ZAEN WELL review

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ZAEN WELL review

Postby Guest » August 25th, 2014, 4:41 pm

ZAEN WELL is an interesting fantasy webcomic with a complex lead character, a well-defined and mature visual style and a plotline that is simple on the surface, but has some layers and depth that reward careful reading. The comic's main character, Renee, is in some ways your typical outsider/outcast who must achieve a solitary Hero's Quest in order to right a universal wrong and prevent a catastrophe, but there are elements in her character that defy the usual heroic stereotyping. The artwork in this webcomic starts very strong, with a nice sense of design and balance for most of the pages, and continues in that vein right up to the latest installments. The plotline can be read as a typical "magical beings threaten to upset the balance of the Universe, and only our hero can stop them" type of story, but the telling of the story, with concurrent flashbacks and the doling out of the Universe's rules in tantalizing tidbits works to counteract those tried-and-true fantasy genre tropes. ZAEN WELL has been published since 2011, and has maintained an incredible consistency throughout its run. I can recommend it to all fantasy/swords and sorcery fans.

Renee, the main character in the comic, has a number of attributes that readers will recognize, and quite a few that set her apart from your average magic-using protagonist. As is (it seems) de rigueur for a lead character in this genre, she seems to be something of a loner, a misfit and an outsider. As I read through the comic, I was tempted to look for the things that set her apart, which (of course) will turn out to be her secret weapon in the end. I was pleasantly surprised to find a complex character with far more beneath the surface than the usual one-dimensional motivations. To start with, we are immediately confronted with her sex/gender identity. Renee displays very few of the physical characteristics associated with femaleness, and my suspicions about her gender identity were only confirmed the deeper I got into the story. The cool part? Nobody smacks you over the head with it. There is no long-winded, talking-heads expository dialogue to explain how, why, or when this all came about for Renee. There is no over-the-top emotional exchanges centered around her coming out (yet). In fact, the story seems to take it for granted, and thus encourages the reader to do the same. The effect of this is twofold: by treating as (relatively) banal something that would be significantly out-of-place for many of us living in the mundane real world, the author (Sonia Liao) draws us into her world where EVERYTHING is different for we readers, and everyone treats those differences as NORMAL, until we ourselves are seeing it all as normal. There is a complicity in this exchange between the author, the characters and the readers that makes it all the more jarring when things begin to fall into place as the story progresses and we realize that things are hardly "all right" in Renee's emotional world. In addition, Renee's somber nature and morose introversion make me feel a twinge of identification with her. Have I found that most rare item: a depressive heroine who doesn't sit around TALKING about how depressed she is? Someone who keeps putting one foot in front of the other IN SPITE OF the energy-sapping aspect of her depressive nature?? Or am I just reading too much into this because I'm feeling down today?

The other characters are slighter, with Renee's husband Seth being the only other well-defined characterization in the narrative. This is understandable, because as I continued reading I became aware that (at least so far) this is Renee and Seth's story. There is some undisclosed tragedy at the heart of their present, with the seeds of it being sown in their shared childhood. The other supporting characters have a slight air of caricature to them (right now), but I'm sure as the story moves on we will see them a little clearer. While I am VERY happy there was no six-page Prologue that explained the whole world and set up the external conflict, I have been a little disappointed that some of the protagonist/antagonist relationships among the supernatural actors haven't been a little clearer up till now. That said, I AM SUCKED IN and will trust Ms Liao to make all clear as the story unfolds. ("Unfolds" is a good word in this context. This story feels like an intricately folded work of origami that reveals another aspect with each turn of the page).

The artwork is confident and mature, and the shift midway through from a wispier, feathery pen technique to one that emphasizes heavier lines and brushstrokes in the newer chapters was seamless. My preference is for the earlier style, but the composition and design of each page seems a little stronger in the more recent pages. Many webcomics seem to encourage you to watch the artist grow from something awkward and earnest into something more confident and self-assured. And usually right about the time the artist REALLY hits their stride, suddenly the comic is no more (sigh). In Ms Liao's case, while there is noticeable improvement from her first pages, the major changes are more stylistic, and her artwork has been of a high quality from the outset. For this I am thankful, since the complex nature of the story and the emotional themes she seems to be reaching for would be disrupted by having to make allowances for amateurish artwork. I SINCERELY HOPE she sees fit to follow this story to its conclusion.

