Seriously, why do so many comics I encounter have no RSS feeds? Even the venerable User Friendly and Sluggy Freelance have no RSS feeds!

(From Fey Winds. Click for full-sized tree hex of knowledge, apparently.)

I have said in the past that I do not review comics that are neither popular nor good, because they do not deserve the attention. So I’m willing to savage a webcomic if I deem it popular enough that people need to be warded away from it, but bad webcomics with no readers should be allowed to wither like they should do naturally.

The flip side is that I am willing to review a webcomic no one’s heard of if I think it’s fantastic. So if you want me to expose your webcomic to the masses, you can e-mail me at mwmailsea at yahoo dot com. If I don’t like it, you’ll get a “thin envelope”: an e-mail with my suggestions for you. If I do like it, or at least think it has a lot of potential, you’ll get a “fat envelope”: a full-sized review on Da Blog.

The thing is, Fey Winds – despite a ridiculously bare-bones site layout with nothing except a news post, some fan art, and the comic itself (no cast page, no RSS feed, no “world” page despite a promise of it on one page that required a brief description of an aspect of the world), despite having next to no exposure in the broader webcomics community that would convey that mystical quality we call “notability” – is a comic I’m reviewing because it falls in the “popular” category.

That’s because I discovered Fey Winds by way of Buzzcomix.

I’ve talked about Buzzcomix in the past – the vote-powered webcomic ranking site (well, one of at least two), once thought completely abandoned but recently revamped back in August with a whole mess of new features. One of these was a “status” line that would appear below your comic’s entry – similar to previous description lines, but with the important changes that a) you could change it without entering your profile, and more importantly, b) when you changed it, your new “status” would appear at the bottom of the screen in a running ticker alongside other webcomics that had recently changed their statuses. Which meant just by changing your status, you’d be guaranteed at least a shot at exposure for anyone who dropped by Buzzcomix for the next twenty-four hours or so. Needless to say, constantly changing statuses became a favorite fallback for several wannabe webcomiceers desperate for the sliver of exposure the line promised, and complete no-names littered the ticker, because no webcomic that already had the exposure, that was anywhere near the top of the list, would stoop to such shameless tactics. (You probably haven’t noticed, but I’ve been changing Sandsday’s status line with each new strip. 🙂

Word of the new Buzzcomix has spread in fits and starts, with the result that early on, there was some bumpiness in who was on top – after being fairly consistently in the upper eschelon on the old Buzzcomix, Girl Genius, to take one example, was completely missing for the first month or so – although once the Foglios and their fans got their act together, GG went right to the top and stayed there for a while. It’s since been dethroned by Goblins, which at least has warranted a TV Tropes page – of course all you need for a TV Tropes page is a fan or even creator who happens to frequent the site. (Unless said creator isn’t a complete self-promoting jerk.)

(I hope I haven’t just made Fey Winds jump the shark by introducing Nicole Chartrand to TV Tropes.)

So, for some time, I would visit Buzzcomix to change Sandsday‘s status line, and on my monitor, I would always see the top three comics, and because of the vote quantities involved and how long they stick around (early in the new Buzzcomix the top of the rankings would completely shuffle around every month when the last round of votes expired, though that’s already tapered off) the top three comics would stay fairly consistent: Goblins, Girl Genius… and Fey Winds.

Now, by the time I started writing this post Fey Winds had already been knocked out of the #3 spot by Misfile, Buzzcomix itself got suspended by its host a week ago and lost all the votes when it returned and FW was slow to recover, sinking all the way to #24 or so for the past week, and Fey Winds owes a lot of its Buzzcomix popularity to the use of incentives (the instant a new incentive and comic was posted Fey Winds shot back into the top 20, and my guess is it’ll be back in the top 10 by the time you read this). Still, lots of webcomics use incentives to prop up voting, and they can’t crack the top three. But what attracted me to Fey Winds enough to tell myself to check it out some time was not its high ranking, but its status line: “Fantasy adventure with 100% of your weekly dose of snark. Now with 50% more story!” (The second sentence has since changed to “Now on Chapter 4!”)

Well this is interesting, I thought. “Fantasy adventure” with a good dose of “snark” and humor? Pray tell, had I found the new Order of the Stick (only with actual art)?

Erm… no.

