Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Webcomic Review: Space Boy

This was a harder comic to review than I expected, it seems like such a simple story; sometime in a the future a girl moves to Earth from a deep space mining colony, must adjust to being in a new time as well as a new place, and it nails so many of the basic, oft-overlooked, parts of an adolescent story. Plus it's being hosted in an unusual place in a different-than-usual format and how about I just start with the review already? 

Space Boy by Stephen McCranie

Over three hundred years in the future, technology has greatly changed but people remain the same. Amy has spent her entire life living in an outer space mining colony, studying a blue planet called Earth and humanity's accomplishments, when her father loses his job and her entire family is sent back to Earth on a 30 year voyage. No time passes at all for Amy but once on Earth she has to deal with an entirely new world in more ways than one. Her new classmates are inscrutable but kind except for Oliver, this boy seems almost more lost than Amy and for that he might be the closest friend she can have. 

This comic is hosted on a comic website run by LINE (yes the messaging app) which carries mostly webtoons, ie Korean webcomics*. The website has a surprisingly large catalog so I can't tell how many of the comics are translated Korean webtoons versus native-English webcomics off-hand but I do know that many of the most popular titles on the website are webtoons since they've been adapted into K-dramas! There's some interesting stuff going on in Korean with manhwa and webtoons but unfortunately I very rarely see it written about in English so I can't talk about it in depth but before I found Space Boy I read some Korean webtoons on the site which really highlighted the differences between them and Space Boy.

 The webtoons I was reading (Cheese in the Trap, Orange Marmalade and a couple of others) were very soap drama-esque, not necessarily a bad thing but it meant that after setting up interesting premises the stories seemed to just spin their wheels and I could see why those webtoons were adapted into actual k-dramas, they're good fits. This story instead paces itself more like a western webcomic, so far Amy hasn't wallowed in the same problem five different ways and there are hints of a larger, more sinister plot behind the scenes. At the same time however, there's a slice of life aspect to it that I rarely see coupled with science-fiction in western media, actually I rarely see stories that I would truly call slice of life outside of anime and manga at all! I have seen this quiet balance of futuristic technology with modern day characters in anime and manga but western sci-fi is hyper focused on dystopias at the moment which have (shockingly) very few quiet moments.  So tonally Space Boy actually fits in quite well at Webtoons and it's quiet, introspective moments are only one reason why I'd recommend this comic to other anime and manga fans.

The main reason why I want to recommend this comic to as many people as I can however is because how it handles Amy's inner thoughts and feelings. Despite the fact that a lot of stories start when the lead character moves to a new place I very rarely see a realistic, nuanced take on what moving is like (something I am very familiar with). Amy both adjusts quickly and doesn't; she has a lot of resentment over the move, how she's basically a time traveler now so even the things she thought she knew about Earth are now wrong. There's another aspect to it too when she realizes that it's going to be harder for her to make friends her own age since her old school gave her such a lopsided education that she's not even in any age appropriate classes and I liked seeing her reaction to that. Again, even though every character in fiction is apathetic towards/hates their schools I rarely see the kind of resentment that my friends and I felt at ours, that brief flash of it we see from Amy matches pretty well and it really makes it feel like McCranie put real thought into how to make a multi-dimensional, although not necessarily complicated, character. The story excels at mixing these complicated emotions together without getting overly sappy or too stuck in Amy's own mind and this take it truly one of the most thoughtful examples I've ever seen of a teenaged girl in fiction.

However it's the art is probably what people will notice when they first check out the comic. It's not because of the color palette or almost crayon-like lines, Space Boy updates like a webtoon which means updates aren't a single page but as a long strip that feels more like a third or a half of a chapter at once. I sometimes find webcomics that mimc 4-koma (four panel) style of manga but it's unusual to see long form, scrolling comics like this (off the top of my head I can think of The Wormworld Saga and many Pokemon nuzlocke comics also use this style but that's it). Normally I think of this style as something that is very "beginner friendly", you don't have to think about transitions, panel layout etc as much but the webtoons I've read show off what you can really achieve with this layout. They use the natural scrolling motion to show gaps of time, making liberal uses of fades, and also use it to create drama the same way turning a page would. Space Boy is a great example of this which is doubly impressive when you realize that the comic is drawn in a traditional page layout and then everything is moved around prior to publishing online^.

There's a quiet sadness to this story, that even when Amy is happy there are still many moments when she feels like she doesn't belong or that she's even being herself, and as cliched as that sentence may sound this story gets it. That's what got me hooked on this story and has kept me going, not the side plot about Amy's strange classmate Oliver (although I really want to know what's going on with him and if he's connected to the alien spaceship mentioned in the very very beginning of the story, the timing would work!). It still could devolve into a generic high-school drama but after seeing how well it's been handled so far I'm not worried about it and can't wait for the next update tomorrow!

*if I have this right, Line is a Japanese app by a Japanese company whose parent company is the Korean company Naver. I might have this wrong but that international connection surprised me.
^I'd also been worried that this style would make it harder to print eventually but if it's already laid out in comic book style pages from the start wohoo!