The Element of Surprise

Creator/s: Shaindle Minuk
Run: 10/09(?)-current
Schedule: Fridays
Section/s: Volume 3

Website: It's super-easy to use a ComicPress or Smack Jeeves template, so I don't know why the creator went with a half-assed, ugly HTML layout. The color choices are terrible, the sections aren't aligned properly, and there's not really even a design. For example, the creator could've at least wrapped the introduction text around the title image so that there isn't a bunch of blank space at the top of the page. It's important to keep in mind that a website is a reader's first impression of a webcomic, and what they should take from this site is that the creator's okay with just doing the bare minimum. On the bright side, though, there are at least some bonus stories and a cast page, which is more extra content than some webcomics have.

Speaking of the title image, it looks really dumb, and the creator explains on her DeviantArt page that it's supposed to be like a "shitty 80s action movie VHS cover" with "terrible graphic design." I get now that it's a parody, but as someone who was unfamiliar with the webcomic, I really just had to assume that this was the creator's idea of what a good title image looks like. It can be really funny to do stuff that's intentionally bad, but it should never be a reader's introduction to your work.

There's also an animated music video that's almost five minutes long, and I have a mixed reaction to it. On one hand, the animation's pretty good, especially for the action scenes, and the coloring's also pretty good considering that it's a grayscale webcomic. However, I also feel confused as to why the creator put so much effort into a video rather than improving the website or spending more time working on the comic. I mean, I'm a fan of unique bonus content, and this one's certainly memorable, but it's not exactly a priority.

Writing: Some webcomics are doomed from the beginning due to having a dumb concept, and others have a solid premise but screw it up by taking it in a weird direction. The Element of Surprise is an example of the latter, as the creator gets to a great start by adding an element of surprise to her gay romance story in the form of a mysterious kidnapping. This would've probably turned out pretty well even if the creator had just taken a conventional approach with it, as a coherent plot with some dramatic tension would be more entertaining than most of the ridiculous yaoi webcomics out there. Unfortunately, the creator had to get "creative" and ruin her comic as quickly as possible.

So, one of the main characters gets kidnapped, and general knowledge of storytelling would indicate that the other main character tries a few different things to try to find him, eventually finds him, and has a dramatic encounter with the kidnapper. This is based on the standard storytelling structure, where tension continuously rises and falls, gradually building up to the eventual climax and resolution. Instead, what happens here is that the character accidentally gets discovered and rescued just five pages after he goes missing, and the story just kinda peters out after that. And not only is the potential for a cool plot wasted, but there's two pages of other characters complaining about how unrealistic the discovery is. The creator seems to be making it clear that she's aware of how dumb the story is, but then, you know, why not just make the story better rather than include this lame scene? Serendipity could be an interesting concept to play with, but it's meant for random things, not a major plot point. For example, if Character A's depressed and Character B coincidentally bumps into him and cheers him up, you could roll with an idea of supernatural magnetism since it's just a cool little thing that got worked into the story. But if you drastically alter the plot because of a character having vague psychic powers or just being super-duper-lucky, it makes an otherwise realistic story seem magical and unbelievable. And if the characters get in a tough situation again, I'd have no confidence that the creator won't just conveniently reveal a superpower that resolves the problem.

The other weird thing is that there's a notorious group of cultists who have been going around kidnapping people. While I guess this is something that could happen in real life once in a while, it sounds more like the plot of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It'd make more sense for it to just be something realistic, like the mafia or something. I mean, aside from the fantasy stuff that randomly pops up, the story's pretty boring and generic, and it's like the creator chooses to whip out some crazy idea rather than try to actually make the comic dramatic or interesting. And while it might seem like it doesn't matter who the villains are, it's actually pretty distracting because the reader's busy thinking about how farfetched it is rather than feeling engaged with what's going on. It's like when a guy in a movie gets shot five times and is fine, and while it could mean that he's a badass, you're really just thinking that it's goofy because he'd be dead or in the hospital if it happened in real life. I know that I'm focusing a lot on what's basically a minor detail, but there's just nothing else really going on in this comic that's worth mentioning. Shaenon Garrity's description of the comic is, "Both guys are super nice and respectful, providing an illustration of why most BL is about horrible screwed-up relationships: they have the unfortunate tendency to be more exciting." And I agree that this comic is basically just two gay guys being nice to each other, along with a boring scene where one of the guys is shown to be a good employee, and this really isn't enough for a section that's already the length of a comic book.

Art: It's PG-rated gay romance, as there are a few panels where the characters have their shirts off (1, 2, 3), but there isn't any nudity or implied sex. It might be just enough to keep yaoi fans somewhat interested, but on the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if they gravitated towards more explicit webcomics. Still, I see how the creator's way of drawing gay characters could be appealing, as they have a mixture of feminine traits (cutesy faces and long legs) and masculine traits (being muscular and tall), and the anatomy's pretty solid.

As for the majority of the comic, it's functional but underwhelming. The creator can draw pretty well, but since the plot's slow and the characters are boring, the art mostly feels like filler placed between the shirtless scenes. The poses are stiff, the angles are repetitive, and while the background details and establishing shots are decent, they're minimalistic and lack personality. One thing I particularly didn't like about the meeting scene is that instead of using techniques like body language, composition, and lighting to make the boss seem sketchy, the creator just gave him Western-style eyes, which is basically like drawing an arrow pointing to the guy with a caption that says, "This guy's sketchy as hell and is probably the real kidnapper." It's not easy to make dialogue scenes look appealing, but it's also really important since a comic gets boring quickly when there's not enough going on visually.

Finally, the faces just don't look quite right. I think it's probably because the eyes are too wide open, which makes it look like everybody's shocked all the time. Garrity describes the characters as looking "like a Polly Pocket doll," and that's a pretty good way of describing how they seem unnatural.

Overall: The music video made to show off The Element of Surprise is full of action, conflict, and drama, and my experience actually reading the webcomic couldn't be more different. There's barely anything about it that isn't underwhelming and uninspired, and the fan service seems to really be the only thing that's keeping the comic going. In addition, the creator's a freelance writer who's been making comics since the '90s, so there's really no excuse for why she can't come up with a better story. This is the kind of webcomic that might only appeal to easily amused 15-year-old girls, and while there's probably a demand for that sort of thing, catering to low expectations isn't much of an accomplishment.

  • Designing while blindfolded
  • Infringement on Polly Pocket's copyright
  • Plot abuse
Scores (out of 5)
  • Website: 2/5
  • Writing: 2/5
  • Art: 3/5
  • Overall: 2.5/5
    Recommended sentence
    • Must read 2,500 pages of webcomics with her eyes forced wide-open, Clockwork Orange-style

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