hpkomic on webcomics: Raccoon Girl
Raccoon Girl, by Elöise Prince, is a superhero parody comic that proves entertaining despite the relative spottiness of the writing and art that lacks the proper amount of energy for the slapstick superheroics that Elöise wishes to get across to readers. This review is likely to come across more critical than is intended, but these criticisms are very much about exploring what isn’t working for the comic. That being said, there is some stuff that does work, and I would like to emphasize that as well. As far as how this review will be tackled, my typical criteria of review are writing, art, and presentation. This is pretty much what I consider to be my “order of importance” when judging the merits of a comic. Please note that this review features story spoilers.
So let’s dive into the writing. The first thing to comes to mind is that Raccoon Girl is goofy. Goofy humor isn’t inherently negative and honestly a good bulk of the Raccoon Girl punchlines were pretty funny. What I mean is that a lot of the comedy comes from that very sort of random humor that smacks of “my first webcomic,” which is fine because all evidence points to the idea that this Prince’s first webcomic. The biggest problem I had with the writing is that as a parody there isn’t really much cleverness to it all. There is a lot of silliness, yes, but The Tick, the gold standard in superhero parody, carried some substance in it’s comedy beyond the randomness of his shouting of “SPOON!” as he leapt into battle. I am just not getting the sense of purpose to Raccoon Girl, the comic, beyond silliness.
For example, inconsistencies in the writing and setting are mined for humor to great effect, but it all reads as scattershot without much of an idea of long term planning. This, combined with the unnecessary length of the comic’s first chapter, which is still incomplete as of this writing, indicates an approach to writing which benefits comic strips over long form storytelling. The first chapter alone is at least 70 pages, with no real indication that it will come to an end soon. The comic, so far, is comprised of a single chapter and a short prologue that establishes Rachel’s superhero origins. The prologue is goofy and fleeting, but enjoyable, and had the comic been short doses of stories of this length I feel my review would come off as more positive. Prince’s sense of humor is funny and suited to short doses where the less we have to think about the setting and the inconsistencies within, the more receptive we are to the jokes and gags. However, Raccoon Girl ultimately falls into the trap that affects so many first webcomics, the inelegant attempt to mine something more ambitious and serious out of the comic without laying out the proper groundwork.
The comic’s first chapter is, for lack of a kinder term, bloated and could benefit from a hatchet edit to cut out anything outside of the central plot. Eliminating the two page April Fool’s dream sequence, for example, is a start; it’s cute, but is just bloat that takes up valuable real estate in the story. That is not the greatest concern I have as a reader though, as the central plot just isn’t as interesting as it could be. The disappearance of Rachel and Zeki’s missing classmate carries very little interest over 70+ pages because it is hard to become invested in the goings on. I know I have just called for a hatchet to the edit, but one thing the first story desperately needs is an introduction to Scott and some characterization of him to invest readers in his disappearance. This is Missing Child Search Plot 101; before we gave a shit about what happened to Will Byers in Stranger Things, we were given some scenes to establish him as a kind, if small kid who showed a great deal resourcefulness before he vanished. The most we know about Scott in Raccoon Girl is what we learn about him when he shows up 60 pages into the story and what other people say about him, but even then, these perspectives are colored by those who convey that information. But you know who doesn’t convey a lot of information to the reader about Scott? Rachel, our protagonist. Her motivation to seek out her classmate is vague superheroics over any real sense of personal interest. Having a scene early in the chapter where Rachel and Scott interact, to establish some stakes to the investigation, would go a long way. What we do get about Scott, from Lily, one of the neighbors, is so tonally off from everything else we’ve seen in the comic that I wonder if the stories are written out completely, or if Prince writes batches of pages at a time. Writing these pages in batches would likely explain the tonal whiplash seen here. If the story was planned out entirely then this tonal whiplash and the lack of stakes should be readily apparent in the scripting stage. This isn’t the only area where tone becomes an issue.
Given the nature of the first chapter’s plot to find a missing child, there are attempts to indicate a more serious tone here and there… but it doesn’t fly, particularly considering the ridiculousness of the central concept. Take, for example, this attempt to be somewhat poignant and dramatic. Sibling fights are a great source to mine for drama, but any attempts at mining them with an offhand fight and not showing the actual stakes induced by Rachel’s pajama-clad heroics will fail. Furthermore, much of the drama that Prince may try to use will always be undercut by the ridiculousness of the death of the parents in Rachel’s “origin.” I use “origin” here because Rachel is an unreliable narrator at best and it would not be surprising that her parents are perfectly fine and Rachel is creating drama for drama’s sake. Rachel’s propensity for self-aggrandizement and drama could be mined for more gags, and it’s a disappointment that Prince does not do this to the capacity Rachel’s character deserves… For example, Prince could of had a good gag here by turning panel three into two panels with Rachel’s admission of seeking attention highlighted by a more dramatic shot in addition to the ridiculousness of the costume. It’s a very simple gag, but it plays up and cements Rachel’s characterization. Characterization is key, here, and this is an area that is a simultaneous strength and weakness of Raccoon Girl.
