The Residents of the Mountain Top Mansion
I understand that a lot of people are worried or anxious about people reviewing their work. Half the people who have posted here have said something like that, to varying degrees. It's natural, and I'm not immune to it, but I urge anyone who feels that way to remember that this process is nothing but good--that's my hope, anyway. My intention is not, and never will be, to rub someone's face in accusations or criticisms. This is not meant to be a negative thing. This is no more or less than me, someone you do not know and will most likely never meet or know, giving you as meaty and honest a review as I can practically give for both our benefit. We are, all of us, in the same struggle, trying to claw our way through the grossly over saturated webcomic market--and not even for money, really. It's just to get somebody out there in the world to get excited about a thing we made. That's me, too. So while I totally understand being worried or anxious or even afraid, I urge you to think more of yourself and less of me. You have everything to gain, and nothing to lose.
It's interesting you bring up the idea of saving a work for your portfolio. I'm of two minds about such a thing. On the one hand, it is a surge of inspiration to see a physical manifestation of one's progress timeline. Analyzing how you get better, how you get sloppier, or just how far you've come can be exceptionally cathartic. Even for just a viewer, there is a nostalgic seed in such a timeline that, especially for early readers, can be heartwarming and emotionally attractive.
On the other hand, the value of such a thing can be nebulous, especially to any potential employer. I have the feeling that a timeline is far less important than a show of consistent quality. I saw that you were starting to put more finished drawings/paintings into the works. That can be nice for readers, but I've learned over time that it can look amateurish for people to host their polished work on pre-made sites--that includes Deviantart and the comic aggregates. Art portfolios are expected to have their own site. That may have nothing to do with your situation, but I thought I should offer it.
This section may end up a bit short, if only because I don't have too much to say about it that you already don't know and are explicitly calling out in your updates.
I'll say for the record that your progress is clear. The quality jumps dramatically from the first few pages to your most recent. Forms look far more defined--there were color blobs early on. You've gained a proficient knowledge of anatomical structure, and everything is far more polished and neat looking. You are also clearly thinking a lot about shading and light, which is more than most--I know I didn't bother with it until later in my own comic.
Right now, you're in a familiar place that I've seen a lot--you are making leaps and bounds in quality as you learn and nail down the fundamentals, but your studies and their references are often very clear in the work. Especially in some recent pages, there is a gulf not of quality but of style. The emblematic example would be comparing the first panel of Part 28 with the first panel of Part 29. Now, I imagine you worked "harder" on the pose in Part 29, because it is definitely more dynamic, but what ends up happening here is that I "believe" the more static pose in Part 28 more. Vale looks more natural--and looks more more appealing--in Part 28. She has a royalty-free clip art look in Part 29.
If that isn't clear, I'll put it like this, which I think is the most important issue I have right now--you are sacrificing style for structure in many panels. In what may seem like a paradox, the more realistic your work, the less believable it is. The surgical use of lines to frame people's faces (particularly jaw lines and chins, see panel 1 of Part 27), the jarringly in depth use of color/texture compared to the rest of the figure or scene (it's the hair. Vale especially), and the sound but vacant looking environments are all symptoms of this clash. I'm confident this will clear up as you learn and practice more, but it is something to be mindful of--the more "studied" something looks, the less real it looks, and the less appealing it looks.
This may be a a disparity caused by a confusion of how stylistic or realistic you want this to look. I don't know if it was meant to be comical, but the scenes in the grocery store stand out in this respect--everyone other than 1-2 characters in any given frame look like doodles. If this was unintentional--or, maybe more likely, an attempt to save time--than I would recommend considering what the balance between realism and stylistic touch will be. Either can work, but the wrong balance will KILL any kind of emotional power you're going for.
So this story seems to keep trauma, nostalgia, and vanity in its orbit at all times, which makes for a compelling story--except in this case. My thesis here is that your attempts to cultivate a dramatic, emotionally impactful story are being sabotaged by your haste and by what I would call a very specific kind of writer's vanity--something I, sheepishly, know quite a bit about.
It is very clear from the get-go what your authorial and thematic intentions are for this comic. The opening scene has the main character immediately reunite with an old flame/friend, and the moment is fraught with tension and emotion. I know all of this because of two big issues:
Firstly, you are leaving nothing to imagination or speculation. Any tension you build in genuinely concerning situations is immediately defused by a summary explanation or think-out-loud session by one or more characters. Vale and Crystaleen meet. Ah, a mystery relationship--oh, they're old friends. Ah, but there's tens--oh, she's troubled/traumatized. Ah, but there is a mysterious event that has them both wound up and in