An Intro to FreakAngels by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield

Disclamer: this is an old column I wrote for IndieReview last year and since then FreakAngels has grown and flourished – there are many more pages available in webcomic form and also a printed volume one available to buy in bookshops or online.  Before I write a more up-to-date column about the comic I want to get hold of said printed edition in order to review it properly.  However, funds dictate that I won’t be doing that any time soon, so as not to waste a column I’m going to post this one up as it appeared last year rather than tweaking it to update it (it wouldn’t be tweaking anyway, it would be a complete re-write).

Nevertheless I think this post will still be useful to anyone who has not discovered FreakAngels yet, which is why I’m calling it an introduction.  So without futher ado, here we go…

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“23 years ago, twelve strange children were born in England at exactly the same moment. 6 years ago, the world ended. This is the story of what happened next” – FreakAngels page one

FreakAngels is a gritty, adult, post-apocalyptic steampunk comic with at least its first few episodes set in London. It tells the tale of some of the survivors of an unknown disaster, and in the story so far it has been revealed that a few of these have gained new abilities.

Just in case the genre is new to anyone out there, ‘steampunk’ stories typically feature a world that is inspired by the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution era (roughly the 1800s). The difference with steampunk is that there are usually lots more fantastical inventions featured than there actually were back then, such as the steam-powered helecopter that KK uses in the first Episode of FreakAngels. An anime example of the genre is Katsuhiro Otomo’s film ‘Steamboy’ whereas a comic example would be Moore and O’Neill’s ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’.

When compared to most other offerings of the genre, FreakAngels is unique.  This is because it is set in a future where technology has regressed, rather than in a past with futuristic levels of technology. Unfortunately I will have to leave my explanation of the story there, as the comic has not been running for long enough for me to give any more detail. But wait! Don’t go away just yet, as there is method to my madness!

And that is this: FreakAngels might possibly be the biggest UK webcomic out there, even though it only began in February this year. Award-winning artist Paul Duffield (aka. Spoonbard) is handling the visuals – Paul won first place in Tokyopop’s Rising Stars of Manga (2006) and also got the Overall Winner award for the International Manga and Anime Festival (IMAF) in the same year. Alongside him doing the writing is UK comics guru Warren Ellis, who has written for Marvel and DC (amongst others) as well as having several of his own works published, and winning several Eagle awards in 2007 (including ‘Favourite Comics Writer’).

So far the internet is the only way to sample the pair’s offerings and there don’t seem to be any plans for a print edition of FreakAngels, at least not at this early stage. Instead there are free weekly updates of six pages a pop, entitled ‘Episodes’. Each one seems to look at a particular situation or conversation, so readers get a manageable chunk of story but are still left wanting to know more. It’s quite an experimental format, but it seems to be working so far over the first five episodes.

What’s also exciting and new about this comic is that there is a great juxtaposition here between manga and western comic influences. Warren Ellis is a renowned western comics writer and Paul Duffield cut his teeth on the Rising Stars of Manga and Self Made Hero’s ‘Manga Shakespeare’ version of ‘The Tempest’. The new challenge for the artist here though is the use of full colour visuals on every page.  Appropriately, each page is drawn in Paul Duffield’s signature style, using fine expressive pen lines rather than the technically drawn look you get in a lot of manga. The quality of the linework and use of muted colours complement the London setting very well. The artist often brings out the beauty of his characters (especially the lead, KK), however what’s really special about his work here is that he doesn’t shy away from including character flaws and uglier moments to illustrate their personalities and the harsh situation they have found themselves in.

However, much as I love the character designs and beautifully stark London backgrounds, I did find some of the panel layouts on the pages to be a bit repetitive as there are a lot of pages that are simply split into four equal panels. This may have been an editorial decision to bring across a steady pace to events, but as someone who is used to reading manga where panel layouts are different on every page I found this to be a bit sluggish.

Inextricably linked to the panel pacing is the writing style of the comic. In general, I found the setting and characters to be very intriguing and the writing to flow well from panel to panel. Unfortunately though, I found some of the writing a bit lacking (I’ll duck and cover before going on…). These are real characters living in a harsh environment, therefore they swear quite a bit. I have no problem at all with swearing, especially if its in context as it is here, however I think perhaps they might banter with each other in more elaborate ways than just putting the f-word in at every second sentence.  Also, in Episode Two we meet Alice, a girl from Manchester. She swears with a northern accent, however nothing else she says is accented at all – this seems a bit inconsistent.  The rest of her words aren’t put across with dialect, so why that one?

Anyway, niggles aside, this is a compelling comic and there are also a few extras on the website too: before Episode One there are four standalone promotional poster-style images, there is an RSS feed available, and also a forum to discuss each episode as it comes out.

In conclusion, this is a very exciting comic that I feel has a lot of potential. It may not be 100% perfect but its still early days so I’m hopeful that the plot will become gripping and that the characters will each become more unique and individual. This comic will appeal to fans of Warren Ellis, those who are following Paul Duffield’s work, fans of the steampunk genre, those who like a good post-apocalyptic tale, those who appreciate manga and fans of western comics alike, so I’m eager to see it gain more readers and keep bridging that gap between manga and western comics fans – oh and remember, its all free!

I’m looking forward to re-visiting FreakAngels in the future, once the plot and characters have had a chance to develop.

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