When the call went out for reviews of all-ages comics for this month’s Comixpedia, I jumped at the chance to discuss The Paranormals, a comic I first discovered in a blog post here and have grown to love.
At first glance, it’s easy to overlook this webcomic by M. Raven Brown and Ronnie Werner. The Paranormals has a lot of things going against it. The plot — misfit kids with special powers meet up at a high school and deal with supernatural situations — is very common in comics these days. The writing is intentionally aimed at all ages, a tag that can glaze the eyes of fans of "mature" storylines. The URL doesn’t take you to the comic directly, but to the beta mode opening screen of a website, where you have to navigate through several additional screens to get to the comic (click here to get directly to the comic’s current home). Once you get there, you have to deal with the comic’s navigation system, which is novel, but definitely not optimized for web browsing.
I’m telling you all this now so it won’t deter you from jumping through those hoops to get to the actual content, because if you do overlook this webcomic, you’ll be missing out on a great read. Good characterization, strong writing and consistently pleasing art make The Paranormals a lot of fun.
The main characters, introduced over the course of the first five issues, are Rose, Bear, Preston, Persephone, and Thanh. All have secrets, some darker than others. Rose is a tomgirl who has changed cities 12 times in the last 9 years because every full moon she turns into a huge, angry werewolf. Daniel, often known by his last name Bear, is a home-schooled shaman-in-training who talks to animals. Preston, a blasé rich kid with a snotty attitude, is literally a wiz at computers. Persephone is a spoiled "popular" girl who’s a princess in more than just attitude, and Thanh is a half-vampire emo kid whose sarcasm is almost worse than his bite. As their friendships grow and deepen, these five kids begin to unravel the mysteries that have placed them together in a special homeroom at their otherwise un-extraordinary high school. At the same time, they learn to get along as unlikely allies.
Brown’s writing makes these archetypes come alive as actual teens. They bicker, argue, and make amends in a very believable and engaging fashion. The writing is accessible to kids as well as adults, but it’s never dumbed down. Even more importantly, Brown avoids two of the primary pitfalls of teen characters — instead of being mini-adult soapboxes or overly simplistic children, the characters sound and act their age. It’s a difficult line to maneuver, and always enjoyable to encounter when done well. Most important, the characters are likable, even the intentionally unlikable ones like Preston, who is probably my favorite character in the series. You want to keep reading and find out what happens next.
Werner’s art is stylized and cartoonish, favoring angular, broad lines and minimally detailed backgrounds. This places the focus of the panels on the interplay between the characters, which is in fact where it should be. At those times when the background comes sharply into focus, it is either to set the scene or to draw the reader’s attention to a major plot development.
Occasionally, you’ll find a coloring error, like Persephone’s shirt changing from cream to white in the middle of the most recent issue. And like many other cartoonists, Werner does cut corners from time to time, especially with "photostatting" (taking characters drawn in one panel and re-using the art in a following panel with only a minor change in expression or position). This is a very useful technique so long as it remains unobtrusive, but when it becomes visibly noticeable, it detracts from the story. This is most particularly obvious with Preston. He is clearly supposed to look nonplussed most of the time, which makes it very easy to photostat him, but this occasionally results in panels where the action and dialogue are at odds with his expression. But these are minor quibbles about what is overall excellent art — especially given the comic’s ambitious biweekly production schedule of 10-11 full-color pages.
The Paranormals was intentionally designed to be a comic for all ages, and it succeeds tremendously on this on all fronts. It features no profanity or overly adult situations. Its female characters are fully-clothed girls who do not pose in incredibly uncomfortable positions or wear porn-star clothing. Its plots stress intelligent and non-violent solutions to violent situations, and its visual style is both easy to read and easy to follow.
Like all comics with a youthful audience, it also contains the occasional cautionary plot about problems that are specifically relevant to kids . In one issue, Rose strikes up an online conversation with someone she thinks is another werewolf, only to find out that her "friend" is actually a hunter. But Brown’s writing is not preachy or overly moralistic, which can and does make all the difference in the world. When it comes right down to it, the comic is good enough and entertaining enough that you don’t even notice any of the "adult" content that’s missing.
My main frustration with The Paranormals comes from its navigation system. It’s incredibly clunky, providing no good way to jump between issues or even jump around inside one issue without returning to the main navigation screen. You have to choose one issue and read it forward, page by page, or use the browser’s back button to go to the archives. While it’s clearly designed to emulate the actual experience of reading a comic book, it fails to take advantage of any of the benefits of being a webcomic. This isn’t particularly problematic to first-time readers, but to anyone like me, who likes to read back over older issues of their favorite comics once a new installment is published, it quickly becomes excruciating. Since its host site is still in beta, I have hopes that this may improve in the future.