So Rob O’Brien, creator of Sh!t Happens R decided to start a webcomic review thread at the Comic Genesis forums, and I decided it was about time I get off my butt and review something again, and so I jumped at the chance to review a comic by an artist I admire, someone who’s been doing this far longer than I have, and in reviewing his work, I might learn a thing or two as well. All art and excerpts used by permission of the creator.

Sergio’s Summary of Thirteenth Child-Welcome to Autaxia Heights posted on The Webcomics List: A private investigator steps foot into a city crawling with the supernatural, enigmatic psychology, and twisted creatures… exactly what he was hoping for.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead! I’m not sure how I could otherwise summarize the premise without giving a few things away.

Since I dove into the webcomic without reading the premise posted on TWCL first, this is how I summarized it after my first read, with a little help from the Cast Page: Near as I can tell, Thirteenth Child concerns a nomadic Private Investigations Agency run by Darius Freedman and his partner Jaques, and the residents of a city known as Autaxia Heights.

An ambitious but inexperienced new police detective, Lisa Irving, has shown up to question Darius, particularly because he has legally changed his name 27 times and lived in [as] many different places. There have also been a few classified files. I have to agree with Detective Irving here, that it’s not a great business model.

After Detective Irving has thoroughly made it known that she will be watching Darius, she leaves his agency and comes across a little girl named Lenneth who has lost her father. We are then introduced to a group who hang out in the apartment of comic artist Serge Scenaut and [street?] artist Travis Walker. It’s a little unclear whether Serge has been writing and drawing the story that’s been unfolding so far about Darius, Det. Irving and Lenneth, or if he’s working on something altogether different; or later, it seems to hint, that he is receiving premonitions of actual events and putting them down on bristol board? Serge invites himself along to dinner with his roommate Travis and Travis’ [girl]friend Samantha Forester, who doesn’t consider Serge’s comic work real art. (Bitch!)

Travis spies Lenneth through the window of the diner walking with Irving and runs out to her. It turns out Lenneth’s missing father, Humphrey, is/was a mentor to Travis. Detective Irving spies a no-gooder and leaves Lenneth in Travis’ and Samantha’s care (!) to follow the shady character. Irving comes upon some kind of super drug exchange. She is rescued by a vigilante wearing a wooden mask and cape that she apparently has run into before, because she calls him Ghost. After putting the drug dealers down easy, one of them–in a serious case of sour grapes—tries to shank Detective Irving, so Ghost becomes her human shield and takes a knife to the upper chest. Ghost sheds blood but isn’t killed, instead going on a killing spree that for Lisa strikes her against his character. His response to her? That she doesn’t know him very well after all.

Lenneth’s first night staying at Samantha’s place is spent dreaming a strange dream which has been dreampt by those who stay in that apartment building, giving us a clue as to how Serge may be coming upon his ideas. I’m not sure if I’m speculating here, or if I’m meant to come to that assumption.

Humphrey had instructed his daughter Lenneth to seek out Darius’ agency by a card that carries the agency logo and a code that she cracked using Darius’ name and a phone message. Begging the question, why would Humphrey expect such a scenario?

And that brings us up to speed. Fifty-six pages in, and I still don’t know who the Thirteenth Child is! Darius? Lenneth? The as-yet undisclosed force that Darius has hinted he is there to fight? Much of Sergio’s Webcomic List summary has been hinted at, yet we are still very much at the beginning (or middle, as the case may be) of a much larger and complex story.

I was fortunate to have been on the receiving end of Serge’s art early on in my time at Comic Genesis. He was my Secret Santa for the CG Webcomic Exchange Christmas 2009, and blew me away with his carefree, effortless art style. He is an auteur, one of the few out there with an immediately distinctive look that I can’t readily identify as belonging to a particular school or derivative of another artist. The coloring and bold line work remind me of the fun cartoon illustrations seen in Steve Jackson Games like Munchkin and Chez Geek, but there is a clear difference between cartoon illustration and comic illustration. And though there is plenty of fun and comedy to be had in Thirteenth Child, there is a plot being developed here that has a seriousness to it, a gravity. People are missing, there is violence and death, there is mystery and layering happening here that you don’t see in cartoons, and the art reflects that. While some might argue it could be a little more realistic to better match the tone, we all know our limitations, we all make decisions based on how fast we are or how comfortable we are with our subject matter, or it could be a purposeful choice to draw, ink and color at a particular level of complexity. (I recently picked up Ralph Bakshi’s and Frank Frazetta’s fantasy epic Fire and Ice and for all it’s violence and heavy themes it was executed with a simplicity akin to an original episode of Scooby-Doo, though the character designs were more in line with a He-Man or 70s Marvel Comics conceptual aesthetic. If you get a chance, check it out and take note of the 1,000 painted backgrounds and their varying levels of detail, or how Frazetta’s highly detailed art was simplified so that his characters could be drawn over and over and animated.)

