Well I suppose a sizeable amount of apology is in order. I could go on about how my girlfriend moved in this weekend or my birthday was on Saturday, but none of this is really a good reason to have fallen behind. Frankly, it just took me a long time to plow through Drowtales, and plowing is precisely what it felt like. A long, tedious labor to reap rewards from the work the reader puts in. To appreciate Drowtales you have to be willing to read carefully and slowly, lest you miss something significant. However, only a few people will be willing to put in that time and effort unless they fit into the niche group this comic is designed for.
Let me back up a minute. First, Drowtales is being reviewed upon a request from bodyklok but I had heard of and investigated it once before, though not to any great length. The webcomic enjoys a strong and devoted following, which includes an active fan fiction community and features many guest contributors. This is a personal gripe for me, those who have read my other reviews know I dislike, but understand, the necessity of guest strips in webcomics. I should note that though I personally don't like them these are unique guest strips that engage the fanbase of the comic. Indeed, much of Drowtales appeal seems to come from the incredible level of interaction the staff has with their readers.
You'll notice I say "staff" and not "creators." That's because the comic, though it owes its creation to Kern, features many other personnel that do everything from drawing and inking to writing. In that respect Drowtales offers a unique experience for readers who enjoy the comic, there's always a lot of different material to engage you, so if you can get into the work then, in theory, you will receive more bang for your buck in the form of additional side stories and art based on the primary tale's characters.
And it really is a "bang for your buck" scenario, seeing as only Moonless Age (the main story) and Side Stories (both official and fan created additions to Moonless Age) are accessible without paying a membership fee. Paying the fee then grants access to the Challenges page (manga games), the Visual Roleplay page (where members take part in an RPG-like adventure that is illustrated by the artists of the site) and, naturally, the Daydream page (the uncensored interactive stories affected by fans input). I did not shell out the dough for the paid services, mostly due to the incredible amount of time it would have taken me to read through all of it, so I can't review those here but their very existence tells me the staff at Drowtales likes to give the fans what they want. All in all it is a concept I like, even if it comes with a price tag.
The problem with Drowtales is that unless you are really into manga or really into the Drow mythos it is unlikely you are going to enjoy the comic. That isn't to say it is bad, it isn't, it's just there to serve a very distinct audience. Fans of the Drow will definitely enjoy the way it pays homage to the most traditional concepts of their society while still holding on to a strong individuality all it's own. The themes of the Drow, matriarchal rulers, clan infighting, brutality, and sexual deviance are all present and accounted for. As a fan of Dungeons and Dragons I appreciated the way in which Drowtales kept with this representation of the race. Unfortunately, the overarching story and characters of Moonless Age wasn't always appealing, and it's pacing often left me wishing it would pick up the tempo.
Much of the problem lies in the unbelievable complexity of the story, the various clans, the lengthy and foreign names of people and places, and a tendency to jump from plotline to plotline within that structure, often requiring the reader to backtrack before forging ahead. This is not necessarily a bad thing, the story all hangs together (mostly) much in the same way Girl Genius made sense when you reflected back on it, but it is the necessity of doing so that can turn a reader away. My biggest problem with the plot was the incredibly confusing prologue, which I read three times at different points in an attempt to understand how it was affecting the main tale and to try and keep all the different factions and leaders straight. Where Girl Genius was complex and mildly confusing or frustrating at times it always succeeded in holding my interest. While Drowtales really had me into it at times it also threw my interest out the window at points and left me grumbling and irritated.
For the casual reader the biggest issue comes from the adherence to the Drow mythology and all it's complexities. Names are complicated among the Drow, for example the main city that much of the story takes place in is Chel'el'sussoloth and characters range from Faen Sulissin'rune to Chrys'tel Vel'Sharen. The lengthy titles can make it hard to keep them all straight, especially when some names are similar or there are multiple members of a family with the same surname. However, this is a comic for people who are already Drow fans and it aims for authenticity, which it absolutely accomplishes. This is just an example of how the comic can be inaccessible to people who don't already want to be immersed in Drow culture, but at the same time it shows once again how Kern is catering to hardcore fans.
