Salutations, readers, and welcome again to another Infernal Review. The year is nearly over. December is halfway done. Already I can hear the swan song of 2012. No, wait; “swan song” isn’t the right term. To the thesaurus!
The “nightingale melody” of 2012, the “swallow tune”, the “roc and roll ballad”,
… No wait, got it!
I also contemplated using “golden (goose) oldies”… which I guess I just did. These are the jokes people.
Anyways, The Phoenix Requiem, “a Victorian-inspired supernatural fantasy story about faith, love, death, and the things we believe in”, focuses on a small group of characters as they struggle to discover the nature of the changes that are affecting their lives. In a world much like our Victorian era, a man named Jonas Faulkner is found in the snow, near death. He is cared for by Anya Katsukova, the town’s resident nurse and doctor-in-training. Almost immediately, and against her better judgment, Anya finds herself becoming infatuated with her new charge. About the same time he is discovered, however, a horrifying new plague begins to ravage the countryside, throwing suspicion on Jonas and prompting Anya and her friends to question everything they think they know about their world.
When it comes to popular entertainment, I like to see things as being in one of two categories; “cotton candy” and “candy apple”. Cotton candy entertainment is the kind of stuff that lacks real substance, gets all over everything, and may even be more harm to you than good, yet you still dig into it because it sugary and you have a craving for it. You don’t want too much of it, but it’s fine in small amounts. The candy apple variety has more substance to it, though sometimes it’s hidden behind such a thick veneer of enticing commercial toppings that whatever value is still there is hard to locate. As the metaphor suggests, this type of entertainment is harder to get into, but once you’ve taken a bite, you’re essentially stuck.
… and then there’s the “deep-fried Twinkie” variety that’s complete garbage and you know it’s wrong, but it’s so intoxicating you just can’t help yourself.
The Phoenix Requiem is definitely more the candy apple type, at least for me. The story certainly has substance and the art looks well-composed, but readers might experience some difficulty getting into the story at first. First off, the dialogue is great. The characters all have their own vocabulary, or vocal tics, adding depth to them and their personalities. However, there is just so much dialogue at times that non-devoted readers might get intimidated or bored by the veritable swarm of speech bubbles and thought clouds. Comics are typically more visual than they are textual, so having a good chunk of your page taken up by words can sometimes weaken the experience. Still, if you have no problem with a healthy dose of dialogue, it’s well worth it. In regards to characters, I felt they veered too close to Mary Sue territory at times. None of the main characters has any real flaws. What faults the characters do have are designed to make us sympathize with them more, such as Anya’s tendency to overwork herself for the sake of others, Jonas’ hidden bouts of depression and insecurity about his relationship with Anya, and Robyn’s struggle to surpass his traumatic past as a soldier. The characters just seem too good, too composed, especially considering that their world is crashing down around them. More than once, two characters will get in an argument, just to mend things a page or two later. A serious dramatic moment can be suddenly interrupted anytime just so the cast can have a conversation about their relationships or beliefs; all this while their friends and loved ones fight for their lives. It just comes off a bit like a Harlequin romance to me.
The art is very impressive, smooth and clean, with a diverse color palette that never looks too gaudy, yet never too subdued. Once again, the art quality starts out pretty good and only improves with time. Like the candy coating of the metaphor used above, the main characters kinda look a little too good at times, like how Hollywood’s in the practice of casting only pretty people for their blockbusters. This is really just a personal complaint, but it can get a bit hard to see the characters as fully fleshed out when one of them looks like a Ken doll that was modeled after the tenth Doctor from Doctor Who. Aside from the uncanny valley elements, however, the art is, for the most part, excellent, with solid designs for people, places, and things alike.
As a character, Jonas is rather unusual; ebullient, flippant, and mysterious, it becomes apparent fairly early on that all manner of unexplainable phenomena follow in his wake. His attempts to skirt questions about his past only lead to more inquiries and suspicions being cast against him. As the plot progresses, Jonas’ shadowed past and his role in the changing world gradually make themselves known, casting a pall over his budding relationship with Anya. He can be a little annoying sometimes, especially when he’s acting childishly.
As a woman in a man’s profession, Anya constantly faces obstacles in her medical career, which is more than she could expect in the real Victorian era. Devoted to the people she knows, she works to ensure the wellbeing of others even at the cost of her own. For Anya, her job as a nurse comes before all else, even romantic pursuits. When she first meets Jonas, however, it seems that maybe she’s beginning to realize that her career is not the only important thing to her, a development she is not unhappy about, but is not quite willing to admit to herself. While the other villagers believe in beings known as Spirits, Anya doesn’t, ostensibly adhering to the religion of her parents instead. However, as more of the plot (and the existence of spirits) is revealed, Anya begins to struggle with her beliefs and what she knows. Smart, determined, and compassionate, Anya is the closest thing to a lead female in the series. On the other hand, her beauty, intelligence, martyr-like nature, and her relationship with the divinely mysterious Jonas are arguments towards her being a Mary Sue.
Petria Grey is Anya’s best friend in the village of Esk. Although she was abandoned when she was young, she doesn’t appear to have developed any overpowering issues. She’s more carefree compared to the dutiful Anya, though she is anything but idle, acting like a hellcat when provoked. Like Anya, she breaks the boundaries between men and women, in her case, by dressing in men’s clothing and actively learning how to defend herself through lessons with Robyn, who she sees as an older brother and protector.
Robyn Hart is troubled by his history as a soldier, even to the point that he worries he might be going insane. This concern is only aggravated by the fact that, at the beginning of the story, he’s beginning to see spirits and other things that apparently no one else can. He’s immediately mistrustful of Jonas when he first arrives. It’s hinted that this may be because he once harbored unrequited feelings for Anya, who quickly grows close to the new-comer. He looks after Petria, as the two have a connection and a history, though they claim they’re more like close friends or even siblings than romantic partners.
The Phoenix Reqiem features wonderful art, fantastic dialogue, and imaginative world design. The characterization isn’t perfect, but there is subtlety there and it isn’t insulting or pandering. Like I said, this is a candy apple entertainment; it has an exquisite, glimmering exterior surrounding a solid core, but it’s really still just candy. All in all, if it sounds like something you’d like, I say go for it.
The Phoenix Requiem was created by Sarah Ellerton. This webcomic, including all images used here, belongs to her. She has a deviantart account which can be found here. The comic has been collected into two books, which can be purchased online or from the creator should she have some with her and you manage to find her at conventions. The comic was labeled PG-13 for mild violence, suggestive content, and the inclusion of such drugs as opium.