Dark Red is a webcomic by Lynn French and Joanna McKenzie. It’s a fantasy tale about a cosmic battle between angels and demons with humans in the midst of it all. Magic and spells abound. The creators themselves explain, "It’s about the fight between good and evil, and about keeping your sense of humour against overwhelming odds. Sarah, our heroine, became blind under mysterious circumstances, but has started to catch glimpses of strange things recently."
We follow Sarah, who has recently gone blind, but discovers that she can "see" mythical creatures — angels and demons — on the streets of her town. She ultimately meets a crew of other people with magical abilities who are involved in a battle between the forces of heaven and earth. As it turns out, we find out that she and her parents have some kind of magical lineage and that the events that led to her blindness are tied to her magical abilities.
The comic updates only once a week and has just now finished the equivalent of two monthly comic book issues. And the pace at first is a bit slow. But after an uneventful first "issue" of introducing Sarah and the rest of the cast, more recently we get to learn a bit more about what happened to Sarah and she has her first direct encounter with the bad guys. As the second issue opens, we meet what appears to be one of the key villians of the story and she is a pretty nasty piece of work. We also get more details on why all of this otherworldly stuff is leading up to more action in the future. It bodes well for the "third" issue which should start after a current interlude of guest and bonus art.
The writing aside, the art in Dark Red is really what jumps out at the reader. It’s photo-based art and the creators have taken the whole effort quite seriously casting fairly decent actors in the major roles and staging scenes for each panel. Dark Red, in fact, was nominated for a 2008 WCCA in the category of Outstanding Photographic Comic.
For the most part it works, although I can imagine some readers will not be able to get past the nature of the art. There are times for me when photo-based art simply takes me too much out of the "suspension of disbelief" needed to really delve into the story of a comic. In this case though, I think there is a good sense of staging, of using the camera well, to create visually interesting shots. No matter if the artist is using a pen, a tablet or a camera, effective visuals still depend on good choices regarding what is shown in the panel.
As I mentioned the actors are pretty good and it was rare that I was "unconvinced" by the expression (facial and body language) in a particular scene. The location work is also good. It looks like the creators have consistently found appropriate locations (bar, apartment, bookstore, streetscape) for the visuals and that helps a lot.
In terms of the art on the page, it appears all of the photos have been run through filters, to give it a more "illustrated" look. There’s probably some work going on to get the light and shadows right as well as possibly some line work but the creator has mentioned a couple of times on the site that she is not going to divulge her working methods yet. She writes, "The process is an odd combination of paintshop filters and rotoscoping. Even though I’ve been asked many times I’m not going to say how I do it at the moment." The total effect of this process, whatever it is, does remove the art a step from the "realism" of pure photography.
However, and this is particularly troubling because it’s a fantasy comic, any time the "art" requires the appearance of non-human characters, it falls down for me. I guess these constitute the "special effects" shots of the production. The problem is that the photo work by definition is at least somewhat "realistic" and the art that’s drawn is so far from realistic that it’s jarring. It’s not even that it’s not realistic, it’s just not very good.
The first appearance of "demons" is almost laughable both because the visuals are in fact somewhat comedic (they’re sure not scary) but also because it’s just not executed very well. Stay on this page for a bit more — both the demons and the demons as they appear as children look like they were drawn as opposed to built on photographed material. It doesn’t work. The demons are anatomically inconsistent and flat — as if they weren’t really part of the scene. And it’s a strange choice as there’s no reason why more effective art couldn’t have been built on top of photographed material or using a 3-D art program like Poser.
Similarly, this "butterfly angel" just doesn’t meet the standards set by the rest of the artwork. This scene suffers from similar flaws. The demons look like blobs painted on the foreground of the rest of the scene. Besides the simple fact that floating blobs just aren’t that scary (or interesting visually), they simply don’t look like they’re in the same scene as the rest of the actors. It looks like a poorly acted "green screen" scene from a low-budget movie.
Still it’s important to keep perspective — my complaints are borne out of frustration with certain pages that I don’t think meet the quality of the rest of the comic. Most of the pages — the pages without "demons" — are quite good. For example, I really like the black and white work on the flashback for Sarah’s past. And the approach to showing most of the magic does work — Sarah’s second sight for example is a nice way to show this without being too flashy about it.
Overall Dark Red is a promising comic with a potentially epic storyline coupled to an instantly sympathetic main character. Personally, I’ll hold out hope for a re-do of the demons in a future "special edition" of the comic (hey, if George Lucas can mess with Star Wars…) but even with those flaws, the artwork in general more than holds it own to the writing and particularly if you’re a fan of fantasy stories this is worth checking out.