Yet even for those who are in that target group the comic caters to there are some missteps in the comic. At certain points a large number of characters are all introduced at once by having them utter a single line of dialogue, while striking a dashing or impressive pose, with a small caption stating their name and title. These moments just feel odd. They break up the flow of the story and prevent a natural introduction of the characters. It is almost as though we are being force-fed back-story on each character and sometimes it really messes things up when the plot is carrying itself quite well.
This brings us to the meat of Drowtales, its story. At many points it simply serves to cater to the fans and that being the goal of the creators from the beginning I can't find fault with it. We're deep in the Drow universe here and when the comic goes for visceral and cutthroat stories it really hits home. For example, early in the comic the heroine Ariel gets a kitten from her brother that is later killed violently by her enraged sister in a truly alarming and frightening scene. It was perfect. It set the tone of fear and violence in direct contrast to the youth and innocence of Ariel, which is a fantastic juxtaposition that I really liked. Indeed, I really liked the story's overall plot. Ariel represents the daughter of one of the clan rulers being groomed to be her heir. Her mother is brutal, violent, and revered where Ariel is shy and gentle but intelligent. Hanging over Ariel's development as heir is the clan infighting and threat of demons (who may or may not be evil) that could destroy the entire Drow society.
It's complex, much more so then my brief summary, and like I mentioned before that may throw readers. There are moments where there is so much dialogue that it buries the action and you feel weighed down under all of the talking, waiting for something to happen. Scenes with the clan leaders were the most taxing for me, since a lot of the dancing and political machinations serve only to complicate the plot more rather than answer any of the questions. In opposition to those scenes are the ones with Ariel, which are excellent. She really is an intriguing character as she does not fit into the world of her mother, yet proves as frighteningly capable of brutality as the woman she seems so unlike. It leaves the reader watching her, surrounded by a diverse group of allies (who have varying degrees of loyalty/good intentions) as she tries to understand who she is and what kind of woman she will become.
There are holes in her character too though. For one, she is brutally assaulted by one character who then, unbelievably, remains her ally. At some points it seems she grows up very slowly, and then makes huge leaps in maturity and self-confidence. Finally, she possesses a great deal of power, but her competence with it is inconsistent as is her decision making, which is frustrating at times though that may be an intentional character flaw. Overall she represents an encapsulation of the entire comic, great concepts and high points that sometimes drag or get bogged down in the mythology. This is a comic for people who like the Drow, and it doesn't want to be anything more. When taken as such, it is a good webcomic with good, if occasionally dense and badly paced, writing. The cast of characters are mostly good, but there are too many and their Drow titles don't make them any easier to keep track of. Thankfully, the major ones are almost all well fleshed out and carry the plot enough that you can shrug off the fringe characters.
On the technical side the comic is well-drawn manga. If you like manga, you'll like it, if you don't, you won't. There are some gag chibi comics that I glanced over, some of which I did think were cute or funny, but they're a bit throwaway. The best technical feature for Moonless Age is the navigation bar, allowing you to jump to chapters and individual pages with incredible ease. It's a simple addition every comic should have, much better than archives, I really appreciated it. My biggest gripe with the technical aspects would be the summary pages, adding paragraphs more writing to an already wordy comic, but I can see Kern being a tough spot and they really are intended to help and not hinder the reader, so I'm chalking that up to personal grumpiness.
If I were to recommend the comic I would only do so to Drow enthusiasts or fans of extremely complex plots that like to do a little work milking the enjoyment out of a story. This is a deep comic, I really think the creators are working hard to develop an entire universe for the story to take place in, it's just that for the casual reader (in this case, reviewer) you're not going to enjoy it as much. It's a piece that demands some time and consideration from the reader and it isn't perfect, but if you really want to invest in it and have a like for the Drow universe I don't know that you would find a better choice out there for free. Keep in mind, Moonless Age is still ongoing, who knows how much better or worse it might get.
Check out the comic at www.drowtales.com
Again, I apologize for the delay in reviews. The Looking For Group review will be up soon followed by Mega Tokyo. This is because I can crank out the Looking For Group review sooner as a make up for being so behind.
Thanks for reading.