The Webcomic Overlook #208: The Dreadful
Imagine you were in charge of a roller derby team. “What?” you say. “I came here for webcomics! What is this… the Roller Derby Overlook?” But just bear with me for a second. Imagine you were designing the mascot. What would it look like?
The character will pretty much have to be a devil. It’s an inversion of the traditional goody-two-shoes type that, I don’t know, shop at malls and go into marketing. It’s a sign of rebellion. Feistiness. Grrrrrrllll power. Besides, who’s ever heard of a roller derby team without a devil as a mascot? That would be ludicrous. That’s like designing an NBA logo without a basketball in it. So we start with a devil, preferably a shapely female to show that world that your team is both sexy and oh-so-dirty.
But… shoot… everybody has a sexy devil as their logo! How do I distinguish my mascot from every other mascot out there? Well, if the team’s called, say, the “Rat City Mavericks,” then the answer is simple: put some cowboy gear all up on that hottie! But it’s gotta be formfitting, lest you diminish the sexiness of it.
In the end, you would have a character that looked a lot like Kit, the protagonist of Matt Speroni’s The Dreadful.
The Dreadful smashes at least four different design and storytelling elements into a big steaming webcomic bouillabaisse. The most obvious is the Wild West element. Characters are kitted out in cowboy duds and six shooters, and the setting is best described as spaghetti western. Then there’s the heavy Japanese influence. The Dreadful is done in a black-and-white manga style, and the characters all look like they’re descendents from Clamp’s magical girl series. Next, the presence of fantasy creatures from several different sources: elves and dwarves from Tolkien, minotaurs and centaurs from Greek mythology. Finally, you have the supernatural element, which vary greatly in how they’re depicted. As I mentioned earlier, our main character, Kit, is devilish, but she’s cute enough to be a mascot for feminine strength and sexiness. In fact, she looks kinda like a pouty Adam Warren creation. But then we have the creepier elements that stand in stark contrast, like zombies and spider creatures that look like they stepped in from a Resident Evil game.
So who’s Kit? Well she’s a devil on the run, a six gun lover, a candle in the wind. She’s one of the devikin … or “Pinkies”, as they’re referred to by Wild West racists. (I assume this is because they’re pink. The comic is black-and-white, so far all I know they’re flesh-toned.) Kit spends some time complaining about racism (which isn’t really shown). Perhaps it’s because everytime we see one of Devilkind, they’re either prostitutes or outlaws. Have you no respect, Pinkies? The devikin, incidentally, are functionally immortal and seem to possess some dangerous superpowers, so I don’t know how severe the blowback of a society that fears as hates them can possibly be.
I assumed that from her Asian features, Kit was supposed to be emblematic of the Chinese American experience in the 19th century. I decided against that flimsy analogy the first time she open her mouth. Kit talks in a Texan drawl that some people might find a little… um … dreadful. (Badum-tish!) Here are a few choice pieces of dialogue:
Your mileage may vary on how much you can stand the twang. Personally, I kinda like it. Some writers shy away from attempting a regional accent (citing Chris Claremont’s treatment of Rogue’s accent in the X-Men comics), I think it adds some color. Kit’s way of talking helps to recall an earlier era when people took their time to get their point across, and where a gunslinger was so confident in his or her abilities that they’ll take all the time in the world before the gunnin’ starts. I guess I’m just glad that, despite appearances, Kit didn’t turn out to be one of those hyperactive cat girls that manga fans seem to always inexplicably fall in love with. (Not always, anyway. There are the times when Kit… well, I’ll explain later.)
Anyway, we open with Kit getting shot down in a blaze of glory. The perpetrator: one Jeanne Noelle, the leader of her old gang. After Kit recovers (she’s a devikin, so she pretty much shakes it off), she makes a deal with the local authorities to hunt down her old boss. So she becomes an official “agent.” Her first order of business: enlisting the help of a former gang member,
the gender-swapped version of Death Note‘s L Liz.
Kit’s got her own reasons for pursuing Jeanne. It turns out she has a twin sister named Poe, and she’s still involved in Jeanne’s gang. Kit want to take out the leader without causing needless harm to the other members. Liz, though, is a little skeptical. She suspects that Poe may be way more involved in the gang than Kit suspects.
