"The latest Flash Player is required to view this site properly"
The title page of Alpha Shade should be read like a warning marker to the unwary, letting the potential reader know what they may find within the home of Christopher and Joseph Brudlos' tag-team foray into the steampunk genre. Still fairly new – having launched only this past July – Alpha Shade is a unique mix of traditional manga cobbled together through the creative use of (Flash) technology.
Not much is known up to this point in the tale, which opens by thrusting the reader in the middle of the action, other that the fact that the main characters are immersed in *a* war with *an* opponent. There are tantalizing glimpses of mysterious enemy "fliers" in the air, but nothing more concrete has been offered to the reader as of yet in terms of *who* they are fighting, or why. There is also the inclusion of what seems to be a psychic cat who apparently holds some military rank or importance (with some interesting overtones of Hayao Miyazaki's work). Addressed as "Lord" by the troops, he is clearly one of the leaders of the featured military unit. The story could potentially develop into something intriguing, and the art in the comic is enough for one to take that leap of faith and wait to see how it unfolds.
In all fairness, with only twenty-nine pages posted to date, it's rather hard to tell just how original the concept and story are. Thus far, we have been presented with traditional anime/manga fare, flowing along the lines of such steampunk tales as Last Exile, complete with Jules Verne-esque devices and technology. The dialogue seems a bit forced and stock – particularly through some of the younger female characters, who have an unfortunate tendency to sound overly plucky or overemotional.
The strong points of Alpha Shade definitely shine through the overall artistic design, not to mention the art itself. The character designs are certainly better than that of the average webcomic, even if there is an overabundance of female characters sporting pretty much the same build and "overgenerous" proportions, packed snugly in their rather tight uniforms. Of course, this is not really surprising given the clear manga/anime influence, although the creators do seem to make an effort in making the characters distinctive through the use of sharp-looking uniform designs. The range in look of the male characters, though they considerably more limited in number (i.e., there are fewer of them then there are women, so far), is more obvious and marked.
What really makes Alpha Shade an outstanding comic, rather than a merely above-average one, is the attention paid to the portrayal of the technology itself, most notably the flying ships. Although thus far we've only had glimpses of them, the amount of thought, effort, and research that went into their design is clearly evident.
Ironically enough, for a comic that is jam-packed with steampunk-style tech, the use of technology for the web site's navigation is perhaps Alpha Shade's greatest potential weakness. Through their attempts at being innovative in terms of content delivery, the layout and design currently rely (too?) heavily on Flash AND on their own unique navigation buttons AND on the need to zoom in on pages (they are too small otherwise, unless you have a gargantuan monitor to begin with). While conceptually fascinating, it also becomes markedly distracting – to the point of preventing a reader from really getting into the comic or the storytelling, due to too much effort being required by the comic navigation/viewing.
However, where it detracts from the comic proper, it actually adds to the other sections. The art gallery section is a magnificent construct in terms of presentation and delivery – a dynamic revolving thumbnail system that allows a reader to easily browse through the various pieces without having to ever switch pages or the like. Also worth mentioning are a handful of well-crafted tutorials – the best by far being the explanation on how clouds are rendered for the webcomic backgrounds. You'll also find that the storyboards for each page of the comic are available for perusal, too – simply click on the storyboard button situated in the comic navigation area, and you'll see how the pages were initially thought out. Each of these peripherals allows for a fascinating peek into the process of creating a webcomic.
Overall, although perhaps the Brudlos rely a tad too much on technology to deliver their gritty steampunk tale, the overall quality of their work so far certainly shines through, regardless. The story is packed with potential, the pacing is thus far excellent, and the art is top-notch. Still in its birthing stages, this is one webcomic that shows much promise, and is well worth keeping an eye on – particularly if you like quality manga-style art and story.
If shades of greatness already loom large after a mere twenty-nine pages, just imagine how soon it will be before it becomes an Alpha in the webcomic pack.