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Panels & Pictures: The Lady's Murder

Most webcomics are long term affairs. Whether they are long form narratives that create a single story over the course of years or daily gags that appear regularly day after day or week after week, the reader settles in for an extended experience parsed out over time. The short form webcomic is, oddly, somewhat of a novelty. While most comic artists would start out with short stories in print (usually mini-comics), most web comic artists tend to enter the field with long works. Perhaps this is merely an aspect of the "limitless" nature of the medium or a sign of webcomics' closer (at least historically) connection to comic strips as opposed to comic books.

So it was with some surprise that Tuesday brought to my RSS reader the final page of The Lady's Murder by Eliza Frye after only 32 pages. Over it's brief serialization, The Lady's Murder became the webcomic I most looked forward to finding in my RSS webcomics folder. I had already started this review, expecting it to be a review of a work in progress, but now I find myself rewriting with the advantage of being able to see the story as a whole.

The narrative is mostly a series of testaments by a variety of men on Marie Madeleine, a women of ill repute. The story is billed as a "mystery comic," no doubt the mystery being as much about the identity of the Lady in the title as of her demise. Her butcher, the waiter at the cafe where she drank her absinthe, a doctor, a former patron, the artist for whom she modeled, a flower seller, and her concierge all have some words to share on her, clearly referring to her in the past tense, her death having occurred in the night previous to these testaments. This is a classic narrative set-up where we learn about the character through the postmortem investigation. The reader stands in as a detective listening to the various testimonies (the title page is the only place we see the silhouette of a Holmesian character in the window of the Lady's apartment). The visual aspect of the narrative shifts into and out of focalization through the various characters, allowing us to alternately see the narrators and their version of the Lady: from the absinthe sodden lady of the night to the mythic medusa.

Though the time and place are not (so far I have noticed) explicitly stated, various clues indicate Paris in the 19th century. Not just the absinthe but the general atmosphere points towards this time and place. The specifics are unimportant as the atmosphere itself is enough to evoke a time long past. A nineteenth century Parisian mystery is, in itself, not notable, but the execution of this mystery is. Frye has a powerful style. I had an immediate, almost visceral reaction to the images. The phrase "less is more" is bandied about quite a lot, a concept that is often of particular relevance to comics. Most comics are simplified, pared down. Comics can create powerful emotions with only the fewest lines and details. Frye uses shape, silhouettes, fields of color, and simple yet bold compositions in a way that is striking.

A limited number of colors are used in each page, often only black and one other bright color: red, yellow, green, blue, highly saturated primary or secondary colors. Frye uses a translucent gauche which give the colors a luminescence and texture. Even the black is not completely flat and inert. The texture of the paper shows through, giving slight variations of tone to the otherwise uniform colors. The handmade quality of the images comes through in this way, showing off a physicality that is extremely rare in webcomics (this would make a lovely deluxe minicomic of the type that is rather popular these days in the more arty end of comics).

The colors are organized around scenes. The scene with the doctor is all bright yellow and green. The scene in the cafe is primarily red with yellow spotted in. An early scene with a butcher is in an appropriately bloody palette of red and pink. These shifting palettes act as effective indicators of a scene break, as well as being part of the minimalist aesthetic at work.

The use of silhouettes in the art becomes a primary compositional tool and an excellent use of minimalism for suggestive effect. The lady herself is almost always shown with her body as a white silhouette, which echoes the stories investigation around her, but also adds to the sexuality/eroticism by holding back information (like a striptease) rather than a more crass exposure (see for example the image on page 14).

On the other hand, dynamic linework is used for details, particularly on the faces of the characters. Page 12 shows Frye's skill at using linework to create these awesomely expressive faces: the suspicious waiter, the tipsy lady, the creepily rakish gentleman. Each of the men in the story are caricatured in widely different ways (hulkish, square-jawed butcher; effete, freckled waiter; long faced, devilish looking gentleman; blustery, mustachioed doctor).

Each new page is another image that stands on its own as an image and also exists as part of the ongoing narrative. Clear attention was paid to making each page it's own unit, something which can be easily neglected in a serialization like this. The structure of the pages varies from the very structured and paced page 10, where we see the lady preparing her absinthe, to a series of images during the painter's testimony which appear as a series of panels-as-paintings. Pages like 11 have images blending into each other, a effect that is much easier and effective when large swathes of color are used (as opposed to a more traditionally line-based comic art).

Frye often uses open page layouts, utilizing fewer panels and a greater number of large images. Page 6 is a good example where a single image in the background is foregrounded by two panels. The background image, a lovely example of the lineless colored shapes that Frye does so well, acts as a kind of mental image of memory or fantasy, that hovers behind the story as a whole, and more particularly the doctor's testimony. Throughout the story, the image of Marie is shown most often as a solid yet boundless (no outline) conglomeration of shapes and colors, the not quite controlled image of fantasy in the minds of the other characters.

The work seems rife with thematic overload as well as tiny evocative visual and stylistic flair. Taking page two as an example. The butcher's sign says "prime cuts and sausages," serving a perfect double-entendre to the sexuality of the Lady's character. His word balloon echoes the shape of the meat cuts lying on the counter in front of him, and the splatter effect of blood on his apron contrasts with the large washes with which most of the color is applied.

The Lady's Murder comes to a satisfying conclusion at a graveside funeral scene primarily shown in black and gray — in strict contrast to the bright colors of the other scenes. The mystery is solved subtly and reasonably. I can't recommend this story highly enough, and I eagerly await whatever Frye comes up with next. Hopefully this story will someday see print in an appropriately well-printed book or pamphlet.

Re: Panels & Pictures: The Lady's Murder

While we're on the subject, someone should point out Full Story (http://www.twentysevenletters.com/fullstory), an indexed catalog of completed webcomic stories which includes many shortform comics. Regretably, regular updates to the database seem to have ceased a little while back, but there are still plenty of stories for new readers to browse.

Excellent recommendation, Derik. This is a beautiful work!