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The Webcomic Overlook #99: The Meek

Typically, in the great tug-of-war over which is most important to a comic — great art or great writing — I tend to think that writing wins out most of the time. A good narrative will get me through a webcomic any day, while nice art satisfies only but for a moment. But, you know, there’s a chance I’m looking at this debate all wrong. What if a lot of webcomic artists are just poor storytellers?

It’s been said that a picture is of equivalent value to about 1,000 words. Unfortunately, most artists only go up to about 200. I’m a big fan of Jim Lee, especially since, back in the 90’s, his art on X-Men was one of the things that got me hooked into comics. But, you know, these days when I look at one of his comics the only words that pop into my mind are “boy, that girl sure has a nice rack.” That’s only eight words Jim.

On the other hand, there’s Frank Quitely. Take a look at Grant Morrison work independent of him (i.e., Seven Soldiers, Batman RIP, Batman & Robin #4-6). Sure, the stories are high concept, but in the end, they come off as rather pedestrian. But pair Morrison up with Quitely and the combination is transcendent (All Star Superman, Batman & Robin, New X-Men). Morrison’s plotting was only, at most, half of the story. The other half was the fantastic storytelling prowess of Frank Quitely. His illustrations alone spoke volumes about emotion, wonder, and action. Batman & Robin #2 opened with Dick Grayson slumped over while sitting on the stairs in his Batsuit, ill-fitted and hardly as intimidating as when Bruce wore it, while Alfred looked on sadly. That single panel was easily the 1,000 word variety… maybe more.

This is probably why I’ve really enjoyed The Meek, written and illustrated by Der-Shing Helmer. The art isn’t just pretty. It’s half the storytelling.

By the way, this webcomic does feature a cornucopia of nudity, so be warned: assume all links are NOT SAFE FOR WORK.

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So who is this Der-Shing Helmer, anyway? DeviantArt enthusiasts and readers of this blog may know him better as “alexds1.” According to his site, Mr. Helmer is a biologistwho, in the past, has conducted specialized research on lizards, snakes, and small mammals. So yes … he’s probably one of those guys who’ll tell you, as he offers a scaly, wriggling creature for you to pet, “Human fear of snakes are so irrational. Snakes are our friends! OUR FRIENDS!” while, in the meantime, you’re crouching in the corner hoping this lizard lover returns to the the zoo where he belongs. He also has the good and noble goal to one day be a high school teacher, which means that some day students are going to tell their buddies that their teacher totally draws naked ladies.

Helmer is also some sort of Avatar: The Last Airbender superfan. He has a popular gallery on DeviantArt devoted to Avatar fan art and fan comics. All I know about Avatar, by the way, is what I’ve seen in the trailer for the M. Night Shamaylan movie: young kid with an arrow tattoo on his forehead has a power that many want to possess. Still, armed with that meager piece of trivia you can detect that Helmer’s Avatar love, as well as his interest in biology, leave strong fingerprints all over The Meek.

The comic opens in a heavily wooded forest populated by friendly woodland critters straight out of Snow White. One such critter is a spunky, young human girl named Angora, whose hair is a lovely shade of algae. Also, she runs around totally naked, which leads me to conclude that she is probably not “the meek” of the title.

Angora is running away from a group of shirtless and presumably sweaty men. They’re pursuing her for pretty much the same reason men would chase around a naked woman in the real world. We learn that these guys have not seen a flesh and blood woman for some time, so this looks to be very bad news for Angora (who is such an innocent she’s not quite sure what these guys are after). She scampers up a tree, which is soon felled by the sheer power of horniness.

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Chapter 1, by the way, has an incredibly high nudity-to-panel ratio. “My word,” you say, “aren’t your Puritanical senses offended by this brazenly wanton display of female flesh?” I’m pleased to say that the nudity in The Meek didn’t bother me all that much. It isn’t sleazy, and it isn’t just a cheap grab to draw in male readers. (Though if that’s what you were looking for … well, Angora is pretty cute.)

Angora strikes me as more natural than sexual. She is not so different than the animals she talks to. Like someone from a remote jungle village untouched by civilization, she’s neither ashamed of her nudity nor aware why it makes people uncomfortable. She sleeps under the stars, shuns society, and hangs out in trees — the human embodiment of nature.

