Empires of Steam

URL: empiresofsteam.comicgenesis.com
Creator/s: Chris Downey
Run: 9/08-current
Schedule: About once a month
Section/s: 4/11-4/12

Website: The creator seems to only have a bare minimum of HTML skills, and while I don't expect every webcartoonist to be a coding guru, I think someone should be at least fairly familiar with HTML if they're gonna maintain a website. Here are a few pointers:

- The "contact" button gives a "This file does not exist" error. An easy temporary solution would be to change the link to something like < a href="mailto:youraddress@gmail.com >.

- All the linked images have unattractive blue borders around them. This can be turned off by adding border=0 to the < img > tags.

- The site's main table is 1460 pixels wide, which is more than a lot of people's desktop resolutions. I don't see any reason for it to be that large.

- The "by Chris Downey" header on the "archive" page is left-aligned, while everything else on the page is centered.

- Almost all of the text and links use the default font and color settings. The creator can easily customize the colors by adding text=, link=, alink=, and vlink= properties to the < body > tag, and the font can be changed by adding body {font-family:arial} inside the < style > tags (or whatever font you wanna use).

It's disappointing that the site's only supplemental page besides the FAQ page, the "extras" section, still just says "Coming soon!" even though the creator started the webcomic more than three years ago. I think the site's color scheme could use some work, too, although the custom navigation buttons look pretty cool.

Lastly, the update schedule definitely could use some improvement, although based on the comments on the site, the creator's obviously very aware of this problem.

Writing: Empires of Steam has an intriguing plot about a mysterious robot discovered by a scientist, and the creator's notably capable at conveying the tension and excitement of the scene. My favorite part's probably this page, where the robot slowly awakens in the foreground while the protagonists are distracted in the background. The robot itself is portrayed in fairly creative way, with its insides vaguely resembling the interior of a modern electronic device, and its tactful reaction to the assistant's facial expression suggests a more sophisticated level of intelligence than I expected. The difference between the protagonists is also interesting, with the scientist's deliberate nature clashing with the assistant's impulsiveness, as we see when she mischeviously extracts a device from the robot while he's lost in thought.

Art: The creator has a similar problem to what I described in my reviews of Without Moonlight and Villain, in that the art constantly jumps around between various levels of realism. Sometimes Empires of Steam is more mixed-up than those comics, though, like in the bottom panel here, where the face is notably cartoony compared to the rest of the drawing. I gave the creator the benefit of the doubt at first that it was a deliberate stylistic move, but the more I read, the more it seemed to me like the creator just doesn't really have a clear idea of how he wants the comic to look. For instance, the characters' eyes frequently alternate between cartoony circles and realistic ovals, the creator puts a significant amount of effort into shading facial features in some pages, and sometimes the characters are drawn notably more realistically than in other parts of the comic.

While this clumsiness has a harmful effect on the comic's quality, I don't see it as being entirely negative. The creator comments on Dec. 19, 2011, "That was a rough semester. Basically, I was taking an illustration class where I decided to push myself, a drawing class where I had no choice but to be pushed, and the worst art history class I've ever taken. On the plus side, I came out of it all as a better artist." These 20 pages seem to be an exhibit of awkward "growing pains," where the creator's quickly improving but isn't yet comfortable or confident with his developing abilities. In the short term the results are kinda offputting, but I think it's generally much preferable to the work of an creator who gets stuck doing the same unattractive style for a number of years.

That said, I think one reason the creator's having a hard time with faces is that he's relying too much on the coloring to make them look right. If you take a look at professional penciling and inking, you'll see that the facial features are generally more defined than this creator does it, with aspects like cheekbones, jawlines, eye lines, brows, and nose and chin lines being factored in before the page even gets to the coloring stage.

The other downside of the art's that there's not enough going on in the backgrounds. I see that there's a cabinet, a box, and a table in the laboratory, but the backgrounds are too minimal for me to see the scenes as much more than the characters talking to each other in an empty room. And in the opening scene with Lonestar, they actually are in an empty room. It's the creator's creative decision for the story's setting to be in confined spaces, and that creative decision should be accompanied by an approach for making these settings more visually interesting.

Overall: Even though the creator's still in the middle of a learning phase, this webcomic manages to be a fairly enjoyable read, and it presents some reasonably original characters and concepts. The lackadaisical update schedule's gonna continue to be a major problem, but I think Empires of Steam could be a pretty good webcomic if the creator can make a more significant commitment to the project.



  1. Thanks for the review! You made some excellent points, particularly about the level of detail in the backgrounds, which is something I recognize as a weakness of mine. The same with the constant changes in the look of the artwork; I need to be more consistent.

    I'll try harder.

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