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Athena Voltaire: The Terror In Tibet

In some things, I'm a traditionalist. I prefer e-mail to instant messaging. I like a real phone compared to a cell-phone. And I truly believe that taking digital pictures, while cheaper, is far more work than dropping off a roll at the local Photo Hut. And when it comes to books and comics, I've never been able to read them on a computer. Give me paper any day.

But I was asked to review my very first web comic, and here we are.

Athena Voltaire is a web comic that appears weekly at www.moderntales.com while www.AthenaVoltaire.com is the official website. The story follows the escapades of Athena Voltaire: aviatrix, stunt woman, and adventurer for hire in 1930s New York. Along with her limey sidekick Harcourt, Athena has been hired to take a group of Englishmen up Mt. Everest. Little does she know, the group she is taking are occultists far more interested in the dark secrets of a Himalayan temple than a fun time mountaineering. On top of that, the Thule Society (Nazi occult organization started by Himmler) is also after said temple and the dark secrets within. Athena and her British manservant must survive with both sides trying to kill them and discover the secrets contained in the Temple on Mt. Everest.

The story is only thirty web pages long, not a full page of panels, but rather half a page. I've never seen a comic where the artwork and the story were so unbalanced, and in favor of the artwork for once. The story moves along at far too quick a pace and the plot is so choppy in parts, I had to hit the "Back" button more than once to figure out what was happening. Another problem with writer Paul Daly's script is that there's no real transition between story installments. Athena and Harcourt can be in New York City on one page, in Heathrow Airport in the next, and then the characters are smack dab in the middle of Tibet. It is incredibly difficult to keep up with the story.

The characters themselves are about as predictable as possible. Harcourt is a drunk English sidekick, who seems to have almost no real use to Athena other than to throw in a semi-funny line here and there, or say "right-o" or "chap" every couple of lines. The Nazis are your standard Teutonic fair, and are about as useful as characters as the stone pillars in the background. Athena herself is a bad combination of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, answering all questions with "yeah" and shooting her way out of pretty much every situation. Character development is non-existent in the story, and the plot would be fine if it were more detailed and actually had a sense of consequence. Nothing in the story engages the reader or creates a feeling of suspense. It's a boring script that barely makes sense at some points.

The high point of the whole endeavor is the artwork by Steve Bryant and the coloring by Chad Fidler. Their work here is the best I've seen in an online comic book and it far outshines the terrible script. It appears that Bryant and Fidler are both using technology to their advantage; the coloring is very rich and the background work appears to be digitally touched in some aspect. I was impressed by the picture resolution I got on the computer screen, as it seemed on par with paper comics. Bryant has a good grasp of anatomy and seems able enough with backgrounds.

But there are two problems with the artwork. The first is that the artists are both trapped by the very small panels they're drawing. The one thing that web comics have over regular comics is that they are not as trapped by the page. A webpage can be infinitely large (in theory) and the artwork could be better spaced out to allow the reader a better view of the artwork. Maybe they're under some file size constraint by their server or website provider, but it still limits the artwork. The other problem I have is with Bryant's work specifically. A lot of the panels in this web comic are headshots, and while it might be tempting to use a photograph as a picture reference, Bryant crosses the line into tracery in the fourth installation, where he clearly copied the face of Aliens and Millennium alum Lance Henrikson. It's somewhat sloppy, but even the paper comics pros have been accused of it (Greg Land springs to mind).

The subscription for the archive is $2.95 a month and $29.95 for a year, allowing the subscriber unlimited access to the stories, plus subscriber-only bonus material. I'm sorry to say that Athena Voltaire has not changed my mind about whether my comics should come in a bag or in my e-mail, but I'm impressed with the level of visual artwork in web comics today. I do not recommend Athena though; if for no other reason than the $2.95 you spend to get access, you can buy a single issue of a better comic, and get the same amount of story, though hopefully of better quality.

Robert Sparling

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