(published on July 20, 2002)
Now here's a Cat and Mouse tale that'll really string you along. Jen (a.k.a. Mao)'s Strings of Fate, sponsored by the KWE and updated in batches when she can, is a staggeringly good serial that combines ancient Chinese myth and folklore with Western epic themes and a host of intriguing characters. Manga fans and wannabe manga-esque toonists (and non-manga ones, too!) alike, pay attention -- this is what GOOD storytelling and layout can be like.
Tony, your common everyman, finds himself entangled in a family squabble of celestial proportions, as the very animals of the Chinese Zodiac walk the earth in human form. Mao, the woman who lures Tony into the whole mess proves to be Cat, an animal cheated out of the Great Race (and, thus, from a place in the Chinese Zodiac). Divine conspiracies and intrigue run rampant in both the spirit and the mortal world, and the Zodiac animals try to hunt Mao down. Suspense, mystery, action, and brilliant storytelling keep the reader hooked throughout. Oh, and have I mentioned that Tony's not what he thinks he is?
The art in Strings of Fate is pulsing with dynamism and energy. The facials show a bit of Disney-esque influence (think Aladdin), but she is by no means a Disney clone -- it's Jen art you're looking at, and Jen art is very strong. Her palette of body language and facial expressions is exquisite; unlike some comics where faces and poses only come in a very limited number of flavours, she constantly brings out new impressions custom-designed for each moment. She is likewise not a "talking head" artist, but offers pan outs, action scenes, backgrounds, changing "camera" angles, and so on. No monotonic cut-and-paste here, but a luscious jazz syncopation of all your favorite pictoral licks and strokes.
The comic layout consists mostly of a manga-style page format, and while the characters and backgrounds are not manga-esque in the "common" sense, she does borrow a few stylistic and layout tricks when she feels they are appropriate. She certainly never overuses these "effects"/ "filters", which is a fault of so many young manga-imitators and clones, but balances the whole thing in an expert weave -- nothing is used unless it has a purpose.
One tiny artistic fault, if the artist can be faulted for this, is that she has chosen to draw most of the opus in an unfinished pencil style, likely to save time and increase production. The art is still top-notch, but instead of the polished pro look of the first few pages of the story, you get what looks like a great final draft. It doesn't affect the reading, however, and her "draft pencils" outshine the majority of "finished" webcomics out there. Still, if she redid the whole thing after the story was done -- as in ink and finish all the draft pages, it would be prime stuff for print, and I know that I'd be buying a copy.
Do you know what's REALLY scary, though? Her art is not nearly as strong as her writing.
To merely say that the story is sinfully addictive is to downplay the quality of writing. Jen has obviously planned out the whole thing, in her head or on paper, and every scrap of dialogue and action fits in the tale, somewhere, somehow, without it being superfluous or gratuitous fluff. Things that seem insignificant pop up again much later packed with meaning. As you read the tale, you always wonder what's coming next, because the plot is anything but predictable. Sure, she follows the tenets of the standard epic format (a sign of a well-read, knowledgable writer), meaning there are some elements you'll recognize, but that does not make the story any less enthralling or original or pleasantly challenging to a reader.
Most impressive is how Jen has mastered the intricate art of bringing out the natural humour of a serious story. While some comics out there use the standard one-dimensional "comic relief" character, or just toss in random jokes to break up the seriousness or tension, Strings of Fate lets the beautiful absurdity of humanity and nature flow with the plot -- the humour is a PART of the story, not an additive. Even the one person that comes closest to a comic relief character (the Zodiac Snake, "Long") has lots of depth to him; you can tell that his "type" of humour fits his personality and animal to a 't' (and he can be VERY serious at times).
The one fault with the writing is a common one among webcomics -- typos and syntactic slip-ups. While usually a minor infraction, it's mentioned here as a warning to readers: the first two chapters of SoF are mostly in text format, with some images to break up the text. These pages can get very wordy and dense, and the writing here is sometimes a little forced (the dialogue is fine, but the narration suffers a bit). Add the awkward tense shifts, the typos and syntax, and a reader can find it hard to read through the two chapters.
In a perfect world, the artist would go back and fix those up, because at the start of any story, you want the least amount of distractions that could drive a new reader away. Until she does so, however, readers should try hard to overlook these flaws and plough on through the two chapters. It's recommended you don't skim too much, since there are a few important elements in there you don't want to miss. After that, though, it's clear sailing, as the rest of the story is in comic form. By the end of chapter 3, you'll be hooked, and it'll have been worth it.
Overall, Strings of Fate is an excellent page-format serial webcomic. It's got everything a reader needs to keep them interested -- top-notch art (even if it isn't a "clean copy"), fantastic writing, a great premise, a very original take on a classic myth, and very appealing characters. And if that wasn't enough? Well, as a clincher, you can download entire chapters in .zip format rather than go through it one page at a time. This is a wonderful feature, as you can DL a chapter while working on something else, and then just read it offline at your leisure.
In the end, Strings of Fate proves that you don't need industrial Strength Simpsons Flood-Absorbant Individually portionned Stringettes* to pull readers in when you've got dynamic art and a truly engaging story. Simply put, I emphatically recommend it to everyone.
FINAL TALLY: - an entire Zodiac of divine thumbs up
Name of Comic: Strings of Fate
"Sponsored" by: Kickass Web Exchange
First comic: some time in 2000
Updates: when she wants to/can
Total # of comics
(at time of review): 278 pages (first 2 chapters have text pages, the rest are all in webcomic form)
% of archives read at time of review: 100%