There is a type of story which recurs again and again. In it, someone is suddenly transported to another world, one which she had believed to be fictional. This is in some ways an offshoot of the fantasy-transposition story (that is, one in which people from the “real” world end up in a different world), but it also implies an interesting truth about writers. Writers create worlds through their work, but not even Tolkien-scale efforts can make these worlds actually exist, no matter how much their creators may want them to. I think stories like Namesake grow out of this frustration.
Namesake began in 2010, produced as a joint effort by Isabelle Melançon and Megan Lavey. The about page does not make it clear who does what on the production team. According to the authors’ description, Namesake is about Emma Crewe, a girl who discovers she has the power to visit supposedly-fictional worlds, becoming the protagonist, or Namesake, of the stories as she travels.
The comic starts off on a strong note with a fabulous title page featuring a lovely reinterpretation of the Cheshire Cat, among other things. This is immediately followed with a terrific opening line and some nicely understated art which establish a suspenseful mood right away.
As the story moves forward, astute readers will recognize that we are looking at Charles Dodgson, better known to the world as Lewis Carroll. He is worried because Alice Liddell, the real-life star of Alice in Wonderland, has been sent to another world and has not yet returned. This is all very intriguing, but somewhat overshadowed by the questionable nature of their real-life relationship. Lewis Carroll is often suspected to have been somewhat of a pedophile, and his close relationship to Alice Liddell has particularly troubling connotations, as he is even suspected to have wanted to marry her when she was only 11. Carroll spent a lot of time with young children, and frequently photographed them. This included many photographs of nude children, some in provocative poses (NSFW). This doesn’t seem to be where M & L are going with this, but since this connotation exists, it can add a somewhat disturbing undertone to the opening sequence, especially when Mr. Dodgson speaks of his “close bond” to the young Liddell.
That being said, there is a distinct advantage to the use of Lewis Carroll here, one which I think is closer to what M & L are intending to play. Carroll’s journals have seen extensive censorship prior to reaching the hands of historians, leaving the record of his life somewhat spotty. What was in the eliminated journal entries is a matter of speculation. Some believe it to be the aforementioned marriage proposal to Alice. Others think it may have something to do with Carroll having an affair with the Liddells’ maid (Mr. Dodgson was apparently irrepressible). M & L are, I think, playing off these missing entries to imply that they contained “research” related to the premise of Namesake.
Following the introduction, we get introduced to our true protagonist, Emma Crewe. The comic does not specify, but I’d guess she’s supposed to be around 16 or so. There’s an implication that she’s somewhat of an introvert, but overall we don’t get much of a taste of her personality.
Emma goes to the library to pick up her little sister, and while there she meets a mysterious librarian who likes classical music. Here I must make a brief digression to observe that classical music barely exists in webcomics; I think this may be the first time I’ve ever seen it mentioned at all. That being so, I was intrigued by the mention and hoped it would develop further. The librarian mentions that she especially likes Chopin’s Prelude #14, which is a very, very short piece, approximately 30 seconds long. It dances up and down the keyboard in a disconcerting sort of way, and is tellingly nicknamed “Fear.” Symbolic? Well, maybe.
My high hopes for the librarian character are unfortunately dashed a few pages later when she is murdered by a creepy-looking teenager who steals her shoes, revealing that the librarian is not actually human. This is where the comic begins to take the Gunnerkrigg Court approach, showing only tiny glimpses into a mysterious world. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work very well here; there are simply too many little tidbits being thrown around in close succession so instead of the intended air of mystery, things just get kind of muddled.
After the chaos subsides, Emma finds herself in Oz, specifically in Munchkinland. Her reactions to the situation struck me as sort of odd, given that she never seems to assume that it’s all some sort of elaborate hoax, as I think most people would.
While she’s busy saving the day for the first time in Oz, we get some more of the mystery angle as a dashing long-haired fellow named Jack argues with his boss over the phone, revealing to us that there’s some sort of bureau which controls these things somehow. It’s kind of a strange moment, one which makes it seem as if these transpositions between worlds are organized by some sort of corporation. I’m not really sure what to make of it.
Meanwhile, back in Oz, Emma defeats the Wicked Witch of the East using her cell phone. I am at a loss to explain why this happens. Then she faints and dreams of a very creepy ghost. It’s a good, subtle moment, but unfortunately is over very quickly, and much of its effect is lost by the relative silliness of the rest of the plot. This is a problem I see throughout Namesake: it has a lot of nice moments, but they tend to get lost in a sea of things which are absurd, unexpected, and/or nonsensical.
After the defeat of the witch, Emma learns that she’s now considered a “Dorothy,” the word that people from Oz use to refer to girls from another world who come to rid them of evil. In the next chapter, we find out more about this through a long section of exposition in which we learn way more than we needed to know about Oz and the Dorothies it has had over the years. These kinds of long-winded lectures are really hazardous to attempt because they appear to have no relevance to the story’s more-immediate problems, and can therefore be difficult for the reader to follow. This section could stand to be condensed, if not cut completely.
Overall I would describe the writing of Namesake as “scatterbrained.” It tends to throw too many things around at once, often putting things together which have so little to do with each other that they cancel each other out.
The dialogue is also somewhat stilted at times, characters throwing massive balloons of text up onto the screen and saying things that sound truly unnatural.
The art, however, is quite nice. The linework is smooth and sophisticated, clearly and effortlessly defining the shapes of the characters and their surroundings. The characters too are drawn quite beautifully, with distinctive designs, accurate figure drawing, and some wonderfully subtle expressions.
Unfortunately, however, the drawings are too often undone by the coloring. Now some of you are probably aware of my stance on color (I’m a staunch advocate of black-and-white), but for once I am not advocating an elimination of color. In this case I’m mainly calling for one thing: consistency. Namesake only uses color when time permits it. This means that the comic is sometimes in color, but not always. It fluctuates in and out of color constantly, without any regard to what the story is doing at the moment. This prevents the color from having any kind of significance at all, which makes its occasional use as a narrative device fall flat. How do we know if a colored page is significant when most of the time their timing is completely arbitrary?
The coloring itself could use some work too. In many cases it is very subtle, using subdued tones and a relatively limited palette, but most of the time it looks kind of gaudy, as if it was colored with markers. To the colorist of this comic I have two suggestions: desaturate and use a limited palette. It will take some practice, but it will pay off. If you could just color more pages like this one, you’d already be on the right track.
Now, because I am nothing if not thorough, I am obliged to say a few words about typography. The word balloons in Namesake are very strange, often too large for the words they contain, suggesting that they were drawn before they were lettered. Words are crushed into the panels in any way that they’ll fit, which means a lot of typographical orphans and occasional size variations. A lot of text is also center-aligned, which is not ideal because it leads to jagged edges on both sides of the text block. I highly recommend buying an Ames Lettering Guide and learning to use it. They cost about $2. Handwritten typography is a chore, yes, but the results are worth it.
Overall, Namesake shows promise. Few of the characters are developed to any degree yet, but I think they all have the potential to improve. There is a nice foundation of mystery to build upon, and I do get the sense that M & L have a sophisticated plan and backstory from which they’re working. With some consistency in the colors and with better-polished writing (and that will come naturally in time), Namesake has the potential to become something quite interesting and unique.
Final rating: 6 out of 10. Above-average webcomic held up by very nice drawings.