Apologies to all for the late arrival of today's reviews (yes, there will be more than one) but I had an unfortunate experience while writing this review the first time. Consider this an "aside" into my creative process, I promise not to take long with it.
When I pick a webcomic to review, even if it is one I read regularly, I go through every single archived comic in order. I try to do it in one sitting, but of course some comics are longer than others and that can take a while. Still, I try to burn through as quickly as possible so I can see the growth and thought process of the author. Once I've completed it I either have a definite idea of what to write or I need to let my thoughts sit and stew for a day or two. Sometimes, with the more complex or controversial works I make notes about particular things that I noticed. Once I'm ready to write I pop open a forum page and start, I write right in the post block, which is what caused the recent delay.
I wrote the entire Jack review two days ago and then accidentally clicked on a link, losing my entire review in a second. It was... irritating, and I could not bring myself to rewrite the whole thing. Thus, I am now writing it from work because I have a lot of down time today and I really want it over and done with.
So, there's the personal update. In the case of David Hopkins' Jack, the insight into how I review comics will actually come in handy. I have started dividing my critiques between a few major features: conceptualization, art, character, humor, and story. This is helping me dissect some webcomics more effectively and I would like to think that it is improving my reviews. This will be a test of that theory, because I alternately love and loath Jack.
Conceptually this is a very original work. It is a furry comic, though decidedly centered upon mature subjects of sex, violence, and religion. It isn't a "yiffy" comic, even though you encounter sexual references throughout. The comic really centers on redemption and the nature of sin in life and the afterlife. Jack is a large, green furred rabbit that lived a life of violence. This earned him the position of Sin of Wrath (think of Sins as lords in Hell) and he was charged with the task of bringing the recently deceased to Judgment. Jack is in Hell because of something terrible he did in life, but neither he nor the reader is aware of what it was. Part of Jack's punishment is to have forgotten why he is Hell in the first place and his quest to learn the truth of his past life is the path that leads to his potential redemption. In addition to the extremely dark and twisted realm of Hell where Jack spends most of his time there is also Purgatory and Heaven. While the three afterlife locales come from traditional Christian faith, Jack himself alludes that all souls go to one of those three places no matter what religion they practiced or if they were religious at all. Even with the Christian labeling of the three domains they have extremely unique representations in Hopkins' iteration. This is one of the stronger features of the comic, especially because the function and rules of each realm becomes apparent through events rather than long exposition.
Another unique aspect of Jack is the way in which stories are told. Hopkins writes "Arcs," separate stories set in the Jack universe that (usually) involve the protagonist at some level. Each story is really a distinct tale, you could pull any of them out of the continuity and still get a complete plot with a conclusive ending. The only thread through all of the Arcs is Jack's personal development as a character. If there is one overarching (pun intended) story it is Jack's gradual unraveling of his past and his growth as a character. It is important to note that Jack is never a dull protagonist, indeed if I am going to heap praise on one part of the comic it is on Jack himself. He is incredibly intriguing and often drives the reader onward out of sheer curiosity as to his fate. What becomes the real power of Jack is that you want to believe he isn't a bad guy, but you know he IS a bad guy, and one of some significance to have landed in Hell as one of it's major figures. According to Hopkins' universe the greater the sin the greater the rank of the soul in Hell and the greater the punishment. Don't mistake Jack's role as Reaper for a light duty, the people he collects are alternatively evil (in which case Jack gets some pleasure serving justice) or victims of evil people who suffer undeserved fates (which causes Jack to question the rules of non-intervention and often reveals his wrathful nature).
Even with the dark tone and Jack's often disturbing role as messenger of death he manages to acquire some friends. They range from Fnar, an unborn child who stays with Jack in Hell "for no apparent reason" where he is immune to the horrors around him because of his innocence. Jack treats Fnar as his ward and possibly his only friend. In several scenes Jack seems to get his only enjoyment out of playing with Fnar. In addition to Fnar the reader meets several angels, most notably Farrago, with whom Jack has a tentative love interest, and Central, who doubts Jack's search for redemption will bear fruit. These three lesser characters are very effective in fleshing out Jack's character. In particular determined readers will encounter a truly moving point in the main story surrounding Jack and Fnar that, for me, really hit a strong emotional chord. It is because of that moment and Jack himself that I enjoy the comic. Unfortunately, some of Jack's enemies hurt as much as they help my enjoyment of the work.
For villains Jack's "brother and sister Sins" are the primary foes. Jack is the only one that seems interested in the fates of people who come to him and he actively tries to help souls sent to Hell regain their morality and get a chance at leaving. His siblings were all terrible criminals in life, from serial rapists and murderers to obsessive and abusive overlords. Unlike Jack they seem to revel in their roles as Sins, where he uses his position to actively oppose their nefarious plots. They are sadly hit or miss characters. Sometimes the villains serve as perfect set-pieces to different story arcs and at other times Hopkins seems to revel a bit too much in the debauchery of his characters.
Take the primary villain, Drip the Sin of Lust. Drip was a serial rapist in life and a horrifically unfeeling one. In Hell his appearance has become demonic and bloated, but his personality is his most unnerving feature. Drip features very prominently in the comic and at times this has an adverse effect on it as a whole. There is a necessity in showing the horrible side of Hell because... it's Hell. You have to, especially in a comic that deals with serious topics like Jack, make certain that Hell is a disturbing place and it's denizens should be as well. However, there is a point where you aren't expanding on the nature of a villain so much as you are reveling in his deviance. Scenes like Drip masturbating to a truly devilish gladiatorial sex competition make me question whether Hopkins is really more interested in the graphic nature of Hell's most disgusting aspects as voyeur rather than backdrop and expansive content. Drip and his brethren can overtake stories and smother them. You become drowned in the slop and start to wonder where the plot went to and what Hopkins really wants to do with the concept he has. You spend a much greater amount of time in Hell than in Heaven or Purgatory, which is fine since that is where Jack resides, but the theme is suffocatingly twisted at times. When Jack becomes more about Hostel-like murder-porn and snuff I start to lose interest. Fortunately, the main character always finds a way to pull me back in.
Jack can also be a little stereotypical in some ways. There is an Arc where a bomb goes off, killing several people including the bomb planter and Jack plays a game with the victims to uncover which of them committed the crime and simultaneously reveal their fates. The character you would assume is the obvious choice... well, is. It was a little disappointing and felt kind of like a cop-out. The first Arc was a Columbine-like story, which featured the shooter wearing a Korn t-shirt and seemed to condemn that music genre as one of the contributing factors to school violence (that could just be my personal problem with the way Marilyn Manson and others were blamed for the actions of a few disturbed individuals, especially since I love a lot of that music and I've never committed a crime in my life). There are also implications that Hopkins may be a touch too conservative for some readers, but really that's pretty rare and if you're the type to get turned off by hints at political leanings then you're a little too uptight. It isn't an overtly conservative message, I just picked up on subtle conservative leanings and found it interesting given other subject matter, like homosexuality, that Jack seems inclined to be supportive of.
Another thought occurs when considering the plot and characters. The Arcs are, as previously mentioned, self-contained stories that are hit or miss. Some are fantastic, indeed a few really show some great storytelling from Hopkins, and you should sink your teeth into those as firmly as you can. Others are too conventional, especially beside the more complex and exciting tales, or simply uninteresting. Hopkins seems to forget we really want more Jack and less of his associates, unless they are interacting with him of course. And, as great as some of the Arcs can be, sometimes it is tough to tell where we are in the continuity. At first the Arcs seem sequential, then they appear to bounce around. This raises some questions. Is the world of the living sequential but the afterlife cyclical? Do people who enter the afterlife come from alternate times, universes, or planes? If one of the Sins is formerly a human, but appears to be the only non-furry in the comic did the others move beyond the afterlife to somewhere else? A lot of things are leaving some interesting holes. They don't break the comic but they do make one wonder.
The art can be perplexing at times as well. Hopkins varies from black and white inks to full color pages. I personally prefer the inks to the colors, but neither is bad. There are some minor problems with the artwork though, at times the panels are difficult to make out, you can't really tell what is happening in some. Other times the art is action-packed and it seems Hopkins is trying to make too much happen in one panel, overwhelming himself and the reader with imagery. The writing is usually good as well, but Hopkins has a tendency to misspell words and either leave them or black out errors. It can be jarring, but it also occasionally fits the scene or character, so I don't know that I would be overly critical of that.
Trying to summarize my feelings about Jack I am left with admiration only for parts of the comic and not the entire thing. It isn't for everyone certainly, but I would recommend it to people who like strong, driving characters with dynamic personalities. Jack, the namesake of the work, is the best part of the comic so far. As bad as many of the Arcs can be, especially the stark departures from the main story, Hopkins impressed me with his improvement over time. The growth has been slow, but steady, and I do think he now knows that Jack is the real sticking point of his webcomic. Still, it's grotesque, violent, and at times a little too steeped in sin for its own good, which will dissuade some readers. Start from the beginning and see what it does for you, but I would warn new readers to give a few Arcs a chance before doing what I did the first time and dismissing Jack after only one. The opening Arc sets the tone, but it is a little graphic and violent if you don't know what you are in for. With any luck this review gave you enough preparation to assuage the initial shock for some.
My intentions are to post Inverloch and Girl Genius reviews today, probably early evening. These were requested reviews, so I will be sure to message the people who asked for them when they are up. There's going to be a poll coming up after those reviews for readers to pick the next review, and I may open a post just for people to place their requests rather than having anyone message me. Let me know what you think about those plans.
EDIT: Link to the Jack homepage - http://www.pholph.com/
EDIT: Image returning thanks to the permission of David Hopkins once I get a better computer for pasting in the URL link.