The Webcomic Overlook #101: Azure
Submitted by El Santo on December 1, 2009 - 15:27
As the month transitions from summer to fall and eventually winter, we’re caught up in an absolutely magical mood. All across the country, people start putting up decorations and turning on tiny lights to give beauty to the night. At the same time, we begin to wonder: wouldn’t it be cool if the world ended right now?
My pet theory is that this hunger for post-apocalyptic imagery is fueled, in part, by childhood fears that the end of the calendar year coincides with the end of the world. (Laugh all you want about childhood innocence, but is this really so different than the current 2012 mania?) Hollywood is only happy to oblige. During the Christmas season, movie theaters are filled with end of the world scenarios like I Am Legend, The Day The Earth Stood Still remake, and The Day After Tomorrow, which laughable featured a first-person view of killer cold.
This year is no different. Blockbuster movie buffs can thrill to the collapse of the world in 2012. On the other hand, those with more art-house sensibilities who look down upon people who enjoy mindless orgies of explosions can bathe in the more muted desperation of The Road. See? You CAN be a hipster AND an end times enthusiast!
So it should be no surprise that I’m kicking off December with a webcomic that foresees the end of the world as we know it. It’s an offering from Zuda Comics called Azure, a webcomic written and illustrated by Dan Govar. Azure is set in a world where the polar ice caps have melted and most of the world is under the waves of a new globe-spanning ocean.
The end times of Azure is a cornucopia of modern day apocalyptic theory. There’s an allusion to the Mayan calendar and the whole hullabaloo around 2012. There’s reference to solar activity, a la Arthur C. Clarke’s The Songs From Distant Earth. And the polar ice caps melt, which transforms the world into something straight out of Waterworld. If you want to know what caused the end of the world, the answer is everything.
The comic stars a woman named Emilie who goes by the codename “Azure.” In the first eight pages (which I dub “the money pages,” especially when it comes to Zuda), Azure wakes up in an underwater vessel that resembles a bulbous jellyfish. It’s called a cell, and it’s a self-contained miniature ecosystem. Azure has been searching for survivors who’d been living in undersea settlements, though she has not seen another human being for seven years.
It would just be her luck, then, that when she does finally run into human beings, they would be people with bad intentions. While she’s sunbathing on a small island, Azure gets ambushed by pirates in a rusting, heavily armored ironclad. A gun battle breaks out both over and under the surface of the ocean. Azure ends up on the losing end. The pirates chain her up and strip her naked, which puts her in a very bad spot … especially since her assailants haven’t seen a woman in some time.
Azure, though, has an ace up her sleeve. Her computer system tells her about something called protocol X8, which is activated by singing a song. If you’re still wondering what X8 does, then apparently you haven’t ever read X-Men, seen anything done by Joss Whedon, or watched Revenge of the Sith. X8 is shorthand for berzerker rage. Azure’s eyes glow, she loses the ability to think, and her reflexes transform her into a lethal killing machine. Once it’s on, it’s basically game over for the pirates.
Falling unconscious, Azure wakes up inside a cell. She finds herself in the care of an old colleague named Ana, who, for some reason is sporting a robot arm. Together, they travel to a submerged island that may hold secrets to their past.
I first heard about Azure via a glowing review posted by Rob Berry (normally of the Pigs of the Industry blog) at the mpd57 site (one of my favorite sites when it comes to Zuda-specific reviews). His highly enthusiastic write-up included quotes like the following:
This is not what you’d expect webcomics to give you. Its what Dan wants to make webcomics into.
Slow down and look at it. Think about HEAVY METAL and Barry Windsor Smith’s STORYTELLER and BIG NUMBERS and MISTER PUNCH and MYSTERY PLAY and MOONSHADOW and STARDUST and all those other fantastically, artistically rich attempts to bring illustration into the world of successful print comics.
Then think about webcomics and how William Blake might’ve felt signing that deed to his first print shop and looking over the presses stroking his chin and saying, “hmmmmn…”.
Then look at AZURE again. Not for the tricks, not for how things might look a certain way based upon photo-referencing or illustration or because Dan has a deeper knowledge of photoshop than you do, but how its not what anyone else is giving you. For free.
Needless to say, those are pretty heady words. I mean, I love Gunnerkrigg Court, but I’m not about to put it on the same pedestal as Matisse and John Milton and John Bunyan and Sandman and The Giving Tree. (Full disclosure: Berry is, in fact, a friend of Govar. Personally, though, I don’t doubt Berry’s unbridled enthusiasm; it seems legit.)
