Coded review.

Wednesday 2 May 2007

Picture from Magellan Academy

Pic of the day: I don't normally steal other people's drawings, but I think in a review it definitely qualifies as fair use.

Magellan Academy

I spent my whole evening and then some reading the archives of the online comic Magellan Academy. You should too, if you like superhero comics. The art is near professional level, the story better than most of what you can get in the comic book shop.

One of the first things you will notice is, sadly, that some of the navigation links on the site don't work, or just link back to the main site. Which work and not seem to vary between Opera and MSIE, perhaps they all work in some other browser. The best is probably to go to the the Table of Contents or start at the beginning and work your way forward. In this mode, each page displays several weeks' strips, episodes which are like paragraphs in a text: Not self-contained, but natural divisions in the flow of content. I actually prefer this over the classic "one day on each page" found in most online comics, but the load times are longer if you have poor connection.

The drawing style may have improved slightly over time, but is already quite good at the outset. It is clear that this is already an experienced artist... again unlike many other online comics, which have a decidedly "kiddy" look for a while and even later change style seemingly at random. The style is slightly more "cartoony" than you are used to from DC or Marvel, and for the most part less idealized. But it is fairly close to the de facto standard of superhero comics, and if anything richer in its use of perspectives, angles and zoom. The coloring is professional level, and I notice the use of very subtle graduals in large surfaces of one color, like the sky or any empty background. This is not something a beginner would have thought of. The colors are vivid and well chosen. In fact, the most "cartoony" part is the faces, which are somewhat unusual and seem to indicate a work history in parody / comedy cartoons. They are expressive though and easy to get used to.

Being not much of an artist myself, I am most interested in the story, the characters and the worldbuilding. And the comic shines in all these. The characters are believable as personalities even when they have unbelievable abilities. The comic draws on a rich background lore which is partly explained in running comments, partly in the forums (bad habit, I think) but sometimes just remains as a background. It reminds me a bit of how Tolkien created an extremely complex Middle Earth that was only glimpsed in his novels, but ensured that the world seemed consistent and things followed the same rules everywhere, even if the rules were not those of our Earth. In the same way, the world of Magellan takes on a certain reality, it is not created ad hoc for each strip but is persistent in the mind of the creator.

I am an avid player of the online superhero game City of Heroes, and naturally notice some similarities. Actually the comic predates the game, though the game was in development for a while so they are roughly the same age. They both make a new generic "alternative Earth" with a plethora of diffferent superpowers with different origins. But whereas in City of Heroes power levels depend purely on experience (for gameplay reasons), Magellan Academy follows the tradition of comic books in having a pyramid of power levels, with a few extremely powerful heroes on top and gradually less gifted heroes in gradually larger numbers.

Ironically, the tentative main character has no superpowers as such. She is very athletic, agile, quick and intelligent, but all within human limits. It is just the sum of all her abilities that is well above the normal, coupled with an iron will. Think Batman without the money and the gizmos. At the superhero academy, she is the only one presently without some superhuman power. She excels in nothing, but have no spectacular weaknesses either. Still, most of the others wonder why a "norm" is there, at least until they get to know her and see just how normal she isn't.

While not overtly feminist, the choice of a female character is representative for the comic in general. Superheroing is an equal opportunity career in this world, and while the women are mostly good-looking, they are not portrayed in a sexualized way. The focus is also balanced between relationship stuff and actual superheroing, where comics aimed at boys tend to go more heavy on the fight scenes and comics aimed at girls tend to be overly emotional. Overall though the focus characters are almost exclusively female. This is somewhat surprising since the creator is named Stephen, not Stephanie.

While Kaycee is established as the main character, the story often strays for long stretches at a time to focus on other characters, and we also get to know a number of the other cadets fairly well. There is so far at least very little focus on the most super heroes, Force Magellan, the equivalent of the Justice League or the Avengers. We see the strongest of them save a plane on one occasion, but for the most part they are out of sight, no doubt busy saving the world.

When the headline says "Superhero cadets - their worst enemy is themselves!", it sounds more farcical than it is. While the green cadets are indeed a somewhat motley crew and some of them lack control of their powers or their tempers, the true meaning is deeper and more sinister. Giving it away would spoil the story line which is only right now being revealed, so I would rather recommend you read it all for yourself. You may want to not start too late in the evening if you have work to do the next day, though.

Like Kaycee, the comic itself excels not because of one spectacular superiority, but because it is above the crowd in pretty much every aspect. Quality drawing, quality coloring, quality worldbuilding, quality characterization, quality storytelling. All for free, and the ads are small and mostly unobtrusive. If you ever bought a superhero comic book, this is for you.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Fast forward
Two years ago: Second-hand daydreams
Three years ago: "Entfremdung" in anime
Four years ago: Post-shopping depression
Five years ago: Short
Six years ago: Daydreaming with dice
Seven years ago: STRESS!
Eight years ago: "A talk with God"

Visit the archive page for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.

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