When reading a webcomic, one usually hopes to be amused, drawn into the story or, on a good day, both. Outside of the occasional sketchbook tutorial, getting an education is typically low — if even present — on the list of webcomic reader expectations. You certainly don't count on learning about the difference between canine and feline tracks, or how to interpret the events behind said identified tracks… but that is exactly the kind of education that creator Clint Hollingsworth manages to offer in The Wandering Ones, in addition to telling a pretty damn good story.
Set in the year 2066 A.D., thirty-one years after a human-specific, madman-made supervirus kills off at least 80 percent of the world's population, The Wandering Ones follows several characters from various nations, trying to work together to learn the ways of a master tracker and scout named Ravenwing. Ravenwing belongs to the Clan of the Hawk, also known as The Wandering Ones, and she is our main character. The characters’ struggles provide a close focus for the military and ideological battles going on between the several nations vying for power in what was once the Pacific Northwestern United States of America.
That much is set forth in the first handful of strips, as well as on the cast page, which is mostly free of spoilers. In fact, most of the main characters are introduced and their personalities well-established by the twenty-first strip. Hollingsworth does an excellent job of laying out the characters and conflicts quickly, engaging the reader's interest without a dragging you through long passages of exposition.
His art style is detailed and realistic — Hollingsworth works hard to present the human figure through normalistic proportions, with recognizable facial expressions such as anger, surprise, and fear as well as a natural, believable body language. Backgrounds and settings are also geared towards realism – the trees, grass, rocks, bushes, mountains, clouds, dirt tracks, old roads – all look so normal the reader might not realize how much work goes into the lines.
One issue with his art, however, is that in an attempt to be as proportionately accurate to the human physique as possible, Hollingsworth may have set the bar too high for himself. The occasional errors – problems with foreshortening, a too-thin arm, or a somewhat awkwardly rendered child's face – are far more obvious in his work than in a comic with a more exaggerated or cartoonish style. Moreover, while Hollingsworth's lettering is very readable, his regular problems with spelling errors can be a bit disruptive to the flow of the story.
Fortunately, those problems are brief distractions thankfully offset by an absorbing story. Hollingsworth has a good grasp of how to switch smoothly from dialogue to exposition, of how to draw the reader into the story being told. Although initially, the early stories are a bit confusing (for instance, Ravenwing – the main character and ostensible teacher of a group of scouts – keeps going off on her own, first for just a few hours to meditate on a problem, and later to scout a possible incursion into Clan territory by enemies) the overall story hangs together well and makes sense. The characters do what's normal in the range of their personalities, and the plot advances logically. Also, in retrospect, once the reader realizes that Ravenwing is overburdened in performing double duty – as both teacher and as the eyes and ears for the clan in her area – her side-trips make more sense.
Jumping into the story mid-stream is possible, but reading the first 20-30 strips will do wonders for setting each character's personality and purpose firmly in the reader’s mind. It's true that, after that, each sub-plot builds details for the overall story, but if the entire archive seems too daunting, skipping to the the current story is not a critically flawed alternative. You'll miss a fair amount of detail, references and character development, but it’s less overall to catch up on, and you should still get the general gist of what's going on.
The Wandering Ones story is over three years old, and still trailblazing along. The first year and a half found Hollingsworth pretty rigorous about putting up a comic five days a week (Mondays through Fridays). In late 2001 he skipped the odd strip, but through 2002 he gradually began missing more and more strips — for legitimate reasons, of course… but the gaps can still be disconcerting. These days there are at least three strips a week, with four strips showing up more and more often, but a consistent schedule (even with fewer strips, like a Tuesday through Friday run every week) would be great.
From the beginning through most of 2001, Fridays were big double-sized color "Sunday" strips. Since then, Friday strips have been the same as the rest of the week – black and white, normal strip size with occasional forays into color.
Archives go back to 8 April 2000, and can be navigated easily via a calendar page, or from each comic. However, while they are neatly organized in date-format, there are no plot-based markers, such as chapter or section divisions. Given that the comic just celebrated its third year and spans over 600 strips (#600 appeared on February 28, 2003), a little story navigation would be helpful for those wanting to brush up on their memories of a particular plotline, or for pointing a new reader to a particular story arc. For example, one could at least break it down into the following: the introduction, Ravenwing's scouting mission, Ghostwind, and the current plotline tracking the escalation of conflict between the nations. Sub-stories could be noted as well, to make it easy to find things like "The Long Walk" side-story or the beautifully colored campfire tale told by The Ancient One.
The Wandering Ones is a good story – complex enough to sustain interest without being overly confusing or purposefully obscure, and peppered with engaging, well-realized characters. And if you have any interest in learning how to create body camouflauge from nature, how to "map" territory with your body, how to differentiate between male and female mule deer tracks, how to learn the story told by the tracks you find, how to hide evidence of your camp , how to sleep outside, or what to do when you get lost or separated while hiking then this is definitely the comic for you.
So forget Survivor! Try The Wandering Ones to learn some real techniques for living in a harsh and dangerous world.
Wandering Ones is hosted by Keenspot Comics and the first 365 comics have been collected into a print edition called The Wandering Ones: Ghostwind. Hollingsworth also illustrates a Keenspot Premium (for-pay only) strip called Melpomene. MEL for short, the strip is scripted by Jamie Robertson and set in the same universe as Robertson's free strip, Clan of the Cats.