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.


Review: “People Watching” (Season 1) (Animated Youtube Series)

Well, I don’t usually review things on Youtube but I thought that I’d make an exception in this extra article. This is mostly because, over the past ten weeks, the creator of my favourite webcomic (Subnormality” By Winston Rowntree) has been releasing a weekly animated Youtube series called “People Watching” which was co-produced by a humour/journalism site called “Cracked”.

So, since the individual episodes are a bit too short to review on their own, I thought that I’d wait until the first season of the show had finished and review it as a whole.

Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS. Likewise, this is a show that is firmly aimed at audiences in their 20s-30s. So, if you don’t fit into this age group, then you may or may not enjoy it as much.

So, let’s take a look at season one of “People Watching”:

This is most of the series’ cast, although one character is standing behind the camera in this scene.

Although “People Watching” contains several recurring characters, the episodes are self-contained and can be watched in pretty much any order (it’s best to watch episode 10 last though).

Like in Rowntree’s “Subnormality” comics, the episodes often tend to focus on observations about society, introspective topics and cultural commentary. The series also contains a mixture of comedy and serious moments. Sorry if this description sounds a bit bland, but it’s a really difficult series to describe in a single paragraph.

Let me start by saying that the art in this series is actually as good as the astonishingly detailed art in “Subnormality”. I’d initially expected the level of artistic detail to drop somewhat due to the practicalities of the animation process. But, Rowntree’s art is as spectacular as ever.

Plus, the Sphynx also makes a cameo appearance in the background here.

As for the animation quality, it’s surprisingly good considering that this is a low-budget series on Youtube. Although there are occasional examples of clunky animation (such as someone running in the early parts of episode four), limited animation and/or re-used backgrounds – the animation is, on the whole, fairly good. Since this is a series where the main emphasis is on the dialogue and the storytelling, the limitations of the animation don’t really get in the way of the show.

Likewise, the voice acting in this series is fairly good too. Since the series mostly focuses on a group of new characters, there isn’t the “this character shouldn’t sound like that” problem that you can sometimes get when comics and/or novels are adapted to the screen. The main characters sound like fairly ordinary American or Canadian twentysomethings and the voice acting just comes across as “acting” rather than “voice-acting”.

But, in terms of story quality, the series is something of a mixed bag though. For every good episode, there’s usually one.. less-good… episode.

But, when this series is good, it is good! So, I’ll start with the best moments. As a side note, the episode titles displayed in the episodes are different from the video titles (“Cracked” is notorious for random, inexplicable title changes).

The best episodes in the series are probably episode four and episode nine. And here’s why…

Episode four (“Death Is Bullshit”) revolves around a character having a near-death experience and then trying to find some way to rationalise the concept of death. Although this sounds like a super-depressing episode, it is one of the most psychologically nuanced and emotionally profound things that I’ve ever seen on Youtube. Surprisingly though, it seems to be one of the least popular episodes in the series – if the Youtube comments when it was originally realeased were anything to go by.

Yes, it might look like science fiction. Parts of the episode might even sound like science fiction. But, it isn’t an episode about science fiction!

However, if you remember that it’s supposed to be an episode about psychology and not about science fiction or new age philosophy, then it will probably make you cry with it’s sheer emotional profundity.

Even though the episode itself points out that it’s about the fear of death and it’s effects (eg: in a spine-tingling moment, one of the characters quite literally points out that “death f**king makes you crazy”) a lot of people assumed that the episode was some kind of new age tract and criticised it. But, you’d be hard-pressed to find something as profound or well-written on Youtube. Seriously, watch it!

Episode 9 (“In Defence Of Talking During The Movie”) isn’t as weighty or philosophical as episode four is, but it’s certainly the most fun episode in the series.

The episode revolves around two characters called Ted and Martha who are having a hilarious conversation about a movie that they’re watching on TV. After the movie finishes, they decide to go to a nearby cinema to watch (a parody of) one of the “Taken” films.

Seriously, the dialogue in this episode is hilarious. This screenshot really doesn’t do the episode justice.

Throughout the film, both them and various audience members think and comment about how terrible the movie is whilst other characters are horrified that people are talking in the cinema. There’s a bit of random philosophy, some cultural commentary and so much brilliant sarcasm (eg: Martha’s line about how people are expected to sit in “reverent silence” during terrible movies still makes me laugh when I think about it). It’s a fun, funny and heartwarmingly nice episode.

Episode 10 (“Nostalgia”) sits somewhere between these great episodes and the good episodes I’ll describe in the next paragraph. It mostly consists of an optimistic motivational speech (with a few sci-fi elements) that packs a surprising emotional punch, especially if you’ve seen more of the series. I might not agree with literally all of the sentiments in the episode, but it’s still an incredibly dramatic episode and a fitting conclusion to the season.

Plus, episode 10 has the best-looking title card in the whole series.

Anyway, onto the “just good” episodes. The most notable of these is probably episode two, which is an animated remake of Rowntree’s “Non-religious confessional” comic from “Subnormality”. Given that this episode compresses a dialogue-heavy (but short by “Subnormality” standards) comic strip into a single six-minute video, whilst also adding a lot of extra improvements, it’s certainly a good episode.

One of the most astonishing things about episode two is that the backgrounds are sometimes MORE detailed than in the original comic!

Likewise, episode seven focuses on a self-help group for people who look popular but are secretly losers. This episode is fairly close to the tone of the original comics, with lots of introspective dialogue and dark humour.

It also contains a bit more characterisation for some of the main characters too.

Then there are the mediocre and/or terrible episodes. Some episodes, like episode eight or episode three, seem like they could be something interesting – but end up going in a fairly predictable direction instead. Likewise, some episodes can – for want of a better term- become insufferably hipsterish. Episodes five and six, I’m looking at you!

The art and set design in episode six looks really cool, but the whole episode revolves around looking at smartphones and having awkward conversations. Yes, it’s meant to be an episode about how creativity can sometimes be the only form of self-expression some people are comfortable with, but the episode gets this point across in a slightly obtuse, confusing and hipsterish way.

Episode five introduces Ted and Martha and is a critique of the TV show “Friends”. But, well, the dialogue (and the politics etc..) in this episode is probably about as hipster as you can get.

All in all, this series is extremely good though. Or, rather, half of it is. Even so, it’s one of the most thought-provoking, artistically beautiful and well-written pieces of original content that you can find on Youtube. In a sensible and logical world, this wouldn’t be an obscure collection of 5-10 minute shorts, it would be an actual animated TV series! Seriously, if you want to watch something with a bit more depth than the average animated TV show, then check out “People Watching”. Or, parts of it at least (eg: episodes 2,4,7,9 and 10) .

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would average out at about four. But, at it’s best, it’s a six and – at it’s worst – it’s a two or a three.