Review: ” I Can Hear You” By Winston Rowntree (Online Graphic Novel/ Extended Webcomic Update)

As regular readers of this site probably know, I’m a massive fan of Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomic (and his recent “People Watching” Youtube series).

“Subnormality” is perhaps one of the most artistically and thematically complex webcomics on the internet and it is about a million miles away from the more traditional-style webcomics that many people (including myself) make.

One thing that sets “Subnormality” apart from many other webcomics is the almost graphic novel-like length of many comic updates. A side-effect of these extended updates is that the webcomic updates a lot less often than most webcomics do.

So, imagine my delight after a six-month wait to see that a new self-contained comic called “I Can Hear You” (possibly NSFW) had been released recently. So, I just had to review it today (hence this extra blog update).

Before I begin this review, I should probably point out that – at the time of writing – your choice of browser may affect how you see the comic. Whilst the entire comic loads perfectly in both Opera and Chrome, I initially viewed it using Firefox (both last night and about two hours before this review goes out). When viewing it in Firefox, 1-2 segments of the comic refused to load. This problem may or may not be rectified by the time this review goes out. But, if you have any problems, use Opera or Chrome to read it.

Likewise, given the size and length of the comic update, expect a slightly longer loading time than you might expect for a webcomic. Plus, like with many “Subnormality” comics, you will have to scroll horizontally as well as vertically when reading this comic update. In fact, to start reading, you have to scroll to right-hand side of the page and then scroll downwards.

This review will also contain MAJOR SPOILERS too.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “I Can Hear You”:

Yes, you might need to turn the brightness settings up a bit to read the title.

“I Can Hear You” is a sci-fi romance comic that tells the story of an unnamed couple who are caught in the middle of a mysterious apocalyptic event (implied to be an alien invasion or a paranormal event of some kind).

The comic is narrated by one member of the couple who talks about how they met, how they prepared for the apocalypse and about their life together in an underground bunker. The comic is a bittersweet meditation on love, disasters, the media and life in general.

This is the adorable, but nameless, couple at the centre of the story.

One of the first things that I will say about “I Can Hear You” is that, in many ways, it is more like a heavily illustrated short story than a traditional comic. Although a few panels contain speech bubbles, most of the narrative comes from text “voice overs” that are placed beside the artwork (and occasional subtitles on a TV screen).

This was a very deliberate formatting choice since one major element of the story is that noise attracts danger. So, for the most part, we only see one character’s silent thoughts. I can’t remember where I heard or read it, but I once remember seeing a piece of writing advice about how large-scale events are often best depicted by focusing on one small-scale part of them. And, this comic update fits into this idea perfectly.

Yes, it’s a bit different to a traditional comic. But, there’s a good reason for this formatting choice.

The pacing of this comic is, as you would expect, fairly slow and contemplative. Although the comic gives the reader occasional glimpses of the outside world, a lot of the comic takes place inside both the couple’s makeshift bunker and the narrator’s thoughts. This slow pacing helps to give the comic a slightly more “realistic” atmosphere – but, if you’ve seen or read a lot of things in the horror genre, then it will probably also start to create a nervous sense of suspense too.

Although it isn’t really a horror comic, I found myself on the edge of my seat – nervously waiting for something shocking or horrific to happen near the end of the comic:

I wonder what gave me that impression….

Still, when the slightly ambiguous ending of the comic arrives, it is anything but horrific. If anything, it’s hauntingly beautiful and poignantly bittersweet.

More subtly, the comic also leaves it slightly ambiguous as to whether the events of the ending were accidental or whether they were a deliberate – albeit subconscious- choice by the narrator (since she expresses some emotional turmoil later in the comic. And, shortly before the ending, she leaves the bunker door slightly ajar after getting water in the middle of the night). Likewise, the (probable) death of both characters is left entirely to the audience’s imaginations too, with their bedroom merely shown to be covered in leaves or petals of some kind.

One interesting thing about this comic is how it both follows and doesn’t follow the traditions of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre.

Although there is an ominous sense of bleakness lingering in the background, large parts of the comic are actually surprisingly cheerful for something set during an apocalypse. Since the couple are truly in love with each other, their time spent together in the bunker is often shown to be an almost heavenly expression of intimacy. They listen to an MP3 player together, they watch TV, they sleep with each other regularly and they pass the time by doing silly things like doodling on their calendar.

