A bat outta Hell harassed me all night, so y'all are stuck with this review from 2007.
Review of Sharper
is a story about a fictional River Stone City where ruthless mobsters and lawlessness rule the streets. Conceptually, it's a pretty standard gangster story set-up, although the author delivers it with particular skill and refinement. The story centers around Pendegast Scrimm, an "average" and "expendable" mobster with big ambitions who's mixed up in the city's affairs. Right away from the beginning when Scrimm is shown weilding a serpent-headed cane (a symbol of the Devil) he's presented as a repulsive character, and throughout the story he sometimes acknowledges his role as "the bad guy" which he seems fairly comfortable with. Still, he has a loveable loser persona about him and goes about his affairs in a fun and often humorous way, especially in tandem with his friend and bodyguard Simon. I found Simon to be a very likeable and funny character, as his cool and cautious demeanor pits him as the straight man against Scrimm's recklessness, but Simon also has a psychotic sadism and a mysterious past that makes him interesting and also quite dangerous. A lot of the humor in the comic involves Scrimm discouraging Simon from committing some unnecessary act of violence. It's also amusing in that, while Scrimm is presented as this sort of devilish villain, he often acts as Simon's moral superior. All in all, I think they make a great pair and compliment each other's attributes, and the author's skill is demonstrated here with his ability to deal with two well-rounded characters interacting frequently (in contrast, the norm tends to be an eccentric character paired with a flat character.) In regards to the title of the comic, I interpret it to be a reflection of how the protagonist Scrimm sees River Stone
City as being dull, worn-down, soft, and that he's going to prevail because he's harder, rougher, and sharper
The atmosphere of the city adds a lot of tension to the story, as there's always this pretense that the smallest screw-up can lead to death and it's always ambiguous who's a friend or foe. The author does this particularly well with the mob boss Finch, whose "invitations" are quite ominous, especially with his sadomasochistic Australian henchman The Mod being the deadliest guy around. In addition, Scrimm is regarded as such an unimportant guy that it'd be a minor act for someone to get rid of him, and he'd almost certainly be dead if his bodyguard Simon wasn't so good at his job. But, there's never really much feeling of ease, and almost all confrontations in the story could easily become violent, so the author does a good job of constantly keeping the story tense even when there's not anything particularly noteworthy going on.
The supporting characters are well-developed and effectively written. Scrimm's girlfriend, Emily, is a prostitute, and it's sardonically fitting that a whore is the only one that could be attracted to a character as lowly and villainous as Scrimm, and visa versa, and they do seem to relate to and understand each other pretty well. She's even more ruthless than he is at times, as shown when she's ready to do torture
that Scrimm is timid about. "Ruby Tuesday" and Agatha round out Scrimm's colorful network of helpers (Ruby's nerdy lack of social skills is portrayed amusingly) and the corrupt and incompetent policemen duo add some flair as well. Sharper
can also be quite funny at times
. It isn't a comedic comic, but the jokes and playful attitude help keep the story fun and amusing and prevent it from getting too serious or pretentious.
The main theme of the stories in the comic so far tend to be of a big and powerful foreign organization getting involved in River Stone City's affairs, and Scrimm being called upon to remedy the situation. He stumbles a lot along the way, and his plans don't turn out quite like he hoped, but in the end he's successful and gains something from the affair. Scrimm's amusing in this way, as even though bad things happen to him often, I get a sense that the internal logic of the comic dictates that he always succeeds in the end, so the comic never really gets too serious. It's sort of like if Batman's tied up and dangling over a pit of acid -- you know that, due to the internal logic of Batman's world, Batman will somehow escape and save the day, because, well, he's Batman, and that's what Batman does. So, it's more of a game of wondering how Scrimm will get out of the mess than wondering if he'll get killed or not. I expect that the author has some surprises in store for the future, however.
A consistent motif in Sharper
is a lack of emotion and attachment in the characters. Nobody in the comic ever expresses any significant amount of emotion and they all try hard not to care about anyone besides themselves, as in Stone River City emotion equals weakness. There's a moment of guilt and regret in Scrimm's dream sequence, but it doesn't manifest in reality. It's sort of a hypocritical system at work in the comic, as everyone seems aware of how awful the city is and how evil they are, but everyone seems too concerned about gaining power to do anything and ends up only making things worse. It's a primitive system of natural selection -- the strong survive and get on top, and the weak get killed or taken advantage of. Of course, anyone could always leave the city, but everyone's pretty confident that they have what it takes to be #1 and I think also that the characters prefer this ruthless, violent, and lawless society to a "normal" existance. Anyways, this emotional deficiency is pretty notable and startling, and there's never anger, or sadness, or fear, and even when such things seem appropriate the characters are careful not to show or express it. Even the antagonists don't show emotion; for example, Halim Said is just dutifully carrying out his promise of vengeance but he's never openly angry or bitter. Throughout the entire comic, no one ever displays any emotion besides sort of a confident grin, and in place of emotion is only masochism and sadism. While homogenous, I think this attitude is handled well and gives the comic personality and uniqueness. However, the big problem with it is that it's a huge detriment to the comic visually, which is where I'll get to the irredeemably bad part of the comic, the art.
Sharper is a superb example of strong pacing, characterization, and story construction, but due to problems with the artwork it can never be a good comic. First of all, the characters are much like computer-generated Barbie dolls: stiff, blank stare, emotionless, empty. There's barely any deviation in any of the characters from this sort of generic default configuration, and, as such, everyone in the comic always has a calm, confident, empty grin. The faces are usually quite accurate because the characters don't express emotions anyways, but times like the last panel here
are well off. In this particular instance, Scrimm communicates through his dialogue that he is quite shocked and repulsed
, but this is not shown whatsoever on his face in the previous page.
The main problem with the generic faces, though, is that a comic needs to use both the writing and art in its storytelling to be effective, and Sharper highly disregards its art. In most pages, there just isn't any visual information outside of dialogue source and basic plot progression. I noted some particular examples here
, and here
. This is sometimes referred to as "talking heads", where the comic's artwork does nothing besides showing a head to point a speech bubble at, and this is a common problem in "writing-based" comics such as this one. However, the writing in Sharper is far above the norm, so it's pretty disappointing that the comic is so plagued by this aspect. I suspect that, for the majority of the pages, you could remove all the artwork and just write the characters' names in their places and the page would work the same. However, this leads to my next complaint: empty backgrounds.
The backgrounds and settings are blatantly devoid and unrealistic, regardless of location. Whether it's indoors, outdoors, on the streets, or in a restaurant, there are never any miscellaneous people around and there are never enough objects or detail to make the scene look believable. In the earlier pages, the textures are quite simple
, and while they get somewhat better as the comic progresses, the comic relies more and more on empty black backgrounds
. Sometimes the darkness is used to good effect
, or in the Said death sequence
, but in most cases I feel like it's more just laziness than anything. For the death pages, the blackness conveys an exaggerated sense of isolation and a surrealistic experience -- most black panels strewn throughout the comic have no such context. It's essential to realize that, since the Barbie doll characters are so stiff and unexpressive that the backgrounds and environment design are much more important than in a regular comic where the characters are more vivid and dynamic. A big problem I noticed is the lack of people, objects, or even dirtiness in social environments. Look at these examples
. I noticed that whenever a character is in the streets or is driving, there are never other people or cars out there, and there's no context for this emptiness. The most plausible explanation is that it'd take too much effort to create background people and cars so they're left out. This not only hurts the immersion of the story (restricting it due to artist's limitations) but also betrays the atmosphere of the environment. This is supposed to be a dirty, run-down, lawless mob city, yet there's no litter or dirtiness. Again, I don't think this is in context with the plot, but rather that the author decided it isn't worth the effort to add these background elements, and to that I disagree. While the author has created interesting characters and tense plotlines and pacing, the emptiness pervading the comic takes away from it and makes the characters seem less like people that are part of a fictional world and more like just computer-generated pictures with speech bubbles pointing to them. It's simply an issue of believability, that these characters exist somewhere, and that even if they don't really exist their feelings and goals do, as these things can manifest in abstract. Consider the restaurant
scenes. Not only is there not any food, drinks, cutlery, etc, anything to make it seem like a restaurant, but there are no waiters or other patrons or anything. Do these things matter to the plot or have valuable interactions with the characters? No, but it helps foster a setting, an environment, a world for the characters to live in. It's the same with any visual medium. If there's a restaurant scene in a film, the director didn't hire actors and actresses and dress them up nice and arrange all the nice scenery because it's cheap or easy to do so, and even in a traditional comic it isn't easy to draw. But, like I mentioned above, what else is there to look at? The characters are emotionless and are identical to the other 200 times they've appeared in the comic, so if the visual interest isn't in the characters then you have to place it on the environment and the arrangement and composition of characters and clothing.
Another major concern in the comic is the concept of Show vs Tell. Sharper
has a very bad habit of explaining what the characters are doing or looking at instead of showing it. This is another failure to use the visual nature of the medium and present the artwork as a contributing presence to the story. Notable examples:1
, saying what the bodies look like instead of showing it2
, Emily mentions she was at a "popular shopping district", yet it was completely empty when she was there3
, a dramatic scene is described, none of it is shown. Girl dying in his arms would've been a great visual.4
, describing Said's emotions instead of showing his face5
, Scrimm says the place is a dump but all we see is its lousy lettering. It's something, but inadequate.6
, Scrimm saying he's been thrown out and "SLAM" isn't visually adequate. It's an action! It's interesting! It should be shown!
Not only are the characters stiff and unemotional, but the technology of the artwork looks quite dated. I realize that the author is only an amateur, but it reminds me of the computer graphics from the early-to-mid 90's so it's a bit lacking in the visual flair. While I'm not expecting anything on the level of the Dreamland Chronicles
, something more basic, like Corridor Z
, can have an aesthetic appeal to it with some effort. One problem with the art in Sharper
is that the way the clothes look on the bodies consistently seems off. This problem is shown well here
, as it seems most noticable regarding breasts and genitals. Someone with more knowledge in computer art could probably elaborate on the specifics. The action sequences are also rather stiff, clumsy, and generally not that appealing, like here
, for example. Also, there's some noticable copy-pasting going on in the bookshelf here
, and here
, although I'd be a lot more forgiving about this if there was more visual information in the comic. Since the characters always look the same, the background becomes more visually interesting. I also felt that other digital techniques in the comic, such as aging
, are done poorly.
The author is clearly competent in writing thoughtful and amusing dialogue and coming up with interesting and well-paced plots, but he has a lot to learn about writing for the comic medium and how to use visual information. I feel like he isn't putting as much time or effort into the comic as is required to make it appealing, and it's quite disappointing since I feel Sharper
could've been an excellent comic had the artwork been done and used better. I wouldn't have been so harsh about the artwork if the writing wasn't so much better by comparison, and I believe that the author is a talented individual who could really make something noteworthy if he applies himself more. Some comics can get by with bad artwork, and Sharper
isn't one of them. So, the author should either get some training in digital arts, or cut back on updates, or get someone else to draw the comic, but he shouldn't let his abilities go to waste by working on a project without giving it his full effort.