Author: Christine Dufour
Genre: Sci-fi, Romance, Slice of Life
Writing negative reviews is fun. We as humans are naturally geared to focusing on the negative and taking the positive for granted. But like Narwhal Knight, there's content in here that I like, but I just can't bring myself to. Viewing the site, you can tell that there's a lot of world building and planning that has gone into this comic as well as vastly improving art over it's eight year run, but the slow pacing and missteps in the writing make it hard to recommend.
The story is about a race of aliens called kilm training their soldiers for war. The main focus of the story is Ten, a recent enlistee at Altair academy who wants to become a pilot. He has a condition called Stritor's Syndrome, which boosts his intelligence but makes him pale, less fit, bruise easily, and gives him a weak heart, though long term leads to a rapid degradation of his memory. His friends include the violent Jael and the flamboyant Jovi, who has a crush on Ten. Jael helps Ten get into the exclusive pilot program, but gets saddled with Kiva, who openly hates Ten. Besides studying for the pilot program, Ten smuggles goods into base to give as gifts, acts as an informant for the faculty, gets involved in a love triangle between Jovi and Jana, and throws a party for the whole school by raiding the contraband room.
Based on the About/FAQ page, it's obvious that this project wasn't just something slapped together at random. There are pages of content devoted to the aliens, the training facility, the language and number system, and aspects of the culture through the use of ear modification. Some of it is conveyed in the comic itself and the rest is more of an Easter egg for readers who feel like decrypting some of the writing featured in the comic. Like I said in my article on cast pages last week, this can be troublesome as it can result in covering up for forgetting to mention important details. At least for me, the difference between female and male kilm should have been somehow made clear in the story since it is difficult to tell unless you read the FAQ page first (females have less dots over their eyes and are taller. Males have elbow spurs).
What kills this comic for me though is the pace. According to the FAQ page, cadets undergo five years of training. It takes the comic fifty pages just to get to the first official day of school and we haven't even gotten through the first year yet. At this rate, the comic will be at least 1000 pages before we actually get out of training. And within the current 300 pages, the subplots either drag on for a long time with no build or sense of payoff. For example, there's some mysterious silhouettes and black fog that show up in the background that never get properly explained in the comic and just keep showing up without any sense of going anywhere. Or Jovi's crush on Ten that goes on for 200 pages and then when Jovi finally acts on it, Ten announces that he's asexual with little in the story to hint at it (unless being completely oblivious counts as a sign).
Speaking of Ten, as friendly as a character as he is, it's hard to root for him when everything seems to fall in his lap and never face any sense of struggle or consequence. He breezes the entry exam with ease and while the Stritor's Syndrome puts him at a disadvantage physically, the coordinator just makes him run laps and his fitness isn't that important. Also, while the comic does make a point of saying that Stritor's isn't a medical disqualifier, I have a hard time believing that a future military wouldn't disqualify a student who has to undergo a required five years training when they only have ten good years before rapidly degrading (especially considering most modern miltaries will disqualify people for far less). There are few people in the school who dislike him, and Kiva, the only one who openly hates him is hated by everyone else because she doesn't like him. And despite his smuggling, medical condition, and other infractions, the faculty have made it so it's next near impossible to kick him out. The only personality flaw he has is that he wants to be everything to everyone. It could be an interesting flaw, showing Ten trying to push himself too hard doing well in school, getting in the favor of his classmates, teachers, and more until it all falls apart around him and he has to grow from the experience. Though that has yet to happen.
At appears to be mostly digital. And reading through the archives proves that if you work at drawing long enough, you're bound to get better. The first page features shaky, thin lineart, unshaded and simplistic characters, and the background is just a bunch of black smudges. Not to mention the Times New Roman font for dialogue, which looks awful for a comic. At page 19, when we finally see the base, the author starts to step it up and make halfway decent backgrounds. At this point, the lines are still shaky and the line weight doesn't do much to imply distance or lighting, but it's a start. In terms of font choice, the author eventually shifts to Ariel, which still isn't a good comic font but san serif font reads better on digital displays than a serifed font like Times, so it's an improvement. At page 45, we start seeing the sex markers that are mentioned in the FAQ besides height (which considering how short Ten is even for his sex, makes it hard to gauge) and later get more defined forms to their face besides pointy blobs. When we finally get to the final pages, you can see how far the author has come. The characters are inked with confident, tapered lines. There's shading and backgrounds that look good.
That said, there could still be some improvements. The interior scenes lack contrast in the shading and the lineart could still use some variance in weight to suggest the effect of lighting and proximity. And like I said, Ariel is still not an optimal font for a comic. I'd recommend either finding a free font that looks handwritten, making a custom handwriting font, or just lettering by hand.
Shades of Gray is an ambitious comic with a lot of work put into the world building and continually improving art. However, the writing needs work as the main character is practically untouchable and the plot moves far too slow. Maybe in the next four years of Ten's training at Altair academy there will be a greater sense of conflict, but the first chapter doesn't get a passing grade from me.