The Webcomic Overlook #173: Unsounded
Back in the day, when I entertained my wild-eyed dreams of becoming a New York Times bestselling novelist, I used to take part in NaNoWriMo. Oh, but for the riches I would have reaped if I could only write more than 10K words in a month! I even went to a meet-up, where prospective writers would meet at a bar on the first day and talk about the stories they would like to write. Typically, most would be sci-fi, fantasy, or horror stories. If you’ve ever taken a glimpse of the typical NaNoWriMo story, this should be a surprise to absolutely no one. You have to wonder, why would we be rehashing the exact same themes?
There are many theories, but one guy at that meet put it best. He said he didn’t know what kind of story he wanted to write. However, he wanted there to be monsters. Not the allegorical human kind like serial killers and corrupt government officials, which, I am told, is the most frightening kind of all. Actual monsters with bumps and scales and may or may not breathe fire. The ones that are as big as a house. Maybe even bigger. They grab the imagination. They elicit awe and wonder.
I mean, you can see regular human beings every day. You can see the “human monsters” every night on CNN. But big dragons, weird space aliens, Cthulhu-inspired tentacle creatures and other assorted monsters that are larger than they should be? These are the sorts of creatures that can only be brought to life through the power of imagination.
It’s one of the things that catches the eye when you read through Ashley Cope’s Unsounded. She hits us with one big beastie after another. In chapter one, our heroes encounter a large, hulking beast made of earth, rocks, and plant matter. Later on, we see more docile beasties: big dogs that serve as beasts of burden. There are also giant half-frogs, half-robot things that can lift trees with one hand.
However, if the “humans are the greatest monsters of all” theme is more up to your speed, then you’re also probably the sort of person who likes to argue why Gormenghast is superior to Lord of the Rings. Surprisingly, Ms. Cope has you covered.
Before I get into that, let’s talk a little about Ms. Cope’s art. It is, to put it simply, is absolutely breathtaking. It’s done in a manga/anime style that’s crisp, clean, and colorful. It’s one of the better examples of the form I’ve seen. Ms. Cope especially does a fine job with the fluid and dynamic action scenes by effortlessly illustrating the characters from different perspectives. It brings home both the emotional and physical impact of each stirringly choreographed sequence.
Ms. Cope also does a great job drawing faces. I like how expressive she can make them. She also does a great job drawing characters with facial features that don’t fit strictly within the Toonami-approved guidelines of how to draw an anime character. There are, for example, characters who aren’t strictly pale-skinned, a rarity in both the manga/anime and fantasy genres. OK, sure, she does throw characters here and there that look like they were lifted from previously existing works, like one delicate-looking platinum blonde who sort of looks like Lucius Malfoy as drawn by any number of DeviantArt members. Yet, in the same comic, Ms. Cope also draws diverse physical characteristics and successfully populates her fantasy world with people of different races, namely those of African ethnicity. Her artistic style remains consistent, though, and the subtle variations don’t look out of place standing next to characters using more traditional designs.
The world of Unsounded bridges both European and Japanese influences. The woodland and town settings wouldn’t look out of place in either medieval Europe or feudal Japan. Heightening the romanticism us the color palette. Depending on the mood, it can be eye-catchingly vivid or drearily somber.
Maybe the colors get all swirly and mystical when someone casts a spell, and you’re all, “That sh** is correct!” But then Ms. Cope goes gets all creative. She takes advantage of the slightly-larger-but-not-infinite canvas and comes up with some dope as hell page layouts. And then she gets all painterly on your ass, and it is off the hook, yo.
Unsounded‘s main character is Sette Frummagem, a young girl with a tail. She’s proud to be from a very rich (though legally disreputable and highly duplicitous) family. Sette can be quite grating, at least initially. She’s brash, loud-mouthed, and more than a little greedy. The words coming out of her mouth are nigh inscrutible:
‘ere, I’ll present me bac to ya, like so. Ya get a sniff’ve the potent brainal odour comin’ out me ears. Nibble, if you’re brave. Nibble!
It’s the comic equivalent of Jeff Bridges’ marble-mouthed ramblings in True Grit. (“It astonishes me that Mr. LaBoeuf has been shot, trampled, and nearly bitten his tongue off, and yet not only does he continue to talk but he spills the banks of English.”) The longer you spend time with Sette, though, the more you grow to like her, and by the end of Chapter 2 I was genuinely enjoying her presence. She’s like a spunky little sister.
She’s joined by the gray-skinned Duane Adelier, who fit more closely to the grim, swashbuckling fantasy action hero type. He’s a sorcerer who is ethereally patient with his motormouthed companion (most of the time). He may or may not be a zombie. While he was hired by Sette’s father on a mission to confront Sette’s cousin on behalf of the family, you get a sense that he’s got an agenda all his own. He ignores his original mission when he discovers the existence of Unsounded‘s human monsters: slavers.
There are several countries in Unsounded, some where slavery is legal. These slavers, though, deal in a particularly despicable sort: child slavery. Ms. Cope really sells the horror of it. There are uncomfortable scenes of child slaves suffering abuse at the hands of their captors and moments of desperation when a slave realizes that freedom is out of his grasp due to a language barrier.
However, the children aren’t the only slaves. Perhaps you’re a little tired of zombies in comics, and I don’t blame you if you are. Unsounded takes a fairly novel approach, though: the zombies here aren’t a terrifying horde, but are, instead, forced labor. It’s probably closer to the original concept of a zombie from voodoo mythology. There’s nothing to suggest that they’re anything but mindless monsters… except that Duane, whose smarter and more articulate than most other characters in Unsounded, isn’t all that different from them. And he’s visibly distressed when they’re whipped.
The two clearly need each other. Duane, though level-headed most of the time, isn’t always in control of his rage, and he needs Sette to calm him down from time to time. While Sette is strong-willed, is seems like some of Duane’s innate honor is rubbing off on her. They’re a Dynamic Duo of the fantasy era. They share several great character moments, and they’re fun to follow.
(And if Sette was older, it would be almost romantic. It’s not like Unsounded is unaware of that: Sette, many times, calls that sort of relationship out on being highly inappropriate, even playfully chiding Duane for being a “child-lover” … so let’s just say that the two have a father-daughter relationship, hmmmmm?)
In addition, Unsounded‘s story is a real page turner. There’s danger at every corner, especially from “good guys” who think our duo are dangerous highwaymen. Ms. Cope’s suspenseful pacing keeps you on your toes. So there it is: great art, great characters, and an involving plot. If you liked The Meek, you’ll enjoy Unsounded.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)