So being familiar with Serge’s art and having seen some of his previous webcomic Gaming Nerds 2000, I had a pretty good idea that I would enjoy the look of Thirteenth Child, and I do, and I feel like it fits the range of tones in the story. The storyboarding is good, there is a nice flow. Again, there were a couple places where the transitions were confusing—perhaps intentional—but for the most part it has good pacing, variation and movement. Weaknesses? Sometimes actions are unclear. Take the last panel of this page for example: It may have been to obscure the violent nature of the action, and the context of the next page informs what likely happened, but I’m just not sure how this guy went down. Or the middle of this page: I think I know what’s going on, after a few reads—the baddie is faster now ’cause of a drug—but the art doesn’t quite illustrate that point.

Serge has been webcomicking for a solid decade, and likely drawing for several years more than that and it shows. He has improved light years from where he started and shows continued signs of getting better and better. I love the varying weight of his line art, popping colors and hand-lettered word balloons. It may seem a little loose and careless, even messy to some, but for me it’s also part of its charm. And since he has been crafting his art for the internets, it appears perfectly suited to LED-based viewing.

As for the writing, I’m astounded that Serge has a Masters in Library Science, yet it’s clear to me he needs an editor, an outside pair of eyes to clean up simple errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling (mostly the Cast Page, but there are a few moments in the comic as well), as well as reign in some of the plot threads and thematic elements. I don’t know how much of the story is laid out, but so far it’s pretty intent about holding back some details that I would think should be fairly innocuous: what kind of artist is Travis exactly? If he is Humphrey’s apprentice, then that makes Humphrey an artist as well, right? So what kind of artist is Humphrey? I understand in reading Sergio’s blog that Red City/Thirteenth Child developed out of several distinct stories and a desire to bring them into a unified universe, but does it then lack a central theme? Shouldn’t a unified universe have an overriding or underriding point of view? What is Thirteenth Child trying to say? Who is the main character? What is the primary plot? I have a feeling we’re just scratching the surface here.
Darius narrates on page one of TC that he has a trepidation of the soul, “A fear akin to ruining a pristine field of snow with my footsteps, and at the same time depriving myself of its transient beauty. My existence haunts me. Redemption is the elusive panacea we seek. No matter how hidden. No matter how doubtful we become of it even existing.” This should be the guiding mission statement of the story and there should be echoes of it in each of the other/smaller plot threads.

Sergio has a character in the comic that is basically himself, Serge, who on the Cast Page we are told “This guy isn’t very interesting,” and I think in fact Sergio is using Darius to work out some of his inner demons. Why the self-deprecation? At the bottom of the Cast Page Sergio writes on himself: “This is the guy who makes these comics. Sergio has been making comics for over a decade now, but only now has created anything worth reading. (Not this comic [that you’re about to or already have invested your precious time in, but], The Adventures of Action Hat).”

What? Why? It makes me think am I wasting my time reading this!

There are plenty of characters I am beginning to care about: Lisa, Lenneth, Ghost; or dislike: Samantha, Darius, little fucker in red with the knife, he dies so that’s okay; but there are too many characters I am confused about: Serge, Travis, Charon the boat girl, Humphrey, and their relevancy to the story. I know my personal greatest flaw is creating too many characters to tell my stories, and I have to wonder if there are a few extraneous parts here as well, vestigial limbs from previous incarnations of the story being told now.

The next few pages to come will be critical to informing my decision to keep reading with a sustained level of interest. I know the art is sweet enough to keep me coming back no matter what, but I also want to see the writing provide enough payoffs to make reading every page as satisfying or moreso. I like how a lot of threads have already come together, now I’d like to see a little more about each of the major characters. And if there is a villain or head no-gooder, we should probably see him or her or it pretty soon.

Note: I got a 403 Forbidden Error (and 404 accompanying error) whenever I moved through twenty or so comics and/or bounced around the archives for awhile. I would have to close down the comic and wait several minutes, then come back. Coding errors or just my own bad timing?

I feel like this review is not quite finished, so I’d like to reserve the right to add to it sooner or later. Thanks!

If you would like to learn more about Thirteenth Child-Welcome to Autaxia Heights, be sure to click the link below!

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