Dewclaw by Matt Johnson, Reviewed by Stelas
As the use of Flash becomes more widespread on and off the Web, the webcomics world is sitting up and taking notice. Previously only used to make a comic or file fit a browser window thanks to its automatic resizing feature, webcomics creators are now playing with Flash to add to the action factor through the use of motion and sound. But can sound and motion carry a webcomic to greatness? Matt Johnson certainly seems to think so.
Dewclaw, written by Johnson and part of Komikwerks, is one of these new Flash-powered comics, a science fiction tale that centers on a squad of anthropomorphic canine soldiers trying to hold out against an unknown enemy, while their leader - thanks to a disturbing vision - grapples with the question of his race's origins. Added to the tension is another race, this one against time, as a fast-waning population looms under the threat of extinction.
While the story shows promise, with a good deal of intriguing plot threads already set to be followed through in the future, the early plot points come perhaps a little too quickly and densely. Some major events (including the death of two named characters) occur lightning-fast, offering little pause time for the reader to take in and process what has just happened. The use of Flash compounds this problem, as each of the longer episodes (each about the size of, say, a print comic in terms of frame count) contain enough plot twists and story information to cause an input overload, requiring a reader to backtrack or re-read an entire episode for fear of having missed something. This rapid-fire plot development is often able to keep the storyline fresh while ensuring that each backtracking session is likely to throw up something new, but is just as able to leave a reader feeling overwhelmed and more than a little confused.
The drawings are crisp and clean, and Johnson renders canines well enough that they really look realistic for the setting. Some well-crafted panoramic shots of rolling vistas, together with animated scenes and snap action shots, really help to increase the reader's enjoyment of the strip. In addition, one of the artist's major strengths is adhering to forms drawn from reality - Johnson is able to take a creature with canine bone structure and paws, for example, and have that creature doing martial arts exercises... believably.
Color is not as consistent, unfortunately. The dark palette of the first few episodes forced me to turn up my monitor's brightness, to allow me to actually see what was going on, while in later scenes the colors become as bright and cheerful as a children's cartoon. The backgrounds suffer most from this, one episode in particular containing a series of very distracting, very bright orange sunsets. The narrative text is likewise problematic, with a black font overlaid onto a box with a dark blue background… which causes contrast problems and makes it very hard to read. The coloring of the characters is solid, and although the shadow effect on them was, in earlier episodes, rather too strong, the artist has toned down this effect in more recent installments to further improve the quality of the foreground.
Episodes load quickly - each one averaging about 400k - yet hold a great deal of comic, which is a pleasant surprise considering that many Flash movies and applications can stretch to ten times that size. Part of this is due to there being little sound within the individual episodes; the majority of the soundtrack streams from the site's main menu, which remains open in the background while viewing individual episodes. The archives, however, suffer from a problem that most Flash comics fall prey to – with no way to jump straight in at important plot points mid-episode, the process of backtracking mentioned above often involves clicking past previous scenes in an attempt to search for the desired panel.
Another part of this lack of size can be traced to (if you'll pardon the pun) an early lack of flashiness, which is not necessarily a good thing in all cases. The vast majority of the time, pressing the Next button will simply make a speech bubble or two pop up in the section of the window delineated for the next frame. When instances of animation do occur, they will often be very static or short-lived. A good example pops up early on, when a wing of enemies fly into view then zoom over a building, never breaking formation... but also never changing the way they're facing, or even the position of their arms relative to their bodies.
While it can be argued that too much action can lead to a comic no longer being a comic and instead becoming an animation, and thus this limited scope is a virtue, the skewed proportions that result from this lack of animation leave the scene looking unnatural and disconnected. Similarly, while multiple sets of speech bubbles to a single frame could be considered acceptable, the sheer amount of dialogue often delivered in a frame without any character movement whatsoever can give the comic a lethargic, wooden feeling.
Despite all of this, Dewclaw is an enjoyable experience, and one that others will also likely enjoy. The plot shows a great deal of promise, while the improvement in art, apparent in more recent installments, should prove in future to leave the comic looking like a treat. Switching over to a monthly schedule on March 3rd after a long hiatus, it's certainly a webcomic worth keeping a close eye on. If you like your sci-fi, or if you're curious about the way in which Flash is coming into its own in the world of webcomics, be sure to check it out.