Creator: Andrew Whyte
Length as of Review Date (5/14/2016): 34 pages
Schedule: Updates on Sundays
Word Count: 1140
Basileus by Andrew Whyte is a comic that I find myself struggling to describe, namely out of fear of underselling the talent that is put into it. Visually it strikes me as a combination of some forgotten Rankin Bass rotoscoping fantasy cartoon made to look like the illuminated paintings of mythic Slavic folktales. By way of story, it gives me vibes of a young Conan during his days as a thief, with the strangeness and horrors of wizardry presented as strong as they ever will be. Basileus is a good entry, and one I would encourage you to give a looking at. Now may be, perhaps, too early to become fully invested, but the building blocks are present.
The story, thus far, is about a man named Navan who has taken to uniting himself with a thief named Uz. Together, alongside a third compatriot they are pretending to be members of the famous mercenary group known as the Poison Spike. These charlatans become employed by a group of dissident peasants who desire a better life and think with the aid of these three men they might be able to rob Tarshish of Bridden and get away with it. The raid does not go exactly as desired due to the cowardice of Navan and the violent introduction of a wizard known as Naboth, the Twisted Plank. In the aftermath, Navan decides he may pursue his fate at sea because while he is not a sailor, neither is he a thief; and of the two he'd rather the one with steady pay. Uz takes the road elsewhere.
The world itself, beyond what we've seen so far, is spoken of in an organic matter. Uz discusses a divine ritual orgy with Navan as a way to make conversation on the road. The peasants subscribe to folk medicine, knowing both toad anus or a skull drill can cure madness (may as well use both just to be safe). A mercenary captain snacks on tiny men he keeps in a pouch, they bleed a pale purple and almost look fungal to me. In the ruins where the rogues keep their supplies there is a fresco of a woman with the sun behind her head. We even get a slight view of a map on the table of peasants to get a general idea of where we are within space. The finer details of why things are what they are, and where exactly within this fantasy world we might be (from a broader perspective), are not known, and this is fine. We are getting a taste of a fantastic landscape through organic development.
This all would likely not work, if not for the superb art.
The character designs might not be for some, but I appreciate the level of ugly the cast possess. The men are warty and wrinkly and have a variety of facial hairs and postures. They remind me of the old Hobbit animation by Rankin Bass, done by someone with modern techniques and a full appreciation for characters looking like they belong within the world rather than designing characters who look like they were meant to be protagonists. It helps that our protagonists blend well into the background until they need to be brought forward into the story proper; if they were shining knights or looked too heroically out of place it would draw our focus away from the events unfolding.
There's something of a Miyazaki vibe to the ugliness; the sort of design you see brought in when his works are featuring shriveled old men, witches, or brutes. It speaks well to a gritty aesthetic which does not necessarily indulge in being grim, allowing for a deeper and sometimes humorous characterization to take place by aesthetics alone. The peasants look simple without having to portray them as simple. Uz and Navan look roguish without having anything that distinctly portrays them as such. They project a vibe through their design that is subtlety woven to make their actions seem entirely within their character as they establish said character. The actions fit the designs, nothing feels forced or as though the hand of the author ordained it to happen.
The writing compliments the lettering, and both are exceptional. The dialogue carries weight and levity when required, and each character has their own voice. The mercenary guards speak with professional detachment, the peasants sound pressured but humorous, Uz has a scoundrel's confidence and the occasional rhetoric of a sexualizing philosopher, and Navan, who is our protagonist it seems, sounds the type to be experiencing what he is experiencing with full honesty for the sake of being our prospective character. While I may perhaps be overindulging (having read this comic about ten times over to get this review put together), I will say that this is something that I only ever really notice when one has taken the time to hand-letter the work themselves. That extra effort helps convey a sense of intimacy that a pre-fabricated font cannot. A creator can hobble their work greatly by picking a font rather than hand-lettering, most often by picking the same tired fonts we see so often in other comics. Such a thing pulls me out of the immersion and reminds me of the manufactured quality of what I’m looking at; and in a work where the art is far from modern, it’d be so alien to look at a Blambot font. Hand-lettering can side-step this issue and tie it all in as one cohesive piece, which is what we have here.
The colors are enjoyable, they remind me of the works of Ivan Bilibin. There is a painted flatness to them that makes me think of how one might paint clay rather than canvas. Details hatched stylishly help show the age, wear and tear and break up the flatness so that nothing appears boringly flat. Lighting is subtle but superb, and the palette reminds me of a warm summer afternoon and evening out in the green forests along the shore of a lake. In general each scene thus far feels warm or hot, as though you could feel a breeze warmly blowing in some of the scenes. I like this, as someone who has grown up in the northeast where the seasons are extreme. Seasons are rarely played the full depth of their character, and it is my hope that Basileus continues this skilled work. The stylistic choices for the wizarding that has occurred is also of note, reminding me a bit of a prog rock track, but I hold myself from going deep into this for the sake of enjoying it unbiased.
It is not very often that I stumble upon something that I thoroughly enjoy within webcomics, due primarily to the exceptionally low barrier of entry and the over-saturation of the field as a whole. Basileus is one of those rare exceptions where I find something, appreciate what it is doing, and find no obvious flaws. Now, it is only thirty pages in. There is plenty of room for mistakes to be made, for the story to fall way to trite genre stereotypes, or for things to radically shift to the negative, but I have my doubts that these things will occur. The creator has a careful hand and I firmly expect it will remain of quality.
I hope this is the case.
These items of quality help bring added integrity to the field.
Andrew Whyte's Basileus updates on Sundays, and it has just started its second chapter, "The Hermit Mage," which has begun us with Javan out at sea. I look forward to the potential eventuality where Basileus becomes something I might own as a physical book.
At the moment, 5/5.