Angora finds an unlikely and reluctant rescuer in an alcohol connoisseur named Pinter. He beats away her attackers not over any sense of chivalry, but rather out of anger that the louts have cause him to lose a jar of booze. Later, Angora sneaks into his tent, and she discovers two things: Pinter’s got a bit of a memory loss problem, and the guy carries around a nice set of maps. Both qualities, Angora realizes, may be key in completing her mission. More on that later. Angora asks for Pinter’s help. He finds her a bit of a nuisance, and he tries everything in his power to be rid of her. However, destiny really is a fickle bitch, and he ends up accompanying her on her adventure anyway.

Fortunately, Angora’s not entirely defenseless. Being the human embodiment of nature has its perks. Sometimes, it means you get endowed with plant-based powers. Finally pushed to her limit, Angora goes all Poison Ivy on her attackers, which forces Pinter to reevaluate his original opinion of her. The annoying brat is suddenly a frightening force of retribution.

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So what is Angora’s mission, exactly? Our green-haired lass was enlisted by her grandfather, a giant mudpuppy, to find “the center.” I should reiterate that Angora is human, which means that family reunions were probably really awkward. “Good heavens, look at this girl!” her aunts would likely fuss. “Where are her bushy external gills? How is she to attract a good salamander husband in such a state?”

Grandpa is the sort of character who tosses out mystic mumbo jumbo without explaining them, so you can bet that he doesn’t tell Angora what “the center” is. He also gives her an equally vague list of people she’s likely to meet on her adventures. (A “man who hates in the name of love”? That’s, like, every man, right?) Anyway, Grandfather’s brother has a powerful urge to destroy mankind. Why? The ways of the aquatic salamander are truly a mystery to man. Grandfather though is a fan of Man, and he gets severely wounded while attempting to stop his brother’s rampage. It’s now up to Angora to save the world … though a clear, detailed list of action items would’ve help out a lot, Grandfather, you senile old coot.

The Meek changes tone significantly with Chapter 2, which opens with a bickering husband and wife. The man is Emperor Luca Sadar Duvida Gulo. Given his stature and his aristocratic attitude, I have to conclude that he isn’t “the meek” of the title, either. He’s also a bit of a chauvinist, sneering disdainfully at the thought of having to meet female ambassadors.

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Der-shing Helmer’s artistic style seems to be influenced by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s work on the Avatar cartoon. (I personally think that The Meek also bears a strong resemblance to Jeff Smith’s Bone, but I tend to think a lot of things look like Jeff Smith’s Bone.) The artwork has the beauty and detail of a manga-style comic. At the same time, Helmer slightly exaggerates facial expressions and poses, giving The Meek an animated and cartoony feel. The style is highly versatile and highly effective. It doesn’t matter if The Meek calls for a humorous moment, a serious moment, or a poignant moment. Helmer delivers.

To be honest, though, all this gushing is pretty useless. Look at the sample images I included in this review. The art speaks for itself, dontcha think?

I personally was very impressed in how Helmer’s art carried the bulk of the storytelling duties, notably during the changeover from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2. Consider how, previously, we’d been treated to open outdoor spaces. The shift to enclosed areas is a bit claustrophobic. The emperor’s rooms aren’t small; the drawing room where Luca meets the Ambassadors is rather cavernous. Yet how does this compare to open skies and woods that seem infinite in all directions? That’s not the only contrast. Angora, free from the restrictions of clothing, can run around free from shame and anxiety. The prestigious people of high political power, on the other hand, are endlessly frustrated by their own clothes.

There’s something refreshingly effortless about the comic’s characterizations, especially when it comes to Angora. I imagine free-spirited characters are among the most difficult to write for. A lot of “free spirits” reduce nonconformism to a laundry list of character traits we’ve all seen before, mainly in romcoms and anime. Angora’s different. I credit a lot of that to how Helmer’s willing to slow the story down at points to indulge in cute little moments like when she ponders a bottle of alcohol.

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Even Emperor Luca, who easily could’ve been just another frigid and severe monarch, gets a strong boost of personality from his face alone. As he speaks condescendingly to the ambassadors, his face contorts into a triumphant sneer. This is the face of a man whose been through a lot, who’s won, and who’s clearly enjoying the role reversal where he’s now the one dishing the punishment.

The Meek is only about 50 pages long, though Helmer’s site mentions that more than 350 pages have already been roughed out. It’s quite reassuring that a project this ambitious has a plan laid out, and the current story about Emperor Luca and his wife will eventually cross paths with Angora and Pinter. However, even at this early stage, The Meek is well worth your time, if only to let the fantastic artwork transport you to another world. C’mon, don’t be meek.

Final Grade: 5 stars (out of 5).

Posted in 5 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, anime, fanservice, fantasy webcomic, manga style webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics Tagged: The Meek