Ultimately, strong characterization shines through for the core pairing of Rachel and Zeki, but it tends to be undercut by the randomness of a humor. For example, character choices are not so much based on personalities but rather randomness. Rachel’s whole modus operandi revolves around making poor decisions just for the sake of making poor decisions. Even her choice of superhero alter ego is based, oddly, on the very thing that she purports killed her parents. Trashcan, her raccoon sidekick, also serves as a random bad decision on Rachel’s part, as she suggests he was the same raccoon that slayed her parents. It’s an obvious misdirection, but that reveal will ultimately be met with a shrug; no one in their right mind would partner with their parent’s killers. Rachel is a kind of shonen idiot hero trope who has an idealized self image and pursues it without thinking, and that’s great. Rachel is the most entertaining character of the bunch because of her idiocy and the dumber she is the more entertaining the comic is. She reminds me a great deal of Monkey D. Luffy, perhaps one of the best idiot-heroes of all. Rachel is the best part of her own comic and has what I found to be the funniest line in the comic so far (see the panel on the left).
It also helps that Zeki, who is given the unfortunate task of being the straight man, succeeds at this thankless task overall, despite some weakness in writing. Zeki is the diminutive level head that is roped into being Rachel’s sidekick. But he is not without his own quirks. His own “origin” story is even more ridiculous and filled with cartoon logic than Rachel’s. After all, Zeki’s parents almost fucking killed him. He’s clearly riffing on Rachel’s own origin and poking fun at her, and overall that’s pretty neat. The problem is that for being the level headed character he is established to be, he goes along with Rachel’s plans a bit too easily, and, this is me being nitpicky here, if he’s so intelligent why is his grammar faulty at times (note the text message exchange)? Zeki’s nature as a sidekick, in addition to the comic still being in its first, overly long chapter has not given him near as much development as Rachel, but as somewhat level head, if not frequent snide foil to her antics, he puts in work. That being said, Zeki’s line in panel 2 is great and says a lot about him and his world view in one single line of dialogue.
So, let’s talk about Trashcan. Trash is a good “character” in the sense that he’s adorable, and had some sight gags here and there. He seems like a fun pet/mascot who would ultimately sell a Raccoon Girl animated adaptation and end up being the ensemble darkhorse. The best part of the comic, for my money, is to see what Trash is doing in any given panel.
He seems like a loyal, funny sidekick/pet. Ultimately, his presence is one-note and doesn’t particularly hamper the comic. He just adds a layer of visual humor that gamifies the comic a bit because we’re always looking to see what Trash is up to.
But then he starts to talk.
This is a problem in a couple of ways. This is probably one of the largest examples I can cite regarding Prince not really sticking to any established rules in her own work, which while great for one-off laughs, results in serious questions/problems in the long run. To start, the reveal of Trash being able to talk comes after a potentially serious head injury. This is somewhat horrifying, but pretty funny too, given the cartoon logic of the comic so far. But suddenly the newly discovered Scott can hear and respond to Trash as well? Wait, did Scott get a head injury as well? That is too ridiculous to be true, so apparently Trash is a talking raccoon, but the reveal is so sudden and circumstantial and breaks established rules that it comes off more confusing than cool. Why is he only talking at this moment? Why didn’t Trash tell Rachel about Lili’s mysterious visitor he seemed so alarmed by? Why was this the moment to suddenly give a silent character who was entertaining because of his silence a voice, and a stereotypical and Rocket Raccoon-esque inflection at that, even as far as changing his body language from typical raccoon to anthropomorphic bipedalism? This throws a lot of stuff into question here. As a reader my impression was much less “wow” and more “what the hell?” This development is recent, so with any luck Prince will be able to make sense of all this, and maybe even retroactively explain some of those inconsistencies. Ultimately, though, as a reader, Trashcan has gone from being one of my favorite gags in the comic to being a huge, glaring question mark that inspires more confusion than anticipation
Ostensibly, based on presence in the comic, Leon is a major character, but there doesn’t much to see much to him worth exploring, beyond the fact he is probably the mysterious vigilante Fuerte. You get a sense of the relationship between Rachel and Leon through good natured dialogue where they swipe at each other, and some of the awkward sibling drama here and there. But ultimately, Leon’s presence just doesn’t amount to much outside of his potential role as Fuerte, a chastising older hero who seems to know a lot about Raccoon Girl’s identity. Leon is an example of character bloat in the core narrative. He’s ultimately needed as part of Rachel’s character both in and out of costume, but most other characters, it can be argued, are detracting from what should be a tight 20 to 30 page story. Most of the supporting cast is just sort of “there” as we’re only a chapter into what is likely to be an ongoing story, so there isn’t a lot to them at the moment. We spend so much time with other characters who have little to do with the current plot which is already incredibly lengthy. That being said, Cassandra seems interesting because of her design. Naturally she’ll come into focus later, so kudos to Prince for creating a character of interest to address later.