As for the plot and the storyline, as I hinted above I am most interested in the relationship between Renee and Seth and the (as yet un-revealed) tragedy involving a character named Michelle that results in her death. The concurrent story of the barrier between the human world and the world of Gods and Demons and how it is being threatened by the forces of Evil is good window dressing, but in THIS case a little exposition earlier might have been helpful. Please understand, this is a minor quibble - I'm still engaged by the story, and enough has been explained that I am not TOTALLY lost. If it was too confusing I wouldn't have read any further, but the strong characterization of Renee has kept me hooked. The best part of revealing this aspect of the plot has been the parallel telling of the childhood stories of Renee and Seth, the "high school" story that involves Michelle and the CURRENT story that involves the supernatural Gods and Demons. And the most recent chapter has thrown quite a bit of the confusing relationships between the Gods into sharper focus, so a little patience on my part may be warranted. Ultimately, it shows that Ms Liao doesn't insult the intelligence of her readership, and trusts them to follow her through the many twists and turns of the various plot threads.

In conclusion, ZAEN WELL is a great comic thanks to the strong characterization of the main character, Renee; the confident and consistent artwork; and the willingness to tell what could be a overwrought and melodramatic story in a way that doesn't insult the reader's intelligence. Sonia Liao's trust of her readers' ability to follow the twists and turns of the plot is commendable, and succeeds thanks to her lead character Renee (the constant throughout). I look forward to seeing where the story goes, but even more than that I look forward to finding out more about Renee and her journey, including her eventual destination (emotionally as well as physically).
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Re: ZAEN WELL review

Postby Zhriffixx » August 26th, 2014, 2:05 pm

Wow, I am stunned by the detail in this review! Your feedback's invaluable and I thank you so, so much for taking the time out to write this. I've been working on this comic for a long time and always had difficulty getting involved in webcomic communities/getting feedback, so it's been like living in the dark for a while. Hearing another person's opinion is something I sorely needed.

As you've noticed, I struggle between drawing what I want and what the story needs a lot; I've been focusing so hard on the parts that interest me (Renee and Seth, relationship/emotional troubles) that I've realized I hadn't been fleshing my main protagonist/antagonist plot out (Chapter 6's god-barrier explanation should have probably gone in Chapter 4 or 5). I'm glad this mistake doesn't seem to be a dealbreaker for you, though, which was one of my biggest concerns. I'm hoping to clear up some of the biggest questions in the new chapter, so it's great to hear what other people think of the situation!

I'm also happy to hear you like Renee's characterization-- when I first began my comic, some of my friends told me Renee didn't make a good main character (too depressing/somber), but since this was Renee's story I kept going. Also because I was sick of reading peppy/believe-in-yourself!/shounen-jump protagonists I don't relate to and so my choice to keep the main character this way is probably affected by that. I'm stoked you like the comic and hope the of Chapter 6 can meet your expectations! Thanks again for the review!
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Re: ZAEN WELL review

Postby Guest » August 26th, 2014, 3:55 pm

Zhriffixx wrote:Wow, I am stunned by the detail in this review!

Feh. I was just trying to remember my College English Comp classes. Topic sentence, topic paragraph, expand on the topic paragraph in the body of the paper, wrap up with the topic paragraph again, worded slightly differently. Clearly expressing one's opinions is difficult enough without trying to do so in the absence of a good framework(!) :-)
Zhriffixx wrote:I've been working on this comic for a long time and always had difficulty getting involved in webcomic communities/getting feedback, so it's been like living in the dark for a while.

I get that. I've decided for myself that, since I can't NOT create without severe physical/mental/emotional consequences, I will do my best to resist seeking validation from outside sources. Not that I mind it. Every time someone comments on my comic I do an internal happy dance! But I have to trust that it's being read (Sites and Statistics indicates this is so) and just keep trying to tell the story the best way I know how. Also, it never hurts to get involved in the forums here. I've discovered some awesome work here (like yours) and I can only assume that works both ways, and someone who may not have been looking for it will discover MY comic and maybe even like it.

Zhriffixx wrote:I've been focusing so hard on the parts that interest me (Renee and Seth, relationship/emotional troubles) that I've realized I hadn't been fleshing my main protagonist/antagonist plot out

Zhriffixx wrote:some of my friends told me Renee didn't make a good main character (too depressing/somber)

I will repeat: as far as MY reading experience goes, Renee is the heart and soul of this comic. Everything else proceeds from that. And I like that. In the process of fleshing out the protagonist/antagonist relationship, I hope you will not lose one iota of her to the demands of the plot. And your friends were wrong. And you were right.
So there.
Regards,
Marc
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Re: ZAEN WELL review

Postby Zhriffixx » August 27th, 2014, 5:36 pm

I used to be lot more forum-savvy but in recent years it's almost like I forgot how to talk to other people online, haha. But I get what you mean-- the only comics I know about now are either ones I've seen here on the forums or ones my friend recommend me (exposure is key I guess). Thanks again for your encouragement about Renee! I'll do my best to balance the literal plot and the emotional plot from here on out.
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