Creator/s: Michelle Mau
Schedule: About twice a week
Section/s: Ch. 4, "Letters"
Website: It's undergone some pleasant aesthetic changes lately, with gold-colored images and text being a dominant element. And the switch to being exclusively on Smack Jeeves has eliminated the problems that the Comic Genesis site had with its archives page. The creator's also been fairly successful at sticking to a Tuesdays and Fridays schedule, or at least something close to it, which is an improvement over the erratic schedule the comic had previously.
Writing: When I reviewed Loud Era last year, the comic had eight main characters and 14 minor characters, leading me to complain that "I'd rather see a handful of well-developed characters than an army of undeveloped ones." I hoped that Chapter 4 would show a change in direction by focusing on certain members of the cast more, but, unfortunately, the creator chose to literally provide an army by introducing readers to Ulysses' war buddies in Europe. While it's a cool idea to tie the story into a major historical event like World War I, changing continents to add even more minor characters to the bloated cast is the opposite of what I would've liked to see. However, when the action returns to Wallwater, the creator continues to focus on new minor characters, adding Cecilia's dad, Tony's boss, Tony's mom, and Aggie's boyfriend to the mix. In total, Chapter 4 brings the character count up to 30, introducing eight new characters in just 29 pages.
On the one hand, the creator's skillful at designing characters, and all of the new ones are distinct and likable. Cecilia's oblivious dad stands out in particular, as his pushy-but-amiable attempt at setting Cecilia up with a guy she clearly has no interest in is one of the comic's funnier moments. On the other hand, though, what about all of the characters introduced in previous chapters, who are also well-designed, distinct, and likable? It's irritating that the creator seems content to create colorful characters that readers become interested in, and then show no inclination to use those characters again, at least not for a long time. Faced with the difficult task of having to develop all of these main characters, the creator's put herself in the awkward position of having the minor ones compete heavily for the limited page space available. With the way the comic's been going, I'm skeptical that I'll see my favorite minor characters in the future, which makes the scenes they appear in seem somewhat superfluous.
With that heavy dose of negativity out of the way, the chapter actually features the best dialogue and pacing in the comic so far, showing that the creator's been able to improve upon her already notable writing ability. Particularly impressive is the scene where Clarabelle rejects Leon out of fear that her parents would disapprove of her dating someone Jewish. It's a bold move for the creator to incorporate a sensitive subject like this into the story, and it reminds readers that the characters are living in a time when ethnocentrism was more pervasive. The creator also successfully handles a wide range of emotions in the chapter, with the first half focusing on humorous scenes while the second half includes a depressing goodbye letter and Aggie and Clarabelle's bitter confrontation. The transitions are another aspect that's handled well, as the boxing film follows a letter about a fight, and the goodbye letter's followed by a shot of Aggie at a train station. Letters, being the chapter's title, are a motif throughout the scenes, as Cecilia receives one as well, and it works as a historical reference to the old days, back before everyone communicated electronically. Finally, by featuring Aggie, Tony, and Ulysses this time around, the creator gives some much-needed page time to the comic's most neglected main characters. This chapter represents a step up in quality from the previous ones, and it's great to see a webcomic in its fourth year still getting better.
Art: The creator makes sort of a fuss during the chapter about the characters being drawn inconsistently, but I didn't find these mistakes to be distracting. The anatomy, facial expressions, perspectives, and page layouts are generally better than in the previous chapters, and the coloring's improved as well, although I dislike the choice of cyan for outdoor scenes. The creator also starts to use more abstract background designs in this chapter, and they're usually done pretty well, such as in this page, where blocky shapes and hatching are used. Sometimes the abstractions seem excessive, though, like in this page, where the bright colors look hallucinogenic, and in the pages here and here, where the triangle shapes are overused.
The biggest problem with the art at this point's that there's almost a total disregard for depicting the period setting, which is supposed to be one of the comic's main features. Repeatedly throughout the chapter, the creator relies on close shots and minimalistic backgrounds, leaving the architecture as tiny details or ignoring it completely (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Even here, the creator passes up an obvious opportunity to include old-fashioned movie posters in favor of anachronistically showing posters from various Mel Brooks movies. The comic desperately needs more wide and establishing shots that convey the time period beyond just the characters' clothing. Compare, for example, the train station in Widdershins to the one here. The Widdershins page manages to convey a feeling of being in a Victorian setting, while the Loud Era one has a small train, silhouetted people, and microscopic buildings, with speech bubbles covering a lot of the negative space. Some of the pages are a bit better, like this one and this one, and I'd like to see pages like these become more of the norm, even if they require somewhat more time and effort to draw.
Overall: Last year, I gave Loud Era 4 out of 5 stars, and it's still a good webcomic in 2013. However, while its strengths have only gotten stronger, its weaknesses have become more severe, meaning that it isn't really a better or worse comic than it was before. I'd like to see the historical setting be more prominent, and greater focus should be placed on the core group of characters so that the comic can have a better sense of direction.