Kit ain’t just your run-of-the-mill desperado. She’s got a whole array of superpowers, including something called The Dreadful. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it’s not the power to deliver scathing theater reviews. Kit’s power is not unlike that moment in the Transformers movie when Megatron transforms his arm into a mighty supergun.
Am I forgetting anything? Oh, yeah. Boozloaf. God. Damn. Boozloaf. He is the Jar Jar Binks of this comic. So, get this: Boozloaf is a minotaur who is also … who is also … *sigh* who is also a Moomon. So… what’s a Moomon? Well, as you can see, Boozloaf wears a short-sleeved white shirt and a black tie. If that’s too vague for you, just replace the second “o” in “Moomon” with an “r”. If you still need more clues, I should point out that there are plenty of scenes where Boozloaf has sparkles around his head, and he’s reading what I imagine is the Book of Moomon… which I think is some sort of religious text that’s filled with nothing but cow puns.
Yes, COW PUNS. For example, Boozloaf doesn’t say “amen.” He’ says “acow.”
“Acow.” GET IT?!?!?
I suppose the point is that all these “cow puns” are lame, and that’s the joke, but man do they end up being more annoying then they’re worth. There’s one sequence in particular that I hate. Boozloaf floats around a bunch of terrible almost puns, like “I would say it is simply too much for me to ‘steer.'” (Seriously, if that’s what you’re going for, I could come up with ten better uses for “steer” in my sleep.) But then Kit enthusiastically voices her approval by yelling, “slamdunk.jpg!” … UGH. So we’re asked to accept two things: that that “steer” pun was clever enough to justify an excited squeal, and that “Slamdunk.jpg” is a cute expression and a thing. I’m not sure I want to live in a world where either is true. I guess what I’m saying is that pun humor can work, but the puns in this comic … are dreadful.
The art style is a very good use of the black-and-white manga style. Speroni’s art is a little rough in the beginning: I don’t know if it’s a stylistic choice or not, but it seems that he didn’t erase the construction lines in the first few pages. But once he gets going, he has no problem tackling his cornucopia of subjects. His monsters have a nice organic horror quality to them, and he can design very distinctive looking characters.
Yet, it bugs me a little is how clean everything looks. Poe, for example has such a nice haircut that I started wondering if there was a Regis in her tiny Wild West town. There’s a winged female bounty hunter who looks unbelievably fresh-faced for someone who’s been stalking our heroes in a desert wilderness. Liz actually looks a little like she belongs, mainly because she’s got bags under her eyes and a hole in her hat. Still, this is a world where they’re riding on horses, roads are unpaved, and there are very few traces of civilization anywhere. Shouldn’t our characters look a little more weather-worn?
I guess it’s all part of the manga experience, where the characters are teenage fantasy figures who look like the stepped out of a salon a mere hour ago. And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Stylistically, The Dreadful is probably closest to Trigun, which mashed-up the Wild West with sci-fi with anime. Heck, Vash even had a supergun stored in one of his arms. While Vash had bleach-blond hair, fancy sunglasses, and better personal hygiene than the Man With No Name, you still got a sense that his big red trench coat was still covered in a thin film of dust. He was shown with his mouth inside his high collar like a makeshift bandana. His clothes looked really rumpled, like there wasn’t a hanger to be found anywhere. There was a sense he was a hundred miles from a decent working bathtub… something that you don’t get in The Dreadful, and one of the things that will sorta take you out of the action.
And the further you get into this comic, the less the different elements come together. I got to the part with the zombies, and I started to think to myself, “Wait… why were there elves, dwarves, and centaurs in this comic in the first place?” And then, “Hold on, why is this in the American Wild West?” To, “Isn’t this Pulp Fiction‘s Fox Force Five in a Western/fantasy/supernatural setting? Why?”
While there’s nothing wrong with such a mega-mashup, I think Speroni definitely overreached. Sure, make it a Wild West epic. Maybe throw the devikind and the zombies in; supernatural thrillers and the Wild West work well together. But adding the rest makes the world a little less compelling, creating an unpleasant Second Life world that’s sorta … dreadful.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)