The Phoenix Requiem, reviewed by Larry "El Santo" Cruz
In this review, El Santo takes a look at Sarah Ellerton's The Phoenix Requiem, a beautifully illustrated tale set in 19th Century England about a mysterious stranger who stumbles into an idyllic village.
The Phoenix Requiem, written and drawn by Sarah Ellerton, contains the following disclaimer in its "About" page: "This is a graphic novel, not a webcomic. It is not designed to bring instant gratification. It does not move fast. It is structured like a novel or a movie, beginning slow and working up to a dramatic finale. If that's not your cup of tea, I suggest you go elsewhere and come back when it's finished."
This sort of disclaimer tends to raise my hackles immediately. "Not a webcomic," eh? Even though the very definition is that a "webcomic" is a "comic on the web"? In the print world, insisting on a "graphic novel" label is the height of snobbery and elitism. Comic books are just so low brow. This is nothing of the sort; it's literature! Sure, Tom Servo would be your best friend during the MST3K riffing of "Cave Dwellers," but he was parodying the sniffy attitude in the first place.
That said, I'm sure Ms. Ellerton meant no harm. Heck, she's the one weathering the barbs and cruelty of the critics, not me! She just wants you to know that she's building up to something in the long term, and the slower portions should only be viewed as a small piece of a larger tapestry. Picking apart a single page or series of pages is kinda like saying that The Godfather sucked because that one scene where Don Corleone talks with Johnny Fontane was utterly forgettable.
Still, if this review starts to sound a little prickly, be aware that Requiem's disclaimer opened some old wounds. I'll resist the temptation to gird myself with the Breastplate of Nerd Self-Righteousness for now. However, I offer no guarantees that this review won't devolve into a cacophony of literary references just to prove my nerd superiority (even though, to be frank with you, I haven't read a literary masterpiece since high school English class).
Thus far, The Phoenix Requiem is set in an idyllic town called Esk, which is located in what looks to be an alternate universe's version of 19th Century Victorian England. It's winter. The townspeople are getting ready for the All Soul's Eve celebration. A mysterious, dapper stranger, by the name of Jonas, collapses in the woods nearby. He's been shot. A couple kids discover his body. Jonas is treated by the comely local nurse, Anya. She's filling in for an absent doctor, and, judging from her name and immigrant status, probably hails from an alternate universe's version of Tsarist Russia. Meanwhile, a vaguely mystical air hangs over the town like a fog.
It's All Soul's Eve, after all, so there's the inevitable discussion about spirits and deities. Robyn, a man who is totally crushing on Anya, is suffering from some spooky hallucinations. For example, in a fit of impotent rage, Robyn strikes a defenseless, load-bearing post with his sword, and the wood bleeds. Jonas himself has hazy dreams about his wife, who may or may not be in the realm of the living. And, in a scene out of an Oscar Wilde book (or Tales from the Crypt), one of Anya's patients suffers a sever case of DEATH. Rapid, leprous decompisition, it seems.
The Phoenix Requiem garners a butt-load of praise and acclaim for its artwork. Ms. Ellerton nabbed an impressive 11 award nominations at the 2008 Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards, including the "Outstanding Comic" award. Not bad, and very impressive for a comic that's only been around since last September.
There's no denying that Ellerton's illustrations are beautiful. Requiem's style is similar to the work of comic book artist (and David Willis' archnemesis) Pat Lee (Transformers, Warlands). The art is clean, manga-inspired, with a pleasing mix of bright and muted colors. Ellerton seems to have a keen interest in getting the period clothing just right. She doesn't skimp on the details. For example, Jonas sports a lovely floral pattern on his waistcoat. Long, hanging swaths of cloth --- whether they be neckties, skirts, or cloaks --- fold, sway, and crumple with the character's movements.
Ellerton also opts for backgrounds that take on the style of a traditional Romantic Era painting. This works wonderfully with Esk's wintry setting. The snow seems so delicate and fluffy that you can see yourself falling into it or leaving footprints. Icicles crystallize on the tree branches, and warm breath leaves a lingering mist. Her rendition of a church, bathed in a warm, hazy glow, embodies an overwhelming sense of serenity. By coupling the soft backgrounds with the "cel-shaded" characters, Requiem takes on the lush characteristics of a traditionally animated Disney movie.
I have to give Sarah Ellerton a lot of credit: the Industrial Era is not that easy to illustrate in an appealing manner. It's the era that brought us Oliver Twist and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Most illustrations I've seen (mainly from the steampunk genre) depict a world covered in layers of black paint, soot, and grime. The clothes usually seem itchy and uncomfortable, and there's enough rusting metal lying around to inspire you to get a tetanus shot every five days. Ellerton manages to retain most of the familiar visual cues while softening and brightening the setting at the same time.