String Theory

Creator/s: Beckey Grundy
Run: 2/09-current
Schedule: Two or three pages a month

Website: The site has no shortage of bonus material, the most notable being a "sketch blog" Tumblr account that's updated frequently with images related the webcomic. The cast page is another highlight, as it contains original artwork and an abundance of background information, and it's stylized to look like a folder of classified government documents. The creator's attention to small details, like including watermarks, staples, and blacked-out text, make the cast page really exceptional.

I had some trouble using the archive page since I didn't immediately notice the instructions in italics at the top of the page. Specifically, there were several times I wanted to view a list of pages but was unable to, not realizing that the solution was to click the cover image on the right side of the browser window. I suggest making the instructions stand out more, adjusting the left column to be narrower, and changing the setup so that the link on the left is the one that displays the page list.

Writing: The story starts off weak, as it focuses on a poorly developed romantic relationship between Schtein and his female assistant, Delia. Pages 5 through 15 portray Schtein as a misogynist who's upset about having to work with a woman (1, 2, 3), but Page 16 brings a complete reversal, where Schtein gets so impressed by Delia's intellect that he becomes infatuated with her. This significant turn of events feels heavily forced, as it's too ridiculous that a recent college graduate would instantly grasp top-secret technology that's baffled expert scientists. In addition, this page is the only moment in the story that it's suggested Delia's a super-genius, so it seems inconsistent with how her character's portrayed, and even as soon as Page 30 she's shown clumsily fumbling around with unfamiliar technology. In any case, Page 16's twist leads to relationship drama, mixed signals, more relationship drama, more mixed signals, and, finally, jealousy, and the result's an underwhelming soap opera.

Then, this happens, and String Theory becomes one of the best webcomics I've ever read.

Chapters 2 and 3 move the action to a hellish prison, and the comic quickly turns into a gritty noir story. Schtein's constantly abused there by both the inmates and the prison staff, and, being obsessed with cleanliness, he's psychologically damaged by the filthy living conditions. He starts seeing haunting hallucinations, apparently because his mechanical eyes are malfunctioning. He's forced to do menial labor, held in solitary confinement, and heavily drugged, and it causes the once-arrogant Schtein to struggle to hold on to his personality and humanity. The various minor characters in the prison are all excellently written as well, with the manipulative sadist Phineas standing out as one of the webcomic's best characters. This is also the part of the comic where attention's first brought to the post-apocalyptic setting, secretive power-players, and Schtein's family, and it provides a bit of context for the bleak events.

With Chapter 4, the writing takes a dip in quality as, like in the problematic first chapter, String Theory focuses on Delia. It's apparent by this point that's she a Mary Sue: She's brilliant, attractive, athletic (at least according to her character bio), and her status as both a woman and a minority causes others to unfairly underestimate her. That she's pursued by several love interests and constantly victimized further serve to cement her portrayal as a "perfect" character. I'm also not a fan of her talking animal sidekick, Marcus, whose cuteness and weak comedy relief are underwhelming compared to the stellar writing in the previous two chapters. The drama and wackier bits here involving Delia aren't particularly unappealing, and Delia's new co-workers are interesting enough, but I found myself feeling impatient to get back to Schtein and his backstory. It was a relief, for instance, when the scene changed to a flashback of the secret experiments conducted by Schtein's grandfather.