At around the same time, Johanna Draper Carlson at Comics Worth Reading grumbled over what she perceived as how Zuda Comics and their terminal lack of originality.
I thought I’d stop by and check out this month’s Zuda entries, which made me wonder about how similar they were all becoming. I noticed that many of them were tagged either Super-Hero, Action/Adventure, or Horror. There were smart-alec animals, girls in their underwear, bloody fights, talky conspiracies, and always, too much time spent waiting for the viewer to load.
Azure isn’t mentioned by name. However, if Azure had included, say, a singing octopus, it would qualify for every single one of the complaints. The “girls in underwear” comment is especially telling, since Azure walks around in her panties in the bulk of “the money pages” and isn’t wearing anything less revealing afterward.
So who’s right here? Is Azure Heavy Metal, William Blake, and Stardust rolled into one and making sweet, sweet love, or is cursed to be Zuda’s version of the supermarket generic brand?
Let’s start with the art.
Govar goes for a painterly, European style that, yes, does indeed resemble the sort of comic you’d find between the pages of Heavy Metal. It’s highly aesthetically pleasing. Govar is clearly a master when it comes to color palette and shading. Plus, his art is fantastically detailed. Among the most eye-catching aspects is the refreshing contrast between bright colors and gloomy backgrounds, which is most effective during a sequence depicting the destruction of Earth.
I especially like how Govar draws faces. Addressing the whole “girls in underwear” situation: yes, the comic does get cheesecake-y. But the characters aren’t conventionally comic book attractive. Azure, for example, is so rail think that you can make out the outlines of her skeleton underneath her skin. Her nose is distinctive, not just a tiny afterthought placed on her face. (And trust me, you’ll notice the nose. Govar zooms in on this feature more than once.) Her forehead gets wrinkled and she has what seems like bags under her eyes. Still, she’s attractive, but in the sense of how real human beings are can be beautiful but imperfect.
Unfortunately, one of the major drawbacks to the art is its setting. Comics set below the sea have always been tricky propositions. In the print world, stand-up gentlemen like Namor The Sub-Mariner and Aquaman have been given several opportunities to headline their own comics. Yet, their titles barely fly off the shelves. Why is that?
Maybe it’s because underwater scenes are disorienting. Characters are always floating about, and we humans and our puny two-dimensional minds reject the notion that there is no up or down necessarily. Everything happens in slow motion. Second, underwater scenes tend to all look the same. Unless you’re near the sea floor, backgrounds are always a big unchanging wall of blue. And even when you do get a glimpse of the seal floor in all its glorious splendor, everything is still bathed in a murky, depressing blue. It’s too alien an environment to really relate to.
Azure suffers from the same visual handicaps. Is it any wonder that the most stunning and eye-catching action sequences are the ones that take place above the surface? It’s the Thunderball effect: once you take things underwater, your mind shuts down and any vestiges of cohesive storytelling goes to hell.
Adding to the disorientation are the unnecessarily creative panel layouts. Early in the comic, Azure fights a giant mutant shark. The scenes seem to have no frames, and one panel bleeds into the next. Why such an enemy of frames, Mr. Govar? Frames give the reader a sense of time, and without them, the page just seems like a jumble of images. Later, Govar plays with panels again by slanting them. My issue was more from a practical standpoint: it becomes difficult to follow the word balloons. There was more than one point in the story where I had to think about which word balloon went next … and that’s never a good thing.
As for the story, I couldn’t muster up much sympathy for Azure at all. I suppose we’re supposed to care about her because she’s been alone for so long, but that gets swept away once she runs into the pirates. Maybe we were supposed to identify with her as a victim, but since she turns out to be a killing machine, that becomes a moot point as well. When we get to the big reveal at the end and discover the secret of the island, it’s rather anti-climactic. The story is set in a world that has basically died. Is the secret of Azure’s past really all that tragic in comparison?
Still, the comic is very beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful of all Zuda’s offerings. My hat’s off to Dan Govar for working on Azure by his lonesome and getting every single detail to pay off visually. And the concept itself — a post-apocalyptic world engulfed underwater — is solid. I just wish the story and the characters were more compelling.
But, you know, Kevin Costner couldn’t do it. Maybe the apocalypse is just more interesting if we leave the water out of it.