Witch's Quarry

URL: witchsquarry.smackjeeves.com
Creator/s: Jennifer Lee Quick
Run: 3/12-current
Schedule: Every day
Section/s: "Rogue X Knight"

Website: It's certainly better than most Smack Jeeves comics, as it has an attractive banner, a custom background design, and a variety of story information and bonus content.

The most interesting part of the site's how the creator goes an extra step to involve her readers. Readers picked "Rogue X Knight" from a list of possible stories the creator could work on, and the creator's currently running a contest for readers to submit original characters to be included in the comic at some point. The creator also manages to respond to nearly every one of the readers' comments.

Lastly, the creator's posted at least one page a day since the comic started, which is a very impressive rate that probably only a handful of webcartoonists out there could keep up with.

Writing: The About page depicts the comic as a typical fantasy story, and I was caught off-guard by how heavily it focuses on gay romance. The "X" in the chapter's title suggests it's a love story, so I wasn't completely surprised, but the comic's much more intense and sexual than the overtly boy-love-oriented comics I've reviewed. I'm not part of Witch's Quarry's target audience, so my critique might not be entirely relevant, but hopefully I can at least present the perspective of someone who's not normally interested in boy-love stories.

The creator's better-known for her boy-love print comic Off*Beat, which was first published by Tokyopop in 2005. The experience she gained working on her previous project seems to have paid off in her new one, as she demonstrates an unusual amount of maturity and patience in the way she develops her protagonists' relationship. "Rogue X Knight" was turned into a two-parter, and the added length really helps the reader get a good feel for the characters' personalities and why they're attracted to each other. Going from being complete strangers to one giving the other a B.J.'s a big transition that requires a proper build-up, and I'm glad the creator didn't rush to get to that point. The several intimate scenes (1, 2, 3) leading up it make the drunken scene more palatable, as otherwise, the alcohol could be perceived as an excuse for the creator to jump to a certain resolution. The chapter also ends on an open-ended note regarding Deshad's sexuality: Is he a straight man betrayed by his drunkenness, or did the alcohol loosen him up to the extent that he could accept his gayness?

The protagonists follow the standard boy-love model of having an older, more masculine boy (the seme) chase after a younger, gentler boy (the uke). (The characters' ages aren't stated in the comic, but in one of the creator's comments, she notes that Deshad is several years younger than Wes.) Their affection for each other seems at least partly rooted in that they both have an intense desire for a different life: Deshad craves liberation from the societal expectations and pressures of being a knight, and Wes seeks comfort, stability, and a place he can call "home." I think their relationship's the most interesting when Deshad's fiancé, Celeen, is involved. When Wes interrogates her, it seems partly out of an obligation to make sure she's suitable for his friend, but it also seems partly fueled by a sense of spiteful jealousy. Wes then threatens to rape her, giving us an up-close-and-personal view of his dark, aggressive, and dangerous side, and this is the first time I got the impression that the boys' romance wasn't just a playful affair, but was rather something that could end up being very destructive for everyone involved. The awkward scene later on where Wes deconstructs the sexual advances Deshad's made on Celeen is also one of the chapter's highlights, and again, it relies on a strange combination of camaraderie and bitterness.

There's a bizarre twist in that the lovers look almost completely identical, presenting shades of incest that have confused some of the comic's readers. While the readership's unanimous that the lovers' scenes are appealing and sexy, readers "K" and "dukgrrl" suggest the relationship could qualify as masturbation, and others have pointed out how "weird" ("xcares") or "creepy" ("Almightyra") Wes' sexual advances are, with reader "strix" even bringing up the term "twincest." Reader "spas" summarizes the dissonance, explaining, "Awesome -- I love it! It would be creepy if it turned out they were twins separated at birth -- but otherwise, yes!" The creator dismisses that comment, replying that "It is impossible for them to be twins," but nowhere in the story, the site, or the creator's comments is any attempt made to explain their extreme similarity other than when the creator makes one vague reference to them being "doppelgangers." As for myself, I found the story to be pervasively unsettling on some level, and I'm left wondering why the creator would come so close to doing an incest story when she clearly states that she didn't intend to write one. And even if it's not incest, then the amount of narcissism the characters display by lusting after their near-identical counterparts is still kind of disturbing. The creator addresses the complaints at one point, writing, "Incest to me seems more to do with who you were raised with as family," but I don't see this explanation as being thorough enough.

Lastly, as a fan of the fantasy genre, I'm a little disappointed that the comic doesn't have more fantasy elements. Some minor instances of world-building pop up here and there, but for the most part it's just a generic medieval setting. The comic most closely resembles a fantasy story when the characters refer to a magic spell called "The Sword of Light," but the spell doesn't get shown being cast, and the comic only vaguely explains what it is and why Deshad's able to cast it. The creator often elaborates on the setting in her comments, but I'd like to see more of her creativity and plotting show up in the actual pages.

Art: The comic's cutesy and appealing manga art's above average, and it's definitely adequate for depicting the various flirtatious scenes. Anatomy's a particularly strong area for the creator, and the characters look detailed and realistic whether they're heavily clothed or in the nude. The backgrounds are also reasonably detailed, as the creator avoids the somewhat common manga trap of relying too much on pseudo-backgrounds.

I have a few issues with the artwork, though, starting with faces shown in profile view (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). The creator gets a little better at it over the course of the chapter, but there are many instances where she messes up profiles to the point that I found it distracting. Eyes are too close to the edge of the face, ears get oversimplified, the lower half of the face contorts to accommodate unrealistic cheek-mouths, and jawlines are at sharper angles than they should be. Part of the problem seems attributed to the exaggerated manga expressions, but other manga artists have managed to make their faces look more natural. And on the topic of faces, I think the protagonists' effeminate features are exaggerated too much, which results in them looking like prepubescent girls. I realize that boy-love comics do this on purpose to an extent, but a combination of their pronounced cheeks, thick lips, narrow chins and jawlines, and long eyelashes and hair make them look even more feminine than the comic's women. Also, Wes is supposed to be a few years older than Deshad, but their age difference isn't shown at all.

Lastly, the creator has an unusual two-tone style of coloring, where she uses heavy shadows on her lightly colored characters. This style looks very unnatural to me, and I don't think that drastic of a contrast is possible unless a bright light, such as a candle or lantern, is held up close to someone. A Frank Miller-style black-and-white comic might emphasize shadows like this to look edgy, but a noir style obviously has no place here. I think using softer, smoother shadows would look a lot better. On a positive note, though, the coloring seems to improve a little in the second half of the chapter.

Overall: Witch's Quarry could've been an example of a gay-romance comic done right, but it's impossible to ignore how uncomfortable its incestuous relationship is, which some of the comic's own fans have complained about. I'd consider it to be merely a distasteful creative decision if the creator had done it on purpose, but since the impression of incest doesn't seem to be in the creator's plans, I can't help but see it as being a major flaw. Aside from that, though, the comic has fairly competent artwork, and its daily updates allow the plot and character development to progress at a brisk pace. The creator's clearly a veteran cartoonist, and I'm sure that her comic will improve if she fully utilizes her experience and skill.

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