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)


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on July 11, 2011, in 5 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, fantasy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Yet another comic you’ve gotten me hooked on. Jerk.

  2. Looks and sounds brilliant, I’ll check this out for sure!

  3. Unsounded is one of the pinnacles of the medium. Why everybody doesn’t know and love it is a truly bewildering problem

  4. Typo in paragraph 2: There are _may_ theories…

    In the first couple of chapters, the “Index” button was sometimes replaced by a link to a newspaper clipping.or to some later-day correspondence. Worth mentioning?

    I don’t know if you were trying to avoid spoilers, but the Red Berry Boys are doing something even more creepy, IMO, than just capturing and selling adults and children as slaves: They are using the slaves to hide what they are really doing.

    The current webcomic seems to be something of a second pass. Some readers are already familiar with the setting, if not the specific story. The original material has been pulled to avoid spoilers and I haven’t seen it. It’s probably one of the reasons the comic seems so well done, but I wish the author would have explained the situation a little.

    I definitely agree with the 5 stars. This is one of my favorites.

  5. Wow! I think i’m going to love this one too.!

  6. I just did an entire archive crawl and I might just do it again, just not to miss little details.
    …Is it bad that one of the things I love most is the ever-changing weblayout? Although I’m partial to pretty much -everything- in this comic. Thank you for acquainting me with it, El Santo!

  7. Kind of shocked! I started reading this when it first came out and I found the little girls dialogue to be so annoying and forcedly cutesy that I gave up on it. Maybe I’ll give it another go, though!

  8. Ditto what Angelina said. The dialogue interfered with my enjoyment. But I’ll try again. Because, my gawd, that’s some purty artin’.

    • I mentioned in the review that her dialogue is grating, but after a while you realize that huge chunks of what Sette is saying isn’t just there to be cute… they are major parts of the plot. And the longer you start paying attention to what she’s saying, the more you get used to it, and the more you sorta appreciate that Ms. Cope was daring enough to center her entire comic around a character whose dialogue is intentionally grating. I stand by my comparison to True Grit, where I have pretty much the same reaction (and eventual bemused acceptance) to Jeff Bridges’ take on Rooster Cogburn.

      • Yes, the True Grit comparison is apt. Unfortunately I didn’t get used to it, but in this case I’ll consider that my failing and not the comic. Actually, I blame Davy Jones. During my childhood in the 60’s-70’s there were way too many kids in movies and TV shows that had ‘orrible cockney accents for no good reason. Like that freaking kid with the flute in H.R. Puffnstuff. Hate! Hate! Hate!

        Also reminds me of:
        “‘Tis for my accent and my situation that I am condemned. ‘Tis for the want of better graces and the influence they bring that I am to board this prison hulk.”
        “And all those murders you done.”

        • It reminds me of reading Oliver Twist – the most dry, boring, horrendous novel I’ve ever read. I got three quarters through it and I just gave up. I wanted that stupid orphan to die.

          Other than the accent though, this comic is really good. I think I might be hooked.

  9. Ah!! I’m glad you did a review on one of my favorite webcomics 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing!

  10. I find Sette weirdly endearing, but it’s mostly because of her relationship with Duane.

    It reminds me a bit of Pinoko and Black Jack from Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack. Pinoko’s in a prosthetic body that’s the size of a child but she insists she’s an adult and also Black Jack’s wife. She’s got this annoying speech impediment that translators try to get across. I know she sounds like a mass of anime clichĂ©s but she’s probably more of a template for similar characters than anything else so now you know who to blame. ;p The thing is, though, as the series goes on and you learn more about her and Black Jack, their relationship is actually pretty interesting so I actually think Tezuka deserves props for actually making the dynamic work even if I’m not entirely sure why he thought it was a good idea. Of course, he deserves props for a lot of things, but that goes without saying.

    I can totally understand being turned off by both Pinoko and Sette, but I personally enjoy it when weird stuff like that actually kind of works.

  11. I’ve been looking for months for a new comic to follow. This one seems promising. I’ll check it out over the weekend I think.

    I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of this style, which I always tend to think of as “that deviantart anime style”, but this artist seems to have nailed it. Too often those employing anime styles feel the need to include cliches that they think make something qualify as manga, cliches in the style, humor, characterization, facial expressions, and story that to non-manga fans come off as unbearably annoying.

    • I’d say the DeviantArt animĂ© style is not a result of authors aping manga style, but rather authors aping other authors who are aping manga style. From what I’ve seen of manga, it’s just as heterogenous as American or European comics. Of course, there are a few things that identify regional culture, and it’s those things that crappy manga artists have latched on with fervour. Because standard DeviantArt style is easy as shit to draw, and everyone knows what they’re getting into. It’s the same reason people keep going to those “Blahblahblah Movie” films; it might not be funny, but they recognize everything they’re referencing. And so crappy manga feels comfortable for a lot of people, because they already watch plenty of crappy animĂ©.

      Speaking of such things, the reason I often like comics like Unsounded is actually because the long form format and colouring make it quite similar to the Euro-comics I’m already used to reading.

  12. Nice to see someone try for something new with the whole zombie thing. Or rather something old. The horror of the old voodoo zombies didn’t come from what the dead might do to the living, but from what the living might do to the dead.

  13. Unsounded is brilliant beyond belief. I’m am extremely picky about webcomics in any case, but the story and the characters here are so good that it lured me in anyway. It requires a little extra brainpower to wrap your head around the storyline, vocabulary, and those funky accents, but those who choose to stick with it will be rewarded, even if you weren’t thrilled with it from the beginning like I was. Plus, we’re only on chapter four, so it’s not a horrible waste of time to read the whole thing only to find that you hate it.

    But you really shouldn’t hate it. The art is fantastic, the characters are engaging and realistic despite being part of the fantasy genre, the dialogue is entertaining, the plot is intriguing, and the artist defies all expectations while not insulting your intelligence. Unsounded is a goldmine for those who are looking for something a little more challenging. I highly recommend it.

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