The Webcomic Overlook #187: Clandestinauts

It sometimes astounds me how many posts I’ve devoted to webcomics. It’s, like, more than “a lot” and just short of “a buttload.” The peril, at this point, is that sometimes you run the risk of saying the exact same thing about one webcomic that you said about another webcomic. Repeating myself is perhaps my second greatest fear in the world.

The first is my mom’s dog, Cinnamon.

Curse that Japanese Chin his sharp, pointy fangs. Why am I the only person he ever seems to bite?

So when I sat down to write about Tim Sievert’s Clandestinauts (a webcomic that I chose to read primarily because I am a big fan of the world “clandestine” — seriously, when I was a kid, I even created a superhero with that name), I was set to write, “Well, as much as I like the art, I wasn’t too big a fan of the story.” Then I thought to myself, “Wait. Didn’t I write that once? Like, at least five times before?”

If I had the time or inclination, I could probably track down all instances I expressed the exact same sentiment. I’m pretty sure I said the same thing about, say, What Birds Know. But life is short, and plan on spending my free time owning noobs on iPad/iPhone game Valor later, so let’s just say that I’ve said it a lot.

That doesn’t make the sentiment any less valid, though. One of the things I liked about Clandestinauts was the art. You immediately notice how … drippy … everything is. Creatures are drawn slimy and saggy and uncomfortably organic. People get processed messily through tracks of intestines. If you’re lucky, you might see someone’s eye get poked out.

And that’s OK! A lot of folks in fantasy webcomics — and any media dealing with fantasy in general — tend to look unbelievably clean and well-groomed for folks living in an era before toothpaste or even a workable sewer system was invented. I’m pretty sure that division between popular depictions and reality is what Monty Python & The Holy Grail was making fun of.

Clandestinauts, though, is proudly gross, messy, and very organic. There’s nothing more off-putting than when everything in the world is rendered like a sentient tumor. There’s wrinkles, folds, and bodily fluids everywhere. There’s also a good chance you’re going to run into some NSFW dangly parts. There’s nudity here, but it doesn’t feel exploitative or even raunchy. In fact, a lot of it has a sickly, intensive-care-wing-of-the-hospital-feel to them. There are so many wrinkled, pendulous boobs on display that you start feeling that you might have made the wrong turn into the sauna at your local retirement home.

(Incidentally, I’ve always wanted to incorporate the phrase “wrinkled, pendulous boobs” into my review. Thanks, Clandestinauts!)

However, like I said, I couldn’t really get into this comic… mainly because I have no idea what the heck is going on half the time.

Most of it is by design, mind you. Mr. Sievert explains it himself in his “About” section:

The Clandestinauts is a dungeoneering webcomic updated every other Thursday by me, Tim Sievert. I write this comic in “straight-ahead” style, so I don’t really know what’s going to happen until it happens. It’s a challenging way to tell a story with so many characters and subplots going on, but it’s a lot of fun.

It’s a technique that does work surprisingly well in the fantasy genre. Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, for example, did a fine job with their Dragonlance series, and according to their appendix the trilogy was crafted from an AD & D game that they were playing. And, shoot, that’s basically the mentality I went forward with writing my NaNoWriMo novel.

The difference, though, is that Hickman and Weis did a good job slowly introducing the readers to their cast of characters, telling us why we should care about them, establishing their distinct personalities, outlining their circumstances, and then thrusting us into battle. (At least, that’s what I think happened. I haven’t read Dragonlance in, like, 15 years. I’ve tried to re-read it, but using the lizard-like Draconians as orc stand-ins only gets sillier and sillier as the years progress.)

So what happens in Clandestinauts? We’re immediately thrown into a skirmish with Cavetrool McSaggyboobs and barely a mention to the characters we’re supposed to be following. The group of dungeon crawlers are very, very similar to one another. Oh, sure, they do look different… but are He-Man action figures, and I’d be hard pressed to tell those dudes apart from each other either.

There’s a… robot, I think?

And some guy with a headband and cape?

The longest story arc belong to Rutger, a young warlock with long hair that covers his eyes. He dies in battle… and as much as I’ve praised the art, it took me a third reading to realize that the monster is actually chomping down on our poor warlock here. And yet, death is only the beginning of his story. The guy sold his soul to the devil, it seems, so he soon cold and chained and lying naked on the floor in the bowels of Hell.

It was actually a pretty interesting arc. Through a flashback, we learn that he’s a moral stalwart that refuses to make a deal with the devil, discovers that he cannot really escape his destiny. It’s all when and good to say that you won’t become a servant of Satan. However, when you’re being falsely accused of a crime you didn’t commit, and your very life hangs by a very thin thread, then moral fortitude becomes a secondary consideration to matters of life or death. Our hero, though, soon discovers the true meaning of getting the raw end of the deal.

But then that story segment ends. By this point, I’d assumed that Rutger was the main character, and the intro sequence was a mere setup. But no. We’re back to the visually distinct but lightly defined characters that were introduced in the opening scenes. Only now I have even less of an idea about what’s going on now.

This time the story spits into three: two of our guys have stumbled onto an army. Two of our other guys run into an scantily dressed pudgy one-eyed wizard. And the head-band-and-cape guy (whose name I always keep forgetting but is apparently named Chuck Ronan) finds a naked woman inside a gigantic skull.

I suppose you could say that there’s nothing to worry about. Mr. Sievert, after all, did a fine job fleshing out his first character by splintering his adventures from the ongoing saga. Nothing thus far causes me to doubt Mr. Sievert’s abilities at crafting such a storyline. What worries me, though, is that I think it’s going into too many directions too soon. The “breaking of the fellowship” portion is a beloved and integral part of most fantasy tales, but only after we’ve already established the characters and their relationships to each other. And this hasn’t yet been established in Clandestinauts. It feels like too much, too fast.

This is one of those webcomics that I think I may have a different opinion about once it’s completed and all the threads tie together. Maybe Mr. Sievert will go back and establish the character relationships later on. You can tell, after all, that despite Mr. Sievert’s declaration that he’s making it up as he goes along, he does have a framework in mind that he’s working off of. Clandestinauts feels just loose enough to feel spontaneous yet not aimless.

Still, that’s the big risk with starting things in medias res. You have to trust the readers stick on long enough for the big reveals. I’m not sure that there’s enough to this comic that makes me want to stick around. As a serialized webcomic that’s presented page by page and fights to retain my attention on a day to day basis, I fear that I have to stick with my original assessment: as much as I like the art, I wasn’t too big a fan of the story.

Rating: 3 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 December 6, 2011, in 3 Stars, action webcomic, adult webcomic, adventure webcomic, fantasy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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