First of all, the “snark” is a lie, and I accuse Nicole Chartrand of false advertising. There’s some snarkiness and even pointing out of tropes in some of the very earliest strips, like in Chapter 1, but very little. As the “Now with 50% more story” line implies, Chartrand has dipped her comic headlong into Cerebus Syndrome (even though her world already had some quantity of story arc running through it, I use it here to denote that the strip has become much more serious and the stakes raised as we learn boatloads more about the characters). But that, in turn, hints at my real problem with the strip:

Fey Winds is moving its plot along way too fast.

If you intend on reading the strip for yourself later, turn away now, because I’m about to summarize the entire “intro” chapter, which explains much of the concept: Once upon a time, a sorcerer introduced… something… into a long-running, devastating war. It’s unknown whether the Sylphe is “a spirit, or a construct, or the child of a god,” or something else, it’s just known that “armies, towns, cities, lives” fell before her, until she unexpectedly turned against her master – going against anything anyone had thought her capable of doing – and helping restore the countries she helped destroy, then disappearing, leaving only a series of powerful MacGuffins for her to be remembered by, “sought out by thieves, kings, and wholesome adventure-type folk… like us!”. (Emphasis in original.)

We’re then introduced to the cast: Larina, some sort of runaway from “a big elven sanctuary in the mountains” (“she never told me why she left, but then, I never asked”), who has a Stone of Possession on her forehead she picked up while investigating some sort of magical spring, which occasionally “shunts her spirit out of the way and possesses her with the soul of a random wandering ghost”; Nigel, whose story is that he’s a “Kaderrian mercenary” who encountered an “ugly witch and ugly daughter on his way home from a mission”, had the latter fall for him, he rejected her, and the witch cursed him to follow “someone who was a girl, but not a girl, and neither human, dwarf or elf.”

That happens to describe our narrator and main character, called “Kit” by the other characters, who was (stay with me here) a fox until she attempted to raid a chicken coop belonging to a witch, who “tried to turn me into a warty were-toad. Lucky for me she was completely senile” and turned her into a humanoid instead. Larina taught her speech, gave her clothes, and told her the story of the Sylphe; Nigel (who’s “a little creepy, and always seems to know what [Kit’s] thinking”) “taught [her] about swords and fighting – and the three of us have been traveling together for a few years since.”

Did you catch all that? Good, because practically none of it (especially the mysterious parts) is still extant for the current strips. Some of it was abandoned almost immediately (for example, Larina’s “possessed” self is a “fangirl” calling herself Belinda who takes over more predictably, when Larina takes some sort of blow to the head), but in order: the Sylphe is/was pretty firmly a golem; so far as I can tell, Larina has lost her gem to one of the Sylphe’s makers; Nigel is actually a golem himself; and Kit somehow had the spirit of the Sylphe inside her, and her actual origin has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what we were told back in the “intro” chapter.

There are still a few lingering mysteries (why was the Sylphe able to rebel against her masters? Why did Larina flee her home in the first place?), but the general feeling is that most of the questions are resolving themselves, barely 100 comics into the strip’s existence and while it’s only in its fourth full chapter – as though Chartrand is losing interest and rushing to the meat of the story she wanted to get to all along. Now, it’s possible – nay, likely – that what’s going on here is closer to how Order of the Stick overthrew virtually its entire premise about a hundred comics into its run, and what we’re seeing is only the beginning of what Fey Winds will become, not the end. It’s also possible that part of the problem I’m having has to do with Fey Winds’ weekly update schedule (and closer to biweekly earlier in its run), and that I need to keep in mind that Fey Winds is, after all, already over two years old. OOTS wrapped up its first book, and resulting overturning of the premise, only one year into its run!

Still, there’s the pacing a strip has to consider on its own update schedule… and then there’s the pacing the way a significant portion of your audience is going to read it. I’m willing to accept that for someone reading the strip as it’s come out, the current events have completely shaken them out of their comfort zone and have turned Fey Winds into something completely different than they were used to. Still, I can’t help but wonder (as someone who, like what could turn out to be a majority of the audience Fey Winds could still have, read the story to this point in an archive binge): couldn’t Chartrand have waited just one more chapter before shaking things up? Even the start of Chapter 3, before they reach the tomb, contains a number of hints of various things that get at least partially resolved in that very chapter.

Fey Winds proper (outside the “intro” chapter) only turned two years old this November, as Chapter 4 started, and was only a year and a half old when the part of Chapter 3 that engaged in the shaking-up started. Would two years of the strip introduced in the “intro” chapter really have been too much? (This is especially important as, like Girl Genius, Fey Winds releases a page at a time no matter how trivial the page may be, and coupled with its start-of-chapter splash pages, this suggests that Chartrand has plans to release her comics in a book later, meaning even more of her audience will be reading her strip all at once.)

Besides, having read the comic since its return from holiday hiatus, I’m thinking a weekly schedule may be too slow for most people given the content-per-comic ratio. For a comic with this much plot to release at the rate it does, when some comics (even now) are little more than one-shot jokes, is almost excruciating. At least most of the time, Girl Genius has more story per page and releases on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule. Order of the Stick also tends to have more story per page than at least some Fey Winds comics (until recently, updating “three times a week without warning”) and people complain about it going too slow! (If Chartrand is going for the pacing of Gunnerkrigg Court, which she links on her “Links” page, it’s worth noting that comic also releases on a M-W-F schedule.)

No wonder Chartrand has started moving the plot forward faster! Had she started with a decent buffer and released just two pages per week, she could have spent longer with a funnier comic, still might be further along with the plot here in early 2009 (or at least two years-plus into its run), and the ensuing story would be richer for it. And I wouldn’t wonder if the “intro” chapter was completely superfluous. (Considering the changes she makes when the story begins, the “intro” chapter could have been more consistent on its own merits as well.) As it is, the weekly schedule is a hard habit to maintain without an RSS feed.

Since I’ve been babbling on for some time, I’ll make some general comments on the strip itself to close things out quickly. First, a quick note on the content-per-comic ratio; it is certainly tempting for some beginning webcomic-makers to put as little as possible in each strip to entice repeat visitors, but it tends to be more maddening than anything else. I criticize the strip’s descent into Cerebus Syndrome, but the “wacky hijinks” stage of the first two chapters wouldn’t even have a chance at my RSS reader (assuming, you know, it even had an RSS feed), and the ramping into gear of the plot is really a help in that context, to the extent I’m probably going to keep following it for just the near future, if only through the very beginning of Chapter 5 to pick up on the loose threads of the end of Chapter 3. So far the plot isn’t compelling enough for me to stick around longer, and more importantly the pace of updates may mean I just decide to catch up when the mood strikes me, rather than following it all along week-to-week. The brief forays into anime-inspired art for certain moments are something of a turn-off – generally, no matter what your art style is, you shouldn’t shift it too often (or too much) and you should have a good reason when you do.

Fey Winds isn’t bad, but once again it is crushingly mediocre. It comes off as, well, as some wannabe artist (who gives off a “valley girl” vibe in her news posts – and yes, especially considering the rest of her site, Chartrand is definitely an artist first and writer second, and we all know what that means) deciding to jump on this here “webcomics” bandwagon. I’m not saying it needs to be Order of the Stick, but there’s a lot that’s unpolished and somewhat amateur about it; in more refined hands, the plot could be somewhat compelling, even if the brief flashes of humor (which, especially lately, come off as unintentional and more “oh, that’s kinda funny” than actually laugh-inducing) were still retained. In addition to pacing, Chartrand could stand to learn more about what comic artists call storytelling, something she seems to have gotten better at since some excruciating and confusing moments in the first two chapters. (Moments that, as with Dresden Codak, suggest that sometimes in webcomic art, less really is more.)

There’s a lot of potential in Fey Winds so far; if I were judging it solely on the basis of its art it might be one of the prettiest webcomics on the Internet (and perhaps the need to make art of that quality is why FW runs on a weekly schedule when the pace of the story would seem to dictate updating more often), but then again if that were the only basis xkcd and Order of the Stick wouldn’t even be in the conversation. Still, the story that’s been told so far is actually pretty decent, if not yet must-see, even though those spurts of humor come off as more of a sales gimmick than as something Chartrand would do just as part of the process of writing the story (though that may be a misconception). Certainly I’m seeing no structural problems with the dialogue or anything clunky or excruciating like expospeak (this being a possible exception). But for as decent as the story is, it still falls into some beginners’ traps, not the least of which is the sense I get that the eventual story was still very much a work in progress when the “intro” was posted, even besides the parts that were intended to be discarded later all along.

Fey Winds has a lot going for it, but right now it’s hardly the best webcomic you’re not reading (despite what some fans may claim), and it sure as hell isn’t the new Order of the Stick. Or even the poor man’s version.