City of Trees

Creator: SanjanaIndica
Genre: Drama
Schedule: Weekly
Rating: 4

Moral complexity is a fact in real life, but difficult to represent in fiction. Even in real life, it can be hard to see the particulars of an ethical issue from another's perspective, so it comes as no surprise that authors tend to portray morals and values in their work as very black and white. There are, however, exceptions in which writer take the time to examine all the implications. City of Trees takes the concept of prey and predator animals befriending each other while exploring the inherent tension and burdens that ensue.

Hosted on SmackJeeves, the webcomic uses one of the standard templates for its layout, one of the darker palettes with a floral art nouveau-style graphic. It's nice to look at, but considering the title of the comic, a forest design with more natural colors might have been more appropriate. Either way, the navigation is easy and consistent, as expected on a hosting site. There's even a chat function on the right-hand side of the screen.

As far as the art goes, the character designs in general look nice, but there are a lot on inconsistencies. The biggest one is the sudden art shift partway through the archives, caused by the author replacing old art in the early pages. She does give new readers a warning about this and it's a temporary issue, but redoing old pages takes up time that could have been spent making new ones. Aside from that, the backgrounds don't quite match the figures. While the characters have solid outlines, everything else is almost impressionistic and blurry. In theory, the effect should be similar to cell-shaded cartoons with more traditionally-done backgrounds, but it would work better if the backgrounds looked more solid and had more depth. Another issue with the art is the lettering. The semi-transparent bubbles and handwriting font don't complement the visuals well and have obvious pixels. The lettering needs to blend with the art more, rather than work against it.

Although the art is flawed, the writing is compelling in its ability to present multiple sides of serious moral issues. Much of the conflict in this story arises from the predator character, a dhole named Sanatani, not wanting to kill but being unable to survive without meat. She feels terrible guilt over her need to kill and eat prey animals to live, a qualm her family does not share. Rather than present her as the sole good individual in her pack, though, the family is not really evil. Her siblings are eager hunters, but not willfully cruel, and her mother shows great concern for Sanatani's health. Her reluctance to consume meat out of moral compunction is treated as an eating disorder, because try as she may, she can't eat plants. Her mother isn't ignorant of why Sanatani won't eat and even sympathizes with her, but takes extra effort to feed her daughter nonetheless for the sake of keeping her healthy.

The major character from the prey side is the male deer Adi. Resentful of his lot in life, Adi feels a deep sense of disconnect from his family, who can't understand his apparently suicidal tendencies by entering the forest away from the safety of his herd. His sister shows concern for his safety and tries to relate to him, but his father's dismissive treatment makes Adi reject his herd all the more. His loner nature puts him in danger, raising further his determination to become like a strong predator instead of weak prey. Even so, he clings stubbornly to his prejudices about creatures like Sanatani and abhors her carnivorous nature, attacking her when they first meet and suspecting her at every turn. 

The two slowly develop a friendship, but Sanatani's need for meat and Adi's bitterness are constant barriers. Their already-tentative relationship is severely shaken when Adi sees her eating meat, which she tries desperately to explain, but he forces her into an ultimatum; stop eating meat, or their friendship is over. Sanatani accepts his terms, putting her life even more at risk, but with so many biological and emotional hurdles to overcome, their fates remain uncertain.

The unfortunate circumstances of the two characters are so well-represented in their depth that it's honestly hard to determine where things will go. Will Adi and Sanatani overcome their differences, will their inherent natures drive them apart, or is something even more tragic in store? A good story waits until the right moment to make such reveals and the pacing is heavily centered on Adi and Sanatani simply getting to know each other and confronting their overwhelming differences. Where the story takes them, only time will tell.

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