Circuit Reader #5: A Mad Tea-Party

I have not read very much manga. My only experience with it is Tezuka’s Buddha, of which I read the first volume about a month ago. Nonetheless, I have a passing familiarity with its elements, having read plenty of Scott McCloud, and I can see its influence spreading throughout the comics scene. McCloud was possibly the first to adopt its tropes in his Zot! series of the eighties, but today there is probably not a single comics artist alive whose work is not at least indirectly influenced by manga. Amateur cartoonists are especially prone to creating work that would be indistinguishable from actual Japanese manga were they not drawn with complete ineptitude. This is not to say that it’s impossible to create good work in the manga tradition, though. Jonathon Dalton’s A Mad Tea Party is proof of that much.

Mad Tea-Party 1

Dalton’s description of his comic gives some insight into the amount of thought he’s put into it: “A Mad Tea-Party began as an attempt to write my own … Japanese sci-fi manga. Japanese sci-fi … seems imbued with a deep trauma left over from the Second World War. Rather than the triumph of science or ethical certainty found in the West, we find morally questionable wars, a loss of identity, and razed cities.” If Dalton’s intention was to create a world ravaged by war, he succeeded. The world of MTP is recovering from a lengthy skirmish with robots from outer space (never a good thing), in which armies of genetically-engineered super soldiers (“genies”) were deployed. The comic takes place well after the war, though, in an era when the genies have retired and the world is slowly trying to establish a new normalcy. Dalton sets the scene through numerous well-drawn establishing shots, all drawn in a meticulous ligne-claire style. Background information about the history of the war is relayed through an interpolated comic drawn in a more traditional manga style. It’s a nice gimmick, although I’m not sure how necessary it actually is. The world-building of MTP is strong and consistent, definitely a step up from many other SF webcomics I’ve read.

When your setting is a politically-unsettled world ravaged by intergalactic war, who will your characters be? Many possibilities come to mind: obsolete genie soldiers, government leaders, revolutionaries… the possibilities are endless. Dalton takes the unexpected path and chooses as protagonists a teenage girl and her kid sister. I had a professor once who said that the protagonist should always be the person who hurts the most; that is, the person who is most badly wounded by the world around them. Dalton’s characters fit this technique nicely. Matilda and Constance are the children of two genie soldiers. They have inherited some of the engineered traits of their parents, including the tell-tale red hair and (in Constance’s case) photographic memory. Unfortunately for them, the world has come to distrust the genies and wants rid of them. Our protagonists, being nominally genie but lacking any military background, are subject to the discrimination of “normal” people and targeted by fascist political groups. Constance’s total recall nonwithstanding, the girls consider themselves normal, and want nothing more than to be accepted as such.

It is understandable, then, that Matilda falls into the trap set for her by the fascist New Youth movement, a coalition of teenagers engaging in terrorist tactics in order to rid the world of the groups they view as undesirable (namely, extraterrestrials and genies). New Youth members are easily identifiable by their uniforms, which consist of all-black clothing and stupid hats. A member of the group begins dating Mathilda, but unbeknownst to her, this is all an elaborate scheme to kidnap her. The New Youth are but one of several political cults which we encounter throughout the comic. Another is the Maldivians, which appear similar to real-world hippies, with the exception of a violent stance on non-humans. Many of these groups would seem strange in a real-world context, but within Dalton’s mythos they are quite comfortable and plausible. It is a testament to his world-building ability that he can make me believe in these seemingly-contradictory groups.
Mad Tea-Party 2
The storytelling, unfortunately, seems a bit stiff in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. There’s nothing obviously wrong with it; the pacing seems just about right and the dialogue isn’t overly long, and yet the comic tends to feel a little draggy at times. My guess is that the problem lies in the story’s lack of direction. While I can understand the characters’ motivations and the overall intent of the story, I can’t quite say exactly where the story intends to go. Is MTP an epic with humble beginnings, or does it continue to be a relatively small-scale family story? I think part of the problem lies in the slow update schedule of a webcomic. A large paper-bound work like Jeff Smith’s Bone is able to increase its scope slowly because the reader is able to move through it fairly quickly, but with only five chapters of MTP available online, its arc is difficult to guess at. While Dalton’s world-building and characters are strong enough to keep me reading, it would be nice to have some idea of where the story is going.

Before I get off the subject of the story, I do want to note that I greatly enjoy the character of Roger Anyodrubax, the extraterrestrial New Yorker. He’s good fun, and the fact that he turns out to have a shady past just makes him that much better.

The art in MTP is overall quite nice. It’s all in black and white, shaded with what looks to me like a combination of marker and pencil, but I may be wrong. The linework is mostly uniform weight, which gives it an almost European feel. This is part of what’s neat about MTP: despite its heavy borrowing from manga, it ultimately reads as a fusion of multiple traditions. The shading does leave something to be desired, though. It looks a bit streaky in places and has a tendency to dull down to a uniform gray that hinders any perception of depth. Some atmospheric perspective and greater contrast would work wonders. Still, it’s a minor quibble, and I enjoy the art despite this. That said, must it be posted so darn small? Really, Mr. Dalton, you could start posting it in higher resolution any time. We won’t complain, honest.

Mad Tea-Party 3

At first I was somewhat distracted by the way that Dalton draws people, but I’ve gotten used to it over time (I’ve been following this comic for a while now). Still, they do seem to exist in a kind of Uncanny Valley of drawing, being fairly accurate in figure but having slightly peculiar faces. The characters’ expressions can also be a little stiff, as can their poses, but Dalton can often render subtle expressions as well. Overall I would call the character art good enough… it could use some improvement, but in all honesty there probably aren’t any artists who have mastered character drawing. Even Will Eisner can look kind of odd at times.

At this point I think I’ve probably established a reputation as the guy who always wants to talk about the typography, so here: there’s nothing wrong with the type in MTP. The font choice is a little unusual but I am grateful it’s not Anime Ace or one of these other overused fake handwriting fonts. I’m not a big fan of center-justified text, but if it must be used, Dalton’s approach is the way to do it: lines of very similar lengths fitting comfortably and neatly into their balloons. To those of you lettering on a machine, please look at what this man is doing. Follow his example. Delete Anime Ace from your computer. Now.

In summation, MTP is a very good comic. It has strong worldbuilding and characterization on top of attractive art, and Dalton combines different comics traditions like a master. It’s a smart comic by a smart guy. Do take a look at it.

Incidentally, this is the second comic I’ve looked at this year that uses Lewis Carroll as a framing device. How about that?

Posted on May 22nd, 2011. Filed under Circuit Reader, Comics. Tagged as: , , , , , ,

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