@keii4ii Heart of Keol
This is the most objectively popular comic I've seen here, and I admit I double-took--2 million views, over 12000 subs. My initial thought was "What the hell do I have to say to this person, they're crushing it."
That sentiment aside, I do think I have a few important notes to make. It's a massive project, having gone on for 4 years now, so I freely admit that I did not in fact read all of it. I read up to the end of Chapter 10 and picked up again at Chapter 19 up to today. I browsed chapters in between. Bear that in mind, because I'm going to act like I read most if not all of it. You will know whether or not I have any idea what the hell I'm talking about. It's a long story, after all.
This will be a nitpicky review. You're obviously in the top percentile of successful creators, both in objective skill and raw numbers--this is compared to the rest of us shmucks. Any serious gripes I have are 100 purely a matter of specific personal taste.
Goals and Intentions:
I had the interesting experience of reading your intentions, reading your comic having forgotten them, and then rereading them--I had conflicting feelings. The most obvious one--which you mentioned in your goals already--is that your comic oozes "Epic Fantasy Adventure Across Vast Drama-Filled World" despite your admitted interest in the personal relationships between Ethan, Dan, and Lushaka. The interesting thing is that your comic also screams sexual tension drama. The bottom line is that you succeed in both streams of genre, but both forces are so powerful that they rub up against each other in both effective and unfortunate ways. We'll go into this in a moment. It's mainly a writing problem, I think.
Subjectively, I'm not a fan at all. It's a far cry from my tastes. There, we got that meaningless, useless idea out of the way. What may not be meaningless is that unless you've been going back and refining past pages as you go, I cannot see any improvement or progress at all in your artistic skill in the past 4 years. Quality remains static. Now that's not necessarily a problem for the reader, but I would offer that for your own digestion.
Objectively, it's enchanting. When I first went through your work, i was building an argument in my head about how messy and smudgy the color was and how careless the oriental calligraphic linework was. Notably, I forgot that criticism by the time I was finished. I recognized after a while that you were emulating elements of East Asian watercolors and painting, but even more specifically, I think I tapped into the subtle deliberation you have throughout the story. You sacrifice precision for flow, which ultimately works well to make a pleasing, soft, lilting character for your work. I do wonder if you couldn't afford some finer lines, especially for many of the hands. Page 1 of Chapter 25 comes to mind--Ethan's hands look rushed as hell. Nitpicky, I told you. You have the fundamentals.
By far--by a possibly problematic long shot--your environments steal the show. Just look at the entirety of Chapter 24. It's drop dead gorgeous. This, I think, was the kind of thing that made me quickly forget any complaint I may have had about color. What a triumph, seriously. They look more magical and have more otherworldly beauty than your druidic magic, and that's saying something. I have nothing to say about them other than sing their praises. I was going to point some out specifically, but they're in pretty much every chapter. Gorgeous. I'll be using your stuff as reference, guaranteed.
This brings me to my one big issue, and this is simultaneously irrelevant--due to my tastes and your audience's response--and perhaps critically important: your character design is shockingly dull and your expressions are lackluster. We'll start with the latter. Maybe this is simply the convention of the manga-like look, but I was dumbfounded by how uninspired I was by your choice of character look. There are two faces to this--firstly, the baby-face reigns supreme. Virtually every character looks prepubescent. Even some of the older characters looks 30 years younger than I'd expect. Even the most recent page--the older motherly woman. The only thing suggesting that she isn't in her teens is that she has those age lines under her eyes. That and facial hair are the only markers on most characters that they aren't just entering college.
Ethan is the worst transgressor here, and it MUST be intentional, because he looks like he has an infant's face grafted onto that of Joseph Joestar. This eternal youth deflates a lot of drama. I feel emotionally manipulated when I have to watch 17 year old Danbi give me the millionth sad 4 year old puppy look. It lost effectiveness by Chapter 3. In fact, all 3 of the main cast have this problem. Their bodies and ages tell me one thing, but their faces tell me another. I would seriously reflect on whether or not you're using their soft, young, innocent faces as a crutch for your intentions of making an emotional journey. The character design in general is, again, lackluster. The chimeric characters look preposterous in their human forms. It looks like they wear clown shoes. And because everyone looks young, it's hard to take any of them seriously until they're fighting in your visually appealing but often inscrutable action scenes.
This exacerbates the expressiveness problem. I went back to look through recent chapters, and I was hard pressed to find more than a few expressions that weren't either general unease or minor shock. One or two reassuring smiles make their way in there, but it's largely just melodramatic pensiveness. This extends into most other chapters. The early chapters have some variance, but that's waning, from the looks of things. The emotional stakes are being warped into soap opera shenanigans with this small spectrum of emotion. It's hard to engage with the characters--especially God damn Danbi--when they quiver their lips at me or stand mouth slightly agape for the hundreth time in a row. It's a dilution of melancholy.
It's a shame, too, because you have two astoundingly effective scenes that underscore one of my favorite tropes of all time--parent-child drama. I don't have time to go fishing for the exact pages, but there's an early one where we see Ethan reflecting--for a single frame--on some time he P U N I S H E D some fool for talking about his father and had to be held back. And there's another scene where Ethan goes out desperately trying to find the father of some village child but ends up weeping on a rock. Lashaka comes to comfort him, and it is devastatingly poignant.
This became a problem. Your most recent page once more gives us a melancholy reflection-on-parents moment with Ethan, and I imagine there are more scattered throughout the story. It's becoming heavyhanded. The small spectrum of expression really makes this a sore point, making it seem like we are making no progress at all in the story. In fact, that's probably the ultimate issue here--I read more than half the story, browsed through most of the rest, and I cannot tell where they are or if they've made it any closer to their vague goal of reaching the Heart of Keol. The stakes remain the same, the characters seem to be the same, they make the same uneasy or slightly surprised looks to each other while treading the same emotional ground.
I mentioned in Goals that there's a clash of intention between the adventure and the emotional personal stories. When we're treading water, we turn to the world. The world you have, governed by these impressively beautiful animist avatars, chimeric outsiders, druidic magics, and enchanting East Asian motifs, is endlessly interesting. Fungus that clean your outhouses? Fascination. Seaweed boats? Very cool. Racial tensions? Always a good time. Danbi's distressed girly face? Boring. Maybe I missed it, but I also am not sure why Danbi is such a deadringer for a lady.
That brings up another minor curiosity. Your story, more than personal drama, is suffused with sexual tension. I was half expecting this to be a gay menage a trois in disguise. That means that the main cast has lots of chemistry and works well together, but it also means that I'm being pulled in yet another thematic direction. There are several scenes discussing people's junk, their gender, sexual theory, and just a general undertoe of lewdness, especially when it comes to the chimeric characters.
All of this said, i do want to commend you on the general strength of the world building and story. Slow as it is, I was definitely engaged for the first chapters I read. It's easy for an early reader to see lots of potential. Again, though, it's being buried beneath an avalanche of too familiar drama and constant familiar angst. Perhaps a shake up is needed.
Looking back, this seems a raw deal, but it's in part due to how well you're doing. A large audience of engaged readers, a polished, professional look, a truly enchanting world--you seem to have it all. I personally just can't manage to ignore some ostensibly out of place gaps in effort and effect. Compare your environments and backgrounds to your characters, and I see a huge problem. Sadly, I wonder most about your intentions. With all the effort being placed on the emotional journey of flawed people, I can't help but think the potential of this moving, subtle, multi-layered adventure is being strangled by your own efforts for clarity. Has the emotional journey begun to choke the life of the story? And is it because you are worried you aren't be clear enough?