Schtein's clearly the webcomic's most compelling character, although his portrayal isn't always consistent. He's introduced as being a genius, but he comes across as incompetent at times during the beginning of the story, such as when Delia's shown to be much more knowledgeable than he is. Then, on Page 41, he somehow forgets he can't see color, and in Chapter 2, the warden calls him an "idiot" for somehow forgetting to disable the security cameras when he sabotaged Langstrom's project in Chapter 1. The creator apologizes for this to an extent in her comments below that page, though, explaining that "not a lot of planning went into this comic" and she would "like to work hard to become a better writer." Her new approach definitely paid off, as from that point on, Schtein's presented as a highly intelligent person who's both arrogant and deeply flawed. A large part of his appeal's that it isn't clear if readers should be rooting for him or not. The story's told mostly from his point of view, and he's on the receiving end of a lot of abuse, but he's nevertheless self-centered and abrasive, and he never seems to feel notably guilty about the people he's killed. Schtein's also of German descent, a characteristic belonging to a lot of villains in pop culture. Schtein reminds me of some of Jhonen Vasquez's protagonists, like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Invader Zim, in that he's ruthless and immoral, but he also's fascinating from the audience's perspective because he's exciting, violent, and strange, and he has a troubling past and bizarre environments. In the latest chapter, he describes himself as "the stalwart hero" of the story, but I find it unconvincing, and it really only makes him seem even more arrogant and unlikable. After all, when I think of examples of heroic figures, I don't imagine any of them boasting of how heroic and important they are while dismissing their allies as being expendable. Schtein's a highly original and well-developed character, and all of the scenes he's in after the first chapter are top-notch and keep leaving me eager to see what happens to him.

Art: While String Theory starts off as black-and-white, it's colored from Chapter 2 onwards, and its coloring's actually some of the best I've seen in a webcomic. The creator has a tendency to combine dark colors with bright ones, and it's one of the reasons the comic's able to successfully convey both noir and sci-fi tones. A good example of this in the latest chapter, where an irradiated Chicago's shown as bleak and lifeless but is also eerily lit with teals, greens, oranges, and reds. This color scheme's maintained throughout the chapter in the abstract backgrounds, the interior scenes, and in Schtein's glowing eyes, as well as throughout the entire story, and this helps the webcomic feel coherent and distinct.

Speaking of Schtein's eyes, this seemingly trivial detail is a brilliant move by the creator, as it adds a pervasive sense of creepiness and alienation throughout the comic. Shots like the bottom panel on this page portray Schtein as a nightmarish figure, and they push the other characters to antagonize him at the same time that the narrative structure encourages readers to take a more holistic perspective. In addition, while Schtein's robotic eyes make him seem less human on a physical level, their introduction marks the start of his path to becoming more human internally as he develops humility, a desire for intimacy, and a renewed sense of connection with his family. And while Schtein's glowing eyes, pointy nose, and unnatural hair color are stuck the way they are, his transition from a lab coat to a prison uniform to his current outfit show a movement away from the "mad scientist" persona that characterizes his grandfather and his past self. I feel pretty confident in saying that Schtein's one of the most well-designed characters in webcomics.

All aspects of the artwork's of a high quality, but what's most remarkable about it's the creator's ability to continue to improve with every chapter. While the webcomic's first two years show the most progress, there's a noticeable difference between the current pages and those from other recent chapters, even though the previous art was already outstanding. Reading through the archives, I kept expecting the creator to hit a plateau at some point, yet she never does, and the thought that such a capable artist has more room to grow has me feeling even more excited to follow the webcomic.

Overall: I'm beyond impressed with String Theory, and it's quickly become one of my favorite webcomics. The creator demonstrates mastery of the science-fiction genre, and she manages to deliver a fresh take on the classic "mad scientist" archetype. The comic's most glaring flaw is its lackluster introduction, but the more impatient readers out there can start with the second chapter without missing much.



  1. This is a great review on a great comic. I've been following String Theory for a long time, and I have to admit that I was pretty blind to the flaws you've pointed out, but that's really because there's so much good stuff that it is easy to miss the Mary Sue in the room.

    The story isn't really about Delilah anyway, it's about Schtein, and to me he feels like a perfect supervillain protagonist. Even though his villainy is pretty pedestrian so far. If he ever ends up in a giant robot shouting about how he's finally showing all of them I'd probably cheer, but I think the comic is better than that.

    1. Thanks! I'm glad I got to review the earlier chapters since I don't normally do full-archive reviews like this. The comments on Delilah being a Mary Sue aren't super-relevant since she doesn't appear as much after the first chapter, but I thought it'd be interesting to write about since the webcomic manages to go from mediocre to excellent in such a short period of time.