The Webcomic Overlook #224: Strays
One of the most mockable aspects of anime is when the characters have a big brother/little relationship when the two characters are not actually related. (And, let’s face it, sometimes when they are.) There’s usually a sizable age difference. The girl will be barely into her teens, and the guy will be college age or older. The girl is typically portrayed as somewhat infantile, especially when mewling something along the lines of “onneeeeeiiiiisaaaannnn!” (Alternately, “neeeesannnnnnn!”) The guy, on the other hand, is some aloof, emotionally distant dude who appends the heroine’s name with “-chan.” While this is typically portrayed as sibling closeness, there’s a little bit of creepiness in the subtext of how that same closeness can easily translate into something more serious. (And it can get really weird when it actually does happen.)
In Strays by Samantha Whitten and Stacey Pefferkorn, we’re introduced to a young 12-year-old girl named Meela. She’s homeless and trying to survive in the big outdoors by herself. Suddenly, a fight breaks down nearby, which destroys her rickety lean-to. She meets the 28-year-old Feral. Feral, while being a silent badass, takes some pity on Meela and decides to let her tag along.
So many alarms were going off in my head.
So many alarms.
(Incidentally, I was writing this on the day before Easter — a huge shopping day, due to the many sales at the mall — while sitting at a window facing an American Girl doll store, which is abundantly populated by many tiny girls. I imagined a terrible scenario where someone called security, and they confiscated my laptop which currently has the first paragraph written up without any further context. I think that chances were high that I would’ve had to register my name on a list of not very nice people. These are the sorts of sacrifices I make for you, dear readers. Blogging is more dangerous than it sounds.)
So right off the bat, Meela is pretty annoying in that “perky anime catgirl who can’t shut up” sort of way. Wait, did I say that she’s a catgirl? She’s actually part wolf. We see here running around with a fluffy little tail, though, so my confusion is understandable. In the world of Strays, many of the characters can typically transform into spectacular beasties. Meela and Feral are wolves, there’s a gal introduced later on who can turn into a fox, a few characters can transform into birds, and one particularly fearsome nemesis can turn into a panther.
It turns out that commmunication with Feral can be one sided. It’s not just because his stoic and cool, which he is. (Who wouldn’t get lost in those dreamy red/gray eyes?) It turns out he also had his throat ripped out. How it happened remains one of the comic’s central mysteries. Feral can only communicate through the most rudimentary of sign languages, usually by crossing his arms to his chest. I have to give a lot of credit to Whitten and Pefferkorn: this was a bold storytelling decision. They do a very good job of developing Feral’s personality primarily through facial expressions and body language. Good job, you two!
This may not be the best idea that Feral has ever had, though. I think he tries to shake Meela a few times, but it turns out she’s very persistent and very lonely. And it’s not like Feral actually tries all that hard to lose her, either. (It’s revealed later that both sort of have tragic pasts, which may be why the two of them have this unspoken need to bond with each other.) However, Feral’s job is not the most kid-friendly one on the market. He’s a bounty hunter, and where he goes, trouble follows.
Meela tags along with Feral on his next mission, which apparently involves heading out to eastern Kentucky to face a redneck with a shotgun. Or rather, to pick up a bounty on some guy who murdered his wife and is apparently evading authorities. Things go pretty bad from the start. Thanks to Meela’s poor control over the volume of her speaking voice, the two are discovered almost immediately. Second, shotguns are apparently a rare commodity in Strays-verse. Feral’s primary weapon is knives. And, in case you haven’t seen the Deadliest Warrior episode about it, knives do not stand a very good chance against a 12-gage. The two are perplexed with how to approach the situation. Stealth is considered, and perhaps the best option for a bounty hunter with a speech disorder, but that option is out of the question when Meela’s on board.
In the end, though, through some magic mumbo jumbo, the mission turns out to be a success… but it ends tragically. The target is killed, and Meela is more than a little convinced — based on a panicked testimony and some extremely circumstantial evidence — that the man might in fact be innocent.
From there, the story gets a little more complex. (Though, I should point out, not that hard to follow.) We learn that Feral was working for a secret benefactor named Holland. It turns out that Feral and Holland have a past, and that he might have ulterior motives in contracting Feral. It turns out Feral was sort of a big brother figure to Holland. I take it that means he has both an emotional connection with our silent protagonist, and he also knows what his unique capabilities are.
Also, Holland is super flamboyant. Like, “I have no idea why Strays is trying to convince us that Holland is attracted to women” flamboyant. Anyway, Holland is character that’s full of secrets. There’s a big reveal to Meela that I won’t discuss here, but what impressed me most is how Whitten and Pefferkorn managed to sprinkle clues to reveal several chapters previously, but were so deftly coy that the revelation still came off as a bit of a surprise.
Even the sexy lady thief Piper is more than she appears. Incidentally, I like how Whitten and/or Pefferkorn draw her, by the way. While Piper is attractive, she’s not drawn as a rail thin supermodel, a template that most artists would adopt for a cat thief. She’s definitely got some muscle tone on her bones, which makes her look believable athletic. What can I say? I’m a big fan of the Jennifer-Lawrence-as-Katniss-Everdeen body type.
But back to the character. She’s originally introduced as a sexy babe who Feral hits on (silently) at a tavern. It turns out the two of them are playing an elaborate con game: Piper is trying to rob Feral, and Feral is trying to bring her in for a bounty. But wait, there’s more! It turns out Piper and Holland have a past. You know, Holland, the guy who’s really been the one sending Feral on missions?
I’m being a little cagey because a big factor in enjoying Strays is that the comic is chock full of crazy plot twists … and for once, I kinda like it. When I started reading Strays, my initial impression was that this was going to be one of the webcomics where we spend long stretches where nothing happens and everything is carried along by the artwork. (Which is very easy on the eyes, admittedly.) It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve reviewed many, many webcomics with decent to great visuals that just dragged like a two-legged dog because the creator(s) couldn’t balance the art with narrative flow.
Nope! One of the things I admire most about Strays is how energetic it is. I have no idea how much of this is planned ahead. I have a sneaky feeling very little of it was, and much of the story is the creators freestyling the next plot element, but ultimately it doesn’t matter since it’s all incredibly lively.
Does Meela ever stop being annoying? Not really. But I grew to accept that aspect of her character, one of a chatty motor mouth who, through the magnitude of her good intentions, ends up getting into more trouble that it’s worth. I think it helps that Meela is pretty much portrayed as a screw up. She’s no prodigy, nor she is someone who is necessary to make the team better. Feral’s letting Meela hang around out of pity. Holland wants her around because he sees how much she’s helping Feral open up. And Piper… well, it’s not explicitly stated, but I’m guessing she like having another female on this bro-heavy team.
So, in a way, Meela becomes sort of the imouto-chan to the readers as well. Perky, difficult, over eager, and a little bit of a brat, but with so much heart that, darn it, it wouldn’t hurt babysitting her again just one more time. Also, don’t be thinking romantic thoughts or nothing. That’s just weird. (Incidentally, I read the creators have pretty much guaranteed there there will be no romance between Meela and Feral. So if that’s where your thoughts was heading, take this moment to think about your life and what happened that got you to the point where you’re shipping a 12-year-old with a 28-year-old.)
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Posted on March 30, 2013, in 4 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, fantasy webcomic, manga style webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.