Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Steampunk Web Comic, and Some Thoughts on Story Telling

I just ran across a Sseampunk web comic called Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether. So far Chapter 1 is up.

I have mixed feelings about it. The art is really excellent. The story and background -- I'm not sure.

 I know, it's only Chapter 1 and I'm not supposed to know what's going on, since all of Chapter 1 is a swordfight between Lady Sabre and the evil Captain Hans, over something she's stolen. She fights Hans and about five of his henchmen, dispatches all of the henchmen (probably because they're wearing gasmasks -- that's got to be a terrible handicap in a sword fight) and then jumps into space to land on her waiting ship. Why she didn't do that to start with, instead of hanging around to fight, is one question which occured to me. Why none of the henchmen thought to bring a gun is another. (She did -- a derringer -- and shot two of them.) But the big question I have is why I should care.

Donald Maass, one of the smartest guys out there on the art of the novel, once said that the two types of scenes which bore him most are fight scenes and sex scenes. Both are exciting to do, but a lot less exciting to read about. He doesn 't say fight scenes are a waste of time, but he makes the point that until you know the characters and are invested in them, action scenes are just a bunch of people you don't care about running around and shouting -- and he's right! Starting a story with a big unexplained action scene has become a cliche, and in my opinion a very bad one.

Until you know the characters and what they want, there's nothing at stake in the action, so it's just . . . well, kind of pointless and boring. In this case it is doubly so, as Lady Saber spends the entire fight making wisecracks and grinning from ear to ear. She seems to know there is no danger of anything bad happening to her (or if there is, she apparently doesn't care), so that pretty much sucks any tension out of the scene. It's like watching George Cluney in some of his less successful action films. I don't care how bad the briefer says the situation is, as long as George has that sort of half-smirk on his face, it's clear he knows nothing bad's really going to happen and hell, he's read the script.

That was my real problem with the first chapter of Lady Saber and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether -- it's just a long, pointless sword fight with no tension, suspense, or sense of danger. The art, as I said, is great, so we'll see if this actuallys grows a story, a plausible world, and most importantly some characters worth caring about.

Here's the link. By all means make up your own minds.


  1. I don't know, I found myself quite interested in the characters and was reasonably interested in finding out who they were and what their story was. My biggest problem is one that I have with all online content. I just can't concentrate long enough to invest in it. I can read from a book no problem, but if it's on a screen then anything more than a couple of paragraphs or three frames and my mind starts wandering off. So whilst I am quite interested in seeing where Lady Saber goes after chapter one, the thought of having to sit at my monitor and concentrate on it isn't an appealing one.

    Something else that bothers me about these sorts of settings aswell is the flying ship idea. Why are vessels that are quite clearly designed to fly, shaped like a vessel designed to move through water - complete with rudder? The irony is, I absolutely love the visual aspect of it but even in a highly fantastical setting like this, it drives the amateur engineer in me nuts! I suppose if they're designed to land on water aswell then it could make sense.

  2. Scarecrow,

    That's why I encouraged everyone to take a look and make up their own minds. Not everyone has to agree. :^)

    The mechanics of reading a comic online can be somewhat off-putting. The daily updates are basically one or two new frames, less than in a daily newspaper comic strip, and in an action chapter like the first one, far less story content. "So what's Lady Saber up to today? Oh, a backhanded cut."

    That's why I think the better way is to wait for a bunch of updates and then read them in sequence in the archives. Still you have to back out of each update and load the next one which is more awkward than turning a page.

    I have similar feelings as you do about her ship (although Hans's ship looked pretty good, what I saw if it). Why does it have sales in space (in addition to two big propellers)? why does it have a double row of gunports along the side, but apparently has a crew of six or seven and a single gatling gun mounted on deck? Why indeed does it have a rudder and keel, and a little bow wave up front, as if it is cutting through water. What is "down", since the land seems to float in space like large islands, but there is a clear up and down orientation and normal gravity? Perhaps this all has a perfectly logical explanation in the world, but it raises a lot of questions about the logic of that world right up front.

    But that's really less important for me. These are questions which need to be answered eventually, but I give authors a lot of latitude in world building. Story and character is the key.

  3. Good point, Frank, and well made. I quite agree about action scenes (as you well know, I'm not a fan of them full-stop in prose), and I absolutely agree in the importance of good, strong, characters. Readers need to be invested in them, or otherwise there's no reason to follow the story.

  4. Oh, and you said 'story and character is key'. I would go so far as to make the point that story is the character. The rest is plot.

  5. Andy, a fair point. I should probably have said character and plot are the keys, in that order. I think plot is important but yields pride of place to character for the same reason action scenes too early become pointless; if you don't have a character you care about, the plot -- unless it is extraordinarily inventive and intriguing -- is meaningless. Do you care if the hero triumphs over the evil minions of Dr. Sturmunddrang? Not unless you can tell the hero and minions apart and actually prefer the hero to them. See Mark Twain's "Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" for examples of this problem, and hilarious examples at that. If you have never read this essay, you are in for a genuine treat, along with some very sensible thoughts on writing. Here is a link.

    Oh, and did I say Lady Sabre's ship had sales? That's not correct, of course, as this is a free online comic. :^) It actually had sails.