Whilst all of this is going on, the comic also gives us intriguingly mysterious hints about how the world is handling the crisis. There are silent television broadcasts that tell the main characters surprisingly little, there are official information leaflets (but not enough emergency supplies), there are ominously gradual changes to outdoor locations, and there is even a musing on how history only ever focuses on things from an emotionless perspective and how, perhaps as a way to stay sane, distant disasters rarely elicit a strong emotional response.

Yes, this is yet another oddly profound “Subnormality” moment.

Not to mention that the few hints we’re given about the nature of the apocalypse are as imaginatively surreal as you would expect from a “Subnormality” comic.

Plus, there’s this scene which points out that all of the people in charge of disaster planning were immature teenagers once.

On an artistic level, this comic is absolutely beautiful. As you would expect from Winston Rowntree, the art is the kind of hyper-detailed and unique thing that many other artists can only dream of making. However, one minor criticism I have of the art is that – during the later parts of the comic – it is almost too dark to see. Yes, this fits in with the events and themes of the comic, but it can make some of the later images a bit more difficult to “read”.

This is especially important since, despite his reputation for text-heavy comics, Rowntree is also a master of visual storytelling too. Often, the background details of a “Subnormality” comic contain more information than entire comic updates by other artists do. So, by heavily darkening the later parts of the comic, it makes it harder for the audience to gain extra story information.

Still, this darkness is used consciously for dramatic effect in several parts of the comic. Since it soon serves as a way to differentiate between the events that are happening in “real life” and the more optimistic (and brightly-coloured) daydreams that the narrator has. This level of visual contrast really helps to heighten the emotional impact of at least one later part of the comic, even if it makes the comic more difficult to read as a result.

All in all, this is a serious, mature, emotional online graphic novel that would probably knock many traditionally-published comics out of the water. Yes, it’s poignant and at least slightly depressing in some parts – although this is balanced out by the beautiful romance at the heart of the story and some rare humourous moments. Yes, I’d have probably preferred to see a very slightly more light-hearted comic update featuring Justine, Ethel, the Sphynx etc.. but this comic update is serious storytelling at it’s best.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably just about get a five.

2 comments on “Review: ” I Can Hear You” By Winston Rowntree (Online Graphic Novel/ Extended Webcomic Update)

  1. Elaine says:

    On the topic of their deaths — I think it was a deliberate action. There’s a cut-away image of the house’s rooms (for page location reference, about a third from the end, right above the bright-coloured image of the narrator in her alternate-reality vision where she’s safe in a private bunker), and every single room is empty. Compared to the first cut-away image of the house (about a quarter down from the top, right after the two red Emergency Bulletins) where several rooms are stocked full of boxes, presumably of supplies, it looks like the couple had run out of food by the end of the story. The narrator had a leaner build to start with, but by the end, she looks unhealthily thin (especially visible in her arms as she hands the water glass to her partner in bed, who also looks much thinner than he did at the beginning). They may have decided to greet death as it came for them, instead of wasting away from starvation.

    And the petals! Right at the start of the comic, we first see the narrator crouched in their yard, picking a flower. She brings the flower indoors and sticks it in a book, and the book ends up on a shelf. I had …definitely been curious about whether the abnormality would affect previously-living objects, so the flower-in-the-book had been hanging like Chekhov’s gun for the entire read. In one of the ending panels, you can see the shelf, and the flowers are spurting out of where the book had been left (it’s the panel paired with “what was supposed to define you / as different and impossible”). I wonder if the couple had initially been aware of the potential repercussions of bringing a living object into their bunker; or if their perception of a once-impetuous move had taken on the cast of two people stranded on a desert island, looking at a loaded gun.

    I do agree that watching the slow emergence of the emotional turmoil was difficult. They entered their siege not knowing if there would be a solution or a rescue – for all they knew, they were just giving themselves an extended couple’s retreat before an inevitable death. It can’t have been easy to be living with the fact that the danger was ever-present, random, and ultimately unknowable — and they were incredible for having weathered the stress for as long as they did. My friend put it well – “No happy endings here, but it’s also not a tragedy.”

    • pekoeblaze says:

      Wow 🙂 I can’t believe that I didn’t really consciously notice this stuff when I read the comic – it makes a lot more sense of some parts of the story, especially if the characters had run out of food. But, yeah “No happy endings here, but it’s also not a tragedy” is also a perfect way of summarising the comic too 🙂

      I’m still amazed at the sheer level of visual depth in this series too 🙂

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