Webcomics, Part IV: Unsounded

Written by Matthew Pardue

By now, hopefully you’ve all seen Coty’s review on Berserk. I’ve heard a fair bit about it before, although I’ve never read the manga. Still, I was glad to see his choice, because a dark, adult fantasy story with horror elements makes for a nice lead-in to Unsounded, a…dark, adult fantasy story with horror elements. I guess that description isn’t entirely fair; Unsounded has a lot of different tones, to the point that I’m surprised it flows and fits together as well as it does without feeling schizophrenic. I can’t think of many stories in any medium that successfully mix horror and humor without sacrificing either, so if nothing else, Unsounded deserves credit for that. And for so, so many other things, because this webcomic is amazing.

I’m gonna pause here to do the disclaimer early; more than almost anything I read (save for perhaps Cyanide and Happiness, which I don’t think I’ll review, since if you’re the type of person who’d enjoy it, you probably already follow the comic. Plus, it has maybe ten good strips scattered over eight years that I could post on here without being called into the office of an unhappy administrator), this story needs a warning label. We have the standard things you’ll find in a part-horror narrative: language, pretty graphic violence, truly evil villains, and so on. But mostly, I want to say from the start that some straight-up terrible things happen to small children. One kid in particular will quickly come to the minds of readers. The scene where the protagonists reach said kid is possibly the most memorable, heartbreaking four pages I’ve seen in any webcomic; I actually found Unsounded because of it. Even so, I assume some readers will feel sufficiently uncomfortable at the content to wash their hands of it, so you’ve been warned.

But if you stick around, what can you expect? Sette and Duane, a pairing that starts off hilarious and largely stays that way even as they develop what seems to be a potential surrogate father-daughter relationship (and good Lo…um, holy Buddha, does she need a new parent to replace her current one). I defy you to see all their interactions and not quietly Awwww to yourself at least once:

Original at: http://www.casualvillain.com/Unsounded/comic/ch01/ch01_07.html

That’s just seven pages in, so it’s no spoiler that Duane is undead (“zombie” is a functional yet misleading term). Also take note of Sette’s sharp teeth and her tail; her inhuman nature comes up as a plot point now and then.

Clearly, they have their differences. As time goes on, they do become fond of one another to some degree, but I’m hard-pressed to find a page where they agree on anything without having to argue about it for a while. Such conflicts can spiral out of control as they…well, mostly they just get in trouble wherever they go, but their goal is for Duane to guard Sette and help her reach her cousin, a thief she’s supposed to somehow bring back into line. Sette, you see, is (supposedly) the daughter of essentially a mafia Don. Stockyard, the cousin, moved to expand the family operations, but stopped sending home proper tribute. Multiple characters question the logic in sending a young girl (however capable Sette turns out to actually be) to walk into a violent criminal’s territory, far from home with only one bodyguard, and start making demands. Coupled with the detail that Sette’s father doesn’t have a dental plan from National Geographic, much less a tail, Duane in particular wonders if this is fully the suicide mission that it seems. The flashbacks of the thief-king, in which he appears increasingly abusive and manipulative, don’t help. Sette’s blindly optimistic view of him makes for a key source of tragedy:

Original at: http://www.casualvillain.com/Unsounded/comic/ch03/ch03_36.html

Other than occasional sad pages like this, Sette is a hilarious, vulgar kid with few morals and fewer inhibitions. Assuming that you don’t come to resent her after she makes you spit coffee all over your computer for the fourth time, her lines alone might hook you on Unsounded (either that, or they’ll make you hate the comic; it might depend on whether or not you have children. Maybe I’d be less amused by Sette channeling George Carlin if I pictured her as my own daughter). Either way, I think the mix of we-can-censor-that-later Sette and eloquence-is-my-second-middle-name—skill-is-the-first Duane makes for some great dialogue.

Speaking of the spellwright, his vision in the last panel is ongoing foreshadowing; we see the girl again, briefly, and I half-suspect she has something to do with the dark-haired ghost of a similar age that starts floating around in later chapters. Whatever his past, and in spite of his present (being undead is a very bad thing in this setting), Duane is ten pounds of awesome stuffed in a five pound bag. He’s a kind protagonist who shows during the first chapter that he’s deeply ethical but won’t sacrifice innocent life for principles, unlike some others (I’m looking at you, Ned Stark from Game of Thrones). He goes out of his way to help people and injures rather than kills when possible (a rule he might break with the people responsible for the kid I mentioned earlier in the review). When I say that Duane’s a hero, I’m not speaking in literary terms:

Original at: http://www.casualvillain.com/Unsounded/comic/ch02/ch02_39.html

He’s also got the skill and creativity to back up his morals, even against enemies who’re more naturally talented than he is:

(Use the url address in the citation below; it’s apparently two different images overlapping in the original, so I can’t post it properly.)

Original at: http://www.casualvillain.com/Unsounded/comic/ch05/ch05_41-42.html

To clarify, Duane is fighting someone with more raw power and less honor (he quickly starts breaking the rules of their duel, but I don’t think Duane ever does), but tricks this rival by making him think that he’s (that is, Duane) readying a big, desperate, direct attack, draws him closer to the cliff, and then uses the terrain to win (more or less). Duane is good about working intelligently with his environment, which is another reason I like him.

You know the basics of the plot; now for the mechanical stuff. The artwork is good, as you can see; sometimes the creator (her name is Ashley Cope, by the way) will play with panel layout, angles, and arrangements to give certain pages a different feel. She also shifts the art style itself for some characters or displays of magic. Duane especially gets up-close, realistic shots when his illusions wear off. So, that’s all in the comic’s favor.

The pacing and tone are better, though. In this case, they’re closely intertwined. Cope is an expert at handling the flow of action, drama, horror, and comedy so that we get them all right when we need them. You won’t see a tense moment ruined by inappropriate humor; you won’t be pulled through one mood long enough for it to dominate the comic or grow stale. The plot and dialogue collaborate to give us this great mixture of different themes with smooth transitions between them.

Really, the only problem I can think of is one inherent to fantasy webcomics. Fantasy in general sits at the top of genres in which you’ll probably need lots of background information, just above science fiction. Cope has rightly said during interviews that you can’t just heap page after page of raw setting details onto readers in graphic novels (traditional print is slightly more forgiving about this). She does a great job of handing out pieces here and there, but that only limits the issue rather than removing it: some people just aren’t going to want to memorize this much stuff in order to fully understand the story. In addition to the various history, nations, rulers, and peoples that’re important to the plot, some commonly set fantasy elements work differently as well, like magic (“pymary”) and zombies/liches (“galits” and “plods”). Ironically, the gradual pace with which Cope gives us this information might disappoint readers who want to know more right now. Tons of the world lore is scattered over the Wiki (there’s a link on the top of every comic page), some other sites that Cope uses like Formspring, and various interviews, so if you’re willing to hunt around, you can learn far more than Unsounded itself presents. At some point, a fan or few will inevitably make a Wiki of their own and compile all this stuff, but for now, finding anything not on Cope’s main site might be a bit of a chore.

Nevertheless, Unsounded is quickly becoming one of my favorite webcomics, so I obviously recommend it. Here’s the first page (thanks to April for showing me how to insert links into text; I’ve been looking for that). The archives aren’t as long as the big webcomics out there, at least not yet, so now’s a good time to catch up to the current chapter. Let me know what you think.