Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Saint's Way: A Superhero Mystery Thriller

"Saint’s Way, a webcomic in the style of a graphic novel, is about family, superheroes, magic and SCIENCE! Set on an Earth not quite unlike our own save for a few special individuals, the adventure begins with the escape of Vivian, a very angry, very strong little girl who sets her sights on New York – a recently evacuated city due to the threat of alien invasion."
I don't remember exactly how I stumbled upon Yasmin Liang's webcomic Saint's Way, but I was hooked from the first few pages. Saint's Way is an engrossing superhero mystery thriller that involves the escape of a young superpowered girl named Vivian Saint from the Saint Organization, a military standoff between Earth and aliens, and the superheroes of United Heroes who react to this odd superhuman girl and the mystery of her parentage.

I read every page of the weekly webcomic, from April 2011 to July 2012, in one sitting, and it was fascinating to witness Liang's already great art evolve over the course of 55 pages and more than a year's time. You can really see her sequential storytelling skills building exponentially as she gets further into writing and illustrating Saint's Way. Her panel layouts become more experimental, playing with the shapes and arrangement of panels, and she uses interesting color and design choices to amplify the impact of the narrative. Her writing in Saint's Way is also very effective at ensnaring you into the mysteries of the story...Saint's Way is structured in a way that pulls you into a strange story puzzle of clandestine organizations and superheroes, it's a superhero mystery thriller that leaves you on the edge of your seat for the next week's page.

Saint's Way begins with the surprising image of Vivian Saint, a young superpowered girl, tearing a driver out of his truck. Vivian is in the middle of an empty desert with rising smoke on the horizon, suggesting some sort of violent escape, and the truck stops to help this apparently lost girl. Of course, not everything is as it seems on multiple levels, and Vivian just rips this guy out of the truck and drives off in the vehicle. Liang's full page illustration here conveys the violence and speed of this moment very well; the way that the driver's hat pops off, the crumpling of the metal car door, the look on the driver's face and the painful angle of his arm, and especially the subtle blurring of the door all suggest motion in such a convincing and dynamic way.  

The story then cuts from this scene to Solomon Wynn, a bounty hunter who is making himself a sandwich while watching a news broadcast that gives us some exposition on the alien invasion of New York City. Wynn's enjoyment of his sandwich is rudely interrupted by someone at his door, "Phyllis", a slightly purple skinned representative of the Saint Organization. Phyllis wants Wynn to find and retrieve Vivian, and we learn in this scene that Wynn is an empath capable of sensing other people's emotional states. Liang also develops the mystery the extra step necessary to reel you into the story even more...Phyllis went to Wynn because of his penchant for bringing back his targets alive "even when it doesn't matter", and this time, the implication seems to be that it definitely does matter.

Meanwhile, Vivian has made her way to the mostly evacuated New York City. Not much happens in the way of story in this page, but I felt compelled to say something about it for a few reasons.  The first panel is a beautiful establishing shot of NYC. Liang uses a fish eye lens effect here that warps and distorts the wide panel, and it really gives you a sense that you're on the street with Vivian. More than that, there's an amazing amount of detail in this panel. Beyond the first panel, Liang really lets the story breath here in the rest of the page. She conveys the feeling of an empty, evacuated NYC, and her use of negative space in the fourth panel and the close up on the pigeon feather in the fifth is just beautiful, simple sequential storytelling.  

Vivian is surprised by a superhero dramatically crashing into the pavement in front of her, and we meet Citizen III. One of the most stunning elements of Saint's Way is Liang's design sense. Citizen's III's superhero outfit is beautifully designed. It's simple and somewhat minimalist, and the incorporation of a golden Civic Crown gives the outfit a bit of an ancient and classical look. The three golden stripes also represent the "III" in Citizen III, and of course, her father Citizen I and brother Citizen II each have the corresponding amount of stripes on their respective costumes.

Besides just having a really cool look, Citizen III is a relatable character with an interesting back story. Her dad is Citizen I, and he comes across as an overbearing, helicopter parent superhero, and her brother is Citizen II who is the beloved, overachiever child. Citizen III is grounded by her father for impulsively attacking the alien invaders, who are seemingly just parked above NYC, and she's desperately trying to live up to the expectations of her superhero father. It's a family dynamic that resonates on an emotional level, and makes these characters interesting.    

The debut of Citizen III on that page marks the beginning of Liang's experimentation with panel shape and lay out. You can see in the above page that as the series progresses, Liang begins to arrange her panels in new and strange ways that play with the medium. 

I should mention here that Saint's Way is 55 pages long, and I think it would do a disservice to the comic to painstakingly detail the plot in this review. My plot summary can only dilute the mystery and intrigue of the story, so you should probably just read it yourself. Instead, I'm going to focus on a few key pages that illustrate the awesomeness of Saint's Way.

Here, we see Citizen III in action, and again, Liang uses a subtle blurring effect on her first to communicate a sense of motion. I really like this effect and the way that Liang uses it to emphasize the speed and force of the attack. It gives the image an almost animated look, as if this is a still image from a cartoon rather than a panel in a comic book.

This page is really striking. Liang transitions from Citizen III flying through the city to Vivian talking in an apartment in an amazing way, using negative space and color to bleed from one panel to the other. Again, Liang's design sense is what makes this page so good...the neon blue, negative space bridge and city horizon combined with the purple night sky, and the way that it seamlessly stretches into the below panel is a really cool experimentation with the medium of sequential storytelling.  

You can see here how Liang's design sense enhances the narrative in a really interesting way. Citizen III is shot in the back, and Liang illustrates this with variations in shape and color in a way that can only be achieved in comics. The red, lightning bolt of pain that illuminates Citizen III's back in normal colors, and the faded yellow and black outline of the rest of the image is a stellar use of color palette and shape to convey the shock of this moment.

The appeal of Saint's Way lies in Yasmin Liang's abilities, both as a writer and an artist, to draw you into the puzzle of the story. Her pacing over 55 pages manages to keep you interested in the unraveling of the mystery by slowly revealing answers that only create even more intriguing questions. Over the course of more than a year, you can watch as her experiments with panel lay outs, colors, shapes, and design evolve into something pretty remarkable. Saint's Way is a compelling superhero mystery thriller, and you should check it out.

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