Dialogue is the last bit about the writing I want to get into. Raccoon Girl could benefit overall from an editor to help pare down dialogue to what is essential and zero-in on the comedic dialogue. A lot of quirky conversations that are supposed to come off pithy and funny just feel very forced and ultimately prove a slog to get through (though this isn’t helped by the presentation, but more on that later). Case in point regarding the awkwardness of the dialogue: in what should be a rapid fire, funny exchange drags due a lack of proper pacing through proper sentence and comma usage. Dedicated proofreading could probably handle a lot of these criticisms I have with the dialogue.
Naturally, art becomes an important part of selling any webcomic. I will not focus too much on early art, as that is not fair. I will lobby most of my criticisms on the latest twenty or so pages, as they are the most contemporary work the comic has to offer. I should address one thing, given the length of the first chapter, the art style has changed a great deal which ultimately shows interesting evidence of Prince’s building skills as a cartoonist, but on the other hand, so much variation in a single story also comes of as amateur. Going with shorter stories could have made this style evolution less jarring as it masks those changes across several stories rather than an overly-long one. With that being said, my first thought is that Rachel looks adorable. Most character designs are adorable in their own way, if a little rough. The comic tends to have what I refer to as the “matchstick body” impulse of a lot of first time webcomics where character design equates to tossing different heads onto the overall same, skinny looking body, and more often than not, that head is relatively gigantic.
This is, of course, a budding and developing style that is improving as the comic continues, so I am not concerned as much here. I only suggest playing more with shape-driven character design to give all characters a unique, easily identifiable silhouette.
One thing I want to highlight is that the art style is very flat, but doesn’t really play up that flatness or do much to strive for more depth. This is a comic which can go in either direction, but Prince seems content to straddle an awkward middle thus far. In playing up shape-driven, UPA style flatness Prince could work Raccoon Girl into something more cartoony and stylized. On the other hand, if Prince is aiming for something action oriented then the impulse should be to develop a more spatially-aware eye for backgrounds and settings. Granted, recent panels have done a great deal in moving toward a more “serious” direction and stand in contrast to the flatness of the earlier ambulance and grave panels.
Ultimately, though, Prince has a ways to go. That being said, I gladly point out that this is Prince’s most artistically ambitious page yet and shows just where the comic could go.
The biggest weakness regarding the art is that Prince’s work just lacks in any sort of action capacity. Recent pages feature a fight that is just not very dynamic and tends to be from a flat, side angle. This page is particularly disheartening because as a reader I feel no sense of impact. Panel 5 in particular could have benefited from something far more dramatic and could have borrowed a great deal from the visual language of superhero comics. Just because your comic parodies superheroes stories doesn’t mean you should avoid using what works about them in selling your own take on them. Adult Swim’s The Venture Brothers pokes fun of action cartoons, but is well versed in the tropes and uses them in a cinematic fashion, heightening the parody. If Raccoon Girl wants to succeed as a comedic take on superhero comics, it needs to start looking the part. Shots like this won’t sell the super heroics.
That being said, of course, the photorealistic raccoon is funny. It implies a more ridiculous comic than what Prince seems determined to deliver, however, and feels fundamentally incompatible and hard to graft these different tonal impulses. It feels as though the choice Prince needs to make is between parody action (longer form) or over-the-top ridiculousness (shorter form) and it doesn’t seem like it’ll be easy to walk between these two extremes.
Let’s talk presentation. This is an area where I think Raccoon Girl could benefit changing the most, and be a rather quick fix. In particular, the panels and dialogue balloons are holding the comic back. The panels, for most of the run, tend to be very static, delivering a lot of talking head panels. You know what I mean, the typical bust shot of one or more characters with a vaguely defined background at best. What I see a lot of, and what sucks me out of the comic, are highly questionable and vague shots that serve no real purpose. Take this shot of Zeki walking down a hallway.
Imagine this shot in any film or show and you’ll see that… it’s hard to imagine a shot like that flying in other media. It just doesn’t work. The same goes for this panel.
Instead of planning the shot appropriately, we see just a smidge of Trash jammed in along the bottom, missing a potential gag where the Raccoon is rolling his eyes or conveying his trademark smirk, or something, anything other than a set of ears. Logically you can tell Rachel is sitting up from her laying position and we’re seeing the back of the headboard, but it requires the context of the other panels prior to it, even on the previous page. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just make the shot show a little bit more of the sitting position and feature more of Trash in the panel so we can see his reaction? That is my biggest gripe with the presentation of the comic and what I feel dragged me down the most as I was reading through the archive. I was shocked by how arbitrary shots seemed. That, to me, indicates a lack of planning. There is not enough attention paid from shot to shot to build a consistent setting and the shots feel arbitrary and don’t communicate what they need to. Backgrounds tend to be ill-defined at best between panels because there doesn’t seem to be a strong establishing shot to geographical place characters in the setting. As a cartoonist you should use establishing shots when switching between locations. This not only defines where a character is in relation to their environment, it also allows you to design better backgrounds that reflect a real, three dimensional space. Recent pages at the warehouse have felt more logical because of defined, established backgrounds, but without really planning for the three dimensional aspect the sense of scale is all over the place. I won’t go too far into the occasional violations of the 180-degree rule, but that is another big problem in maintaining consistency.
I don’t want to focus too much on early pages, but holy shit dialogue balloons are a huge problem in early pages. Quite honestly, dialogue balloons might be Raccoon Girl’s biggest weakness. To start, the variable size of the text should not happen because it indicates a lack of real planning. A comic should rarely, and I would honestly say never, resize text several times on a page, let alone in one panel. It happens a lot in Raccoon Girl and that is extremely troubling. How did this page pass a review process? I can barely read Zeki’s line in panel 5. That’s not even the worst of the bunch, what about on this page? The fact I had to open an image in a new tab to read the head’s up display is asking way too much from a reader. These problems quite honestly smack of trying to either jam in overwritten text into panels or, more alarmingly, forge ahead without any real consideration on the breakdown of information in a panel. This implies that the panels are designed without thought as to where dialogue will be placed. If you’re going to have a lot of dialogue on a page in needs to be broken into smaller, more digestible chunks at the very least. Furthermore, if you are going to have so many long instances of dialogue, they need to be grammatically correct and spread out across multiple panels. Though, more to the point, maybe an edit is what is most needed. Mercifully, dialogue has become more concise on recent pages, but periodically the word bloat sneaks in. Word bloat, in combination with variably sized text in cramped dialogue balloons is ultimately what makes Raccoon Girl look like Prince’s first attempt at a webcomic. The good news is that by fixing these issues the comic will not only look better, but it will also provide for a nicer reading experience.
With all of this taken into account, can I recommend Raccoon Girl as a webcomic worth reading? It depends.If you want to get someone into webcomics to show the potential of the form I would not suggest starting a new reader with Raccoon Girl. However, if someone is familiar with webcomics and is looking for a pretty funny read with some serialization, then Raccoon Girl is worth a shot. Ultimately though, and this is probably my most pointed criticism, the comic features a lot of “first webcomic” impulses that showcase Elöise Prince’s potential for future comics, but ultimately lack merit as a substantial work. Raccoon Girl will make an interesting and minor footnote into Prince’s overall bibliography when she has moved onto much more developed and challenging projects.
What works: Rachel, the titular Raccoon Girl is a dynamic and hilarious character featuring two interesting sidekicks. The comic is frequently funny and plays on a lot of superhero tropes in entertaining ways. The character designs are cute and Elöise Prince’s accelerating art skills are a pleasure to witness.
What doesn’t: Ultimately, I find myself wishing the comic was either more ambitious in it’s writing, or even maybe even less narrative-driven because that narrative itself is not entirely compelling. Right now Prince is walking a tightrope between tones, and in my personal opinion serialization is ultimately doing more harm than good for the comic. The comic would benefit, I believe, from a smaller, more comic-strip style format rather than an episodic narrative. I find myself more interested in what the next gag is going to be, opposed to what the next plot development will be. Whichever route Prince chooses to go down as the author, the art must reflect that and compliment it. Furthermore, the presentation of paneling and text requires significant changes as they ultimately frustrate the reading experience.
Rating: TRY IT
(Note: My review system is SKIP IT (not worth checking out), TRY IT (you may enjoy it), READ IT (a must-read)
How did you feel about the Raccoon Girl review? Was it fair? Do you think I missed anything? Do you want me to review your comic? Please comment here and share your thoughts. If you are interested in a review please get in touch with me via twitter, for now.
And to be fair to the reviewed, please check out my two current webcomics Cosmic Dash and RGBots and feel free to pass judgement.To be even more fair, please check out my first webcomic, Warped, circa 2005 and feel free to cringe.