Decrypting Rita

Creator/s: Margaret Trauth
Run: 5/11-current
Schedule: About once a week

Website: Having just a gray background's a pretty simplistic design for a comic that's so colorful and creative, but at least it's functional, and having the archives list at the top of every page is convenient. One thing this webcomic does well is that its blogs and social media are updated a lot, which includes a Tumblr account where readers can ask questions to the comic's protagonist. So, while the layout's unimpressive, it at least manages to efficiently use a small amount of space.

The chapter index is unconventional in that the chapters are out of order, several chapters are missing, and some chapters are in Arabic numerals while others are in Roman numerals. In addition, there's a lot of variance, with some chapters being several pages, some being fairly lengthy, and others being only one page. This structure seems intended to tie into the nonlinear nature of the story, but it's confusing, and it doesn't add anything to the comic.

Writing: Creativity can be described as having an abundance of ideas, and Decrypting Rita's definitely creative in that sense. However, creativity's value is intertwined with a grittier force that eliminates ideas, and a lack of focus prevents the story from ever gaining traction. Underwhelming, underdeveloped ideas are piled on top of one another, and the narrative's deliberately sabotaged under the pretense of experimentation.

The comic reminds me of A Softer World (reviewed here), in that it takes a functional art form, breaks it, and presents the debris as sophistication. This approach seems to be a self-conscious response to comics being perceived as an inferior art form. Phil Foglio of Girl Genius describes Decrypting Rita as "a science–fiction story that feels like it comes from the future," and while I can grasp the notion that comics are evolving towards legitimacy, it's an attitude that has an insecure, self-deprecating subtext. The medium's problems are cultural, not structural.

Beyond that, though, the creator's just a lousy writer. In her interviews (1, 2), she's able to give in-depth explanations of her artistic choices, but when asked about the story, she repeatedly mentions that she was "very, very stoned" and was "smoking a hell of a lot of weed." I'm not opposed to drugs being used as a creative tool, but it's pretty clear that the creator wasn't in a proper mental state when making this comic. In addition, the dialogue relies on made-up words, randomness, and witty banter, and it's an annoying attempt at being clever. Effective writing makes the audience laugh and/or care about what happens to the characters, and the comic doesn't even try to achieve that. At its best, the writing's an afterthought, and at its worst, it's irritating.

Having multiple worlds and versions of characters is cool, but there's not enough going on. It's a flawed premise that four uninteresting stories combine to make an interesting story, and the coolness factor isn't enough to prevent it from feeling like a chore to get through this comic. Once in a while there's a dramatic moment where a character gets killed, but they always come back to life quickly afterwards, so these instances feel like a cheap trick to create a false sense of tension. Since they can't really die, the characters' deaths should be treated more casually rather than being end-of-chapter cliffhangers. The comic's also usually dry and text-heavy, which contrasts with how the characters are overly enthusiastic about and interested in what's going on. I get the need for having a lot of exposition, but better pacing's needed so that the story doesn't get minimized as much.

Art: Scott McCloud of Understanding Comics calls it "cool-looking," and I'm sure he's pleased that the comic uses the infinite canvas approach he promotes. However, while the purpose of infinite canvas is to give a creator more space to work with, the creator chooses to cram together small images and small text, making the reading experience unpleasant and treating the infinite aspect as a technicality. The comic was apparently designed this way so that it could be published as a print version, but isn't the point of using infinite canvas that it can do stuff print comics can't? It makes no sense to me, especially since the creator's a talented artist who could be showing off her skills with decent-sized illustrations. The instances where she uses a more conventional layout with larger images actually look pretty good, so it's aggravating how she seems to be going out of her way to make the comic worse. Similarly, there are many instances where the lettering's distorted, tiny, or in a weird color, and it unnecessarily makes the comic more difficult to read.

The biggest problem with the artwork, though, is that it's ridiculously inconsistent. A panel on any given page can range from "sucky" to "pretty good," and it's disappointing to see bad artwork knowing that the creator can do much better when she puts in some effort. The action scenes, which seem like they're supposed to be the most visually impressive part of the comic, are underwhelming because the anatomy's all over the place. Whether the comic's abstract, cartoony, detailed, or minimalistic varies constantly, and traits such as the main character's weight change from panel to panel. There's a pervasive sense that the creator's half-assing the comic, doesn't know how she wants it to look like, and doesn't care if the drawings don't come out right, and it sucks the enjoyment out of the reading experience to see the creator seem so uninterested in her own project.

Overall: It seems like Decrypting Rita's supposed to be a good webcomic, but at the same time, it seems like the creator's aggressively trying to ruin her project. The terrible design choices combine with a nonexistent plot to make a frustrating comic that's downright unpleasant to read. It obviously has its fans, as it can boast having two successful Kickstarters for the print versions, but I'm unable to see why this comic's appealing to readers other than possibly for its LGBT characters. Being ambitious, creative, and experimental generally deserves to be praised, but it can be detrimental if the creator lacks a proficiency in cartooning skills, and while I want to like this comic for how avant-garde it is, I can't overlook how incompetently it's executed.

  • Creating without a license
  • Drawing under the influence
  • Reckless writing
Scores (out of 5)
  • Website:
  • Writing:
  • Art:
  • Overall:
    Recommended sentence
    • Involuntary permanent vacation to our state-of-the-art tropical resort at Guantanamo Bay


    1. Thanks for the detailed ripping-apart of my work! No, really. It's pretty useful to see what an adversarial reading of my comic highlights as problem areas.

      I think a lot of your issues with the drawings come from one big thing: I used to work in animation. Under John K. I'm not as influenced by his style as most people who worked for him, but there is a definite elevation of the Cool, Funky Drawing over the Accurate, On-Model Drawing going on in my work. There's a conscious decision behind every one of those weird drawings. (And sometimes that decision is "I've been working on this page too long, this drawing is good enough for now.")

      Whether or not those choices work for a reader varies; obviously they don't for you. And yeah, I could definitely spend a little more time keeping my body shapes more consistent; I really should make actual model sheets for my next project.

      Size issues... well, just yesterday I realized that the CSS for the site was squeezing the images vertically by about forty pixels, resulting in muddy text. Not good. That said I do deliberately make some things tiny or otherwise illegible; none of these things are actually intended to be more than a little extra detail for the print version.

      As to pacing and whether or not my writing is good or not, all I can say is that I'm still learning and experimenting.

      It's a fair cop. Can I plea bargain for a cell with a window? I miss the sun up here in Seattle.

      1. I was aware of your animation background when I wrote the review, and it's disappointing that your work isn't more professional. You're capable of doing better, and I'm underwhelmed with your carelessness and excuses. I'm glad to see that you've had some success, but I hope you don't let that make you overconfident.