply feel limited in specter, giving a strangely orderly and lifeless look. The gaudiness is tolerable and doesn't brings the whole presentation down, working to enhance the otherwise careful work of veteran creators, but most of it's power comes from effects, not separation.

In any event, "Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether" presents a strong an interesting new project, that would definitely be of interest to most of the comic fans with a soft spot for classical genre storytelling, and considering that it's presented free, twice a week, there is no excuse for any reader to avoid trying it out and consider jumping abroad the property this early on.