by miruku

It’s very easy–and very tempting–to leave reality behind when writing a webcomic.  By abandoning reality in favor of a good versus evil conflict, an unbelievable love triangle, or an entirely new imaginary world to explore, the narrative side of the webcomic artist’s job gets easier: his/her imagination is free to invent, to shift premises where convenient, and to do anything it takes to keep a comic interesting once initial character motivations are established or played out.  That’s a good parcel of advantages, yes, and there are some excellent fantasy/sci-fi/magical realist comics out there (notably David Hopkins’s Jack and John Alison’s Scary-Go-Round) that take advantage of all the opportunities available to a good, nuanced imagination.  

But when we abandon reality, we necessarily abandon one of the most interesting (to me) aspects of webcomics: their ability to reflect a real life in transition.  If we abandon reality, we may be able to create vast webs of dramatic revelations and continuity–which is, admittedly, often one of the great joys of long-running comics–but we lose the power of witnessing real personal evolution, founded in real situations.  And that’s a power I think we need more of, and a power that adds needed depth and relevance to the vibrant yet often superficial world of webcomics.

Which is why it was a pleasure to find miruku’s Emma on the Comicgenesis forums.  Emma is a fairly new comic strip, with only about a year’s worth of archives to its credit, but in that time miruku has managed to craft a strong story about real, nuanced people that never opts for easy narrative outs. 

To wit: the title character Emma is a young bookstore clerk and musician from San Francisco.  Emma lives alone with her cat in a house and has both a sincere creative drive and strong opinions about the world.  In the hands of a lesser writer, this could turn into Amelie, essentially: a flawless, fetishized young art-girl, gleefully set against the pretensions of the modern world (yet not above a cutely-rendered little romance to drive the plot, of course.)  In the hands of miruku, however, Emma is portrayed as far from perfect: she’s abrasive, she has trust issues (admittedly with the unknown Willem), she’s sometimes oversensitive (admittedly with the equally-abrasive Theo), and she’s impatient with those who don’t share her point of view about the world.  In this series of strips, Emma gets a job teaching violin to a hyperactive young girl who needs an alternative outlet for her energy (a job which puts her in contact with one of the other three major characters, conveniently.)  Again, in the hands of a lesser writer, Emma would probably be able to tame the restless girl, give her family new hope, and sweep young Theo off his feet in the process.  In miruku’s story, however, Emma gives up almost immediately, and manages to alienate Theo in the process (though he does his part to alienate her as well.)  What could have been a sweet piece of hagiography about an idealistic young girl becomes, instead, a piece of reality: we see, at once, both the flaws and graces in Emma’s character, and we see how those flaws and graces are inseparable. 

The other characters, although as yet more sketchily defined, show an equally high level of promise: restaurateur Theo is driven, but also a socially-inept person whose family worries about him and who apparently has trouble functioning in an economically hostile world.  His friend Willem is confident and charismatic, but also overbearing and at times unhelpful.  Theo’s niece, far from being a typical sweet yet misunderstood little girl, is actually unpleasant to deal with.  Miruku’s characters consistently defy stereotypes and remain unlikable and likable in equal proportions, resisting quick and easy categorization as “wrong” or “right” (just as Emma resists any quick and easy plans for her impending post-collegiate future.) This kind of characterization would be impressive in any narrative: that miruku manages to do all of this while still creating long-term conflicts and moving the plot along is more than simply impressive.  It’s a deeper level of sophistication than webcomics typically exhibit, and it’s a level that those of us who create webcomics should hold ourselves to, rather than try to escape.

There are flaws, yes: the art ranges in quality from the okay-pretty-and-all to the occasionally stunning (I admit I’m not a big fan of anime-influenced art), and at times the pace is slow and the emotional impact slightly swallowed in conversation.  (I am one to talk.)  But the level of work represented by Emma is as good a start as any of us in the webcomics world are as likely to get–and with the amount of work, detail, and honest observation already present in this comic, it’s hard to imagine the bird here faltering in its flight.  Not a flight of fancy, true: Emma’s not about soaring dragons, elves aplenty, or spaceships from dimensions beyond the stars.  It’s about a bird, slightly limping and its wing feathers matted, making its slow, looping flight through foggy San Francisco streets at dawn, looking (to break the metaphor) for coffee, rent, and a good moment of thought at the bus stop. But that’s more than enough: in fact, it–and the ambiguity of Emma–are everything we too often overlook.

-- John Thornton

back to reviews