The Webcomic Overlook #169: Otherworld
Female action heroes have had a difficult road to travel in comics. Beyond societal gender politics of eras past, female comic heroes have fairly lascivious origins. Take Wonder Woman, for instance, one of the first female superheroes. She is a very heroic character, no doubt, but her reputation will always be tainted because her creator was Dr. William Marston, the feminist psychologist who was way into bondage and polyamorous relationships.
Superhero comics have traditionally been bought by pre-adolescent males, which means that female heroes often cater to the “boys rule/girls have cooties” and “girls are hot” extremes. Even when comic publishers try to update their female superheroes to modern times, they fall into the same problems. Sue Storm, for example, begun her career in the 1960’s with the weakest power (turns invisible) and was pretty much the damsel in distress. Then Marvel was all, “That sort of ignorant 60’s characterization doesn’t fly in the modern day!” So, to keep up with the changing audiences… marvel introduced a “sexy” Sue Storm with a boob window in the shape of the number 4.
Oh, the 90’s.
We’re still recovering from that, by the way, with DC recently passed an edict that, in their new rebooted universe, the superheroines gotta wear pants. OK, a good step in the right direction … but one that might be taken too far the wrong way, too, since all of the sudden we’re passing standards where the ladies have to cover up.
I see webcomics as something of a fresh start. A way to break away from all this madness. It’s a relative new medium unsaddled by the sometimes misogynistic origins of the past. So, to highlight the hard-hitting, high-flying, ass-kicking ladies of action in webcomics, I’m resurrecting the “Girl Power Week” concept.
First up is Otherworld, created by Toby Gard. This comic is rated 16+, borderline NSFW, for scenes of graphic disembowelments and naked boobs.
So, who is Toby Gard? The Otherworld site will proudly tell you that he’s the guy who created Lara Croft. Damn if that wasn’t enough to get me to read the webcomic. Look, I’m not the biggest Tomb Raider fan. I think I may have only finished half of Angel of Darkness before selling off my PS2. Some time after that driving level where you couldn’t see crap. But give the guy credit: Lara Croft is one of the few video game characters not created by Nintendo that can be recognized by the mainstream public.
According to a piece that Gard did for Top Web Comics, Gard got the idea for Otherworld when he was writing NaNoWriMo. See, people! NaNoWriMo isn’t always an exercise in futility! Time to resurrect that tale of the hero stuck on a desert island who’s constantly fighting off ninja zombies and is 68% your favorite recipes because you needed SOMETHING to pad the length to 50k words.
Here’s how Gard explains his premise:
Otherworld is not like Narnia or Wonderland (other than that all three worlds are a fantasy other-dimension parallel to our own) because Narnia and Wonderland are entirely made up, while Otherworld is based on folk myth. Otherworld is not standard fantasy like Middle Earth or the glut of other DnD-like worlds out there, but it is based on similar source material. Otherworld is not like normal Urban fantasy story, which asks the reader to believe that there are really vampires, werewolves and such like in this world, but we somehow have never caught, dissected or experimented on one. Otherworld is based on the real world with one single “What if?”
What if the Sidhe, the Tuatha De Danann really did return to the Otherworld centuries ago and they took what we call magic with them. If you are unfamiliar with these older folk tales, I’m talking about the Book of Invasions and things like WB Yeats Celtic Twilight.
Now, I don’t want to bring up Lara Croft too much in this review…. but when you think about it that doesn’t stray too far from how things work in Lara Croft land. Which is to say that it’s the same “fantasy is real” philosophy employed by its predecessor, Indiana Jones. Again, I’m not familiar with the game, but I have seen the movie. And there, impossible fantasy elements are treated matter-of-factly. Like that scene where a multi-armed statue comes to life. Or when Lara combines two halfs of a magical nacho to travel through time. Or when Lara’s dad is implausibly played by Jon Voight.
Otherworld is set in modern day Britain. It’s rooted in the magic tradition of the Celts, where there’s a regular world and one where the faeries come from. It’s a world full of ominous hills and spooky haunted forests, and it’s crawling with half-elven, half-lizard things that roam the land and attack outsiders.
Enter Katlyn Liu, one of the two heroines of our tale. She’s part of an assassin squad that offs folks who display signs of magic. This organization (and others, like the Vatican) are doing their part to eradicate magic from the world and to perpetuate the lie that magic is a myth.
Katlyn’s powers of telekinesis manifested at a young age. While this delights her father, this also attracts the attention of a super secret organization known as The Order that would like to train her in their Jedi ways. To acquire her, they kill her parents and made it look like an accident. On older gentleman in a long white beard served as her mentor. Sensing Katlyn’s potential, he put her on the fast track. She got to hone her skills against the elite fighters and got to witness firsthand the horror of seeing her intestines spill out of her own belly. Fortunately, The Order has its benefits, and one of them is an all-purpose healing brew. Disembowelment is but a temporary condition.
So Team Kill the Wizards track three girls down at an abandoned theater. Before you can say, “Toad Style is immensely strong and immune to nearly any weapon,” out team of assassins have dispatched two of the girls with deadly efficiency. Katlyn has to kill the last one, a total newbie named Eden. Her comrades watch intently, wondering if Katlyn will embrace her destiny as a killer for hire. Katlyn displays her power and smacks Eden around with her magic. And then… SPOILER ALERT! ….
… she betrays The Order and decides to save Eden’s life.
How did The Order not see this one coming? It’s like they never watched Salt before.
Then again, we eventually get the explanation that Katlyn has been planning this escape for years in secret. She’s even been throwing fights to lull her former allies into a false sense of superiority.
Gard’s artistic style is very simple. The girls look a little Disney-ish. Katlyn looks a lot like Mulan, and Eden reminds me of that girl from Tangled. Overall, though, Gard’s style works well will all the action scenes. She zips about the page… leaping, kicking, and swinging swords. Her opponents respond in kind. The characters, then, all look lithe and wiry and designed to bend at crazy, impossible angles. The action scenes are dynamic and are easily the best part in the comic.
Katlyn is somewhat of a generic stoic ninja woman character, but Toby Gard makes it work. While she’s cold and confident as you might expect, she’s also tightly wound and is just a hair’s breadth away from completely snapping. At one point, Eden, ever the ingenue, mentions that all this stuff about faeries is completely ridiculous. Katlyn responds like a rageposter, quoting various facts from Wikipedia and basically sneering at Eden’s ignorance. I like how she pulls the Plato card. “What, you think you’re smarter than Plato, the founder of Western philosophy and science? Yeah, I thought so, little girl.” When you think about it, Katlyn is a total magic hipster.
Eden, on the other hand, is our POV character. She’s got some magic mojo of her own, but has no idea how to use it. Her purpose is to point out and be amazed by things that are far from normal. She hasn’t had much character development yet, but so far she comes across as a rather sweet character who doesn’t know jack about Plato.
The only complaint I have thus far is that the plot isn’t exactly the most original one in the world. Otherworld is very predictable, and I was calling the twists about three or four pages before they happened. Despite Toby Gard’s insistence that this is different from Narnia and Wonderland and D&D, there’s little to separate the story from the standard Joseph Campbell high fantasy novel template.
Still, if you were looking for a story where a kick-ass female warrior whose knowledge of transdimensional folklore-based magic is only outmatched by her zest for kung-fu treachery, then Otherworld is a fine webcomic indeed.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)