Freewheel is one of those extremely rare webcomics that inspires comparison to prominent creators of the print world. The artwork somewhat reminded me of Kim Deitch in its meticulous and sometimes disturbing detail. The writing is reminiscent of Hans Rickheit’s surreal underworld of The Squirrel Machine. Ultimately, though, these kinds of comparisons are a waste of time, as Liz Baillie’s webcomic stands beautifully on its own.
Freewheel is the story of Jaimie, who we see at the beginning riding in a boxcar, until her brother snaps her out of what seems to have been a daydream. We see that she has been working on drawing some sort of hideous knight-demon-monster-thing, which her brother describes as “beautiful.” How many pages into this comic are we again? That’s right, two pages, and we already have established the following bits of information:
- This comic will involve riding on freight trains
- The principal character is named Jamie and she has a brother named Jack.
- Jamie is a dreamer
- Jamie has a brother who she gets along well with
- Jamie has a taste for the macabre
Yes. This is how character construction should be. Crucial bits of information should be established as quickly as possible. The more we can see into a character’s personality, the more quickly we can be engaged in her story. I’ve lost track of how many comics I’ve seen where I still can’t keep track of the characters’ names and personalities by the hundredth page. Please, please follow Baillie’s example here. It doesn’t matter how exciting your opening is; if we don’t know your characters, we will not care. And look, Baillie still got to start with somebody riding on a freight train–you can have it both ways if you play it right.
So let’s jump a few more pages ahead. We find out that Jamie and Jack are in the care a of cruel foster parent. Then we’re back to the train and Jamie reveals that Jack is missing. Now I know what some of you are going to ask: John, why are you praising these rapid developments that you criticized so harshly in your reMIND review? Well, here is why: When establishing plot, time is of the essence. You do not want to force your readers to slog through dozens of pages before letting them in on what’s going to happen. And, in fact, the opening of reMIND works perfectly well in this regard. We learn the principal characters’ names and the plot hook (Victuals’s disappearance) right away, giving us reason to keep reading. However, there is a difference between rapidly establishing plot and rapidly resolving plot, and therein lies the difference between reMIND and Freewheel. The latter sets up all its major plot points right away, then returns to a more reasonable pace when actually pursuing them.
So, while we’re on the subject, the plot of Freewheel is as follows: Jamie and Jack’s parents disappeared from their lives under fairly mysterious circumstances, and thus they’ve been in foster care for some time prior to the beginning of the story. However, after Jack too disappears, Jamie embarks on a road trip to find him. At first she’s all alone, but she soon falls into the care of a secret hobo underworld filled with surreal twists and turns. Its backstory and realization is quite well-developed too, reminding me of Tom Siddel’s– aw, phooey. I promised myself this review would be my first not to refer to Gunnerkrigg Court.
Anyway, let’s say a few words about stories set in worlds filled with mysterious secrets. Earlier I drew a comparison to Hans Rickheit, because he works in a very similar vein. In his new webcomic Ectopiary (which I was planning to review this month, before El Santo beat me to it, the sly devil), a small girl goes to live in a fairly ordinary-looking (if somewhat creepy) old house. As most of the trappings are fairly realistic, some of the bizarre and downright gruesome things that happen later are much more powerful than they would be otherwise. By layering weirdness in between layers of normalcy, a story can lull us into a false sense of security, and those things that depart from reality appear in stark and disturbing contrast.
Freewheel uses this technique to great effect. At first the story seems realistic, and then whimsical. Its more twisted side doesn’t really appear until Jamie is sent into a mysterious cave. Despite numerous warnings about the cave’s dangers, seeing the wall suddenly attempt to absorb Jamie’s arm is still one of the most jarring moments of the comic. It’s that instant when your brain suddenly realizes that there is something really, really bad in this world, something deeply evil hiding beneath the more carefree skin. This twist is what really hooked me on this comic, and luckily it has plenty more in store. Jamie’s adventures begin to feel like a modern re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland, filled with bizarre creatures and wacky characters. But no matter how carefree the plot may feel at times, you always remember that The Darkness is lurking somewhere, and that is what keeps you clicking through the pages.
Before we move on to say a few words about the art, I must make an admission, dear readers. When I reached the newest page of this comic I was very irate. I may have even furiously clicked the dead Next link a few times in case it might magically work again. Sometimes reading webcomics feels like starting a book only to discover that half the pages are missing.
So, on to the artwork. As I said before, it’s very nice. Baillie’s drawings are not always perfect, but they’re attractive and certainly above average for webcomics. Baille mostly shades by hand, and she uses the effect well, her crosshatching both moving with the form and creating beautiful textures on the surface of the picture plane. The one gripe I have is that the webcomic is at too low a resolution (500px wide) to do justice to the linework. I may have to buy the printed editions just so I can see it properly…so perhaps this is actually a very shrewd marketing decision on the part of Ms. Baillie. Well played.
I mentioned earlier that Freewheel plays with formal elements. Baillie doesn’t confine herself to a strict system of panels and dialogue like many cartoonists (such as myself, unfortunately) tend to do. She frequently has pages which are nearly diagrammatic (above), or in the form of elaborate montages. Even when she uses more traditional panel layouts she’s not afraid to break them up with unusual shapes or sizes. There aren’t enough webcomics artists who are comfortable treating each page as an art object in and of itself.
Now a word about the typography. Baillie is obviously hand-lettering all these pages, and as you’ve probably guessed, that makes me very happy. I’ve seen a lot of computer lettering, and while some of it is adequate, I’ve seen very little (if any) of it that I would describe as great. We don’t see hand-drawn type very often any more, and comics, as a largely hand-drawn medium, are an ideal place for it. Sure, computer lettering is much easier, but at what cost? Would this page have the same power if it was lettered digitally?
In summation, Freewheel is really good. It’s not perfect, but its problems are negligible. The story has plenty of mystery and intrigue. The characters are fun and unique. The art is elegant and the page layouts are refreshingly original. My main complaint pertains to that Next button, which preferably should go all the way to a page that says THE END in nice hand-drawn letters.
Overall impression: Positive
(I am discontinuing the number-based rating system. I found it difficult to evaluate things that way and I have a strong suspicion that I would have ended up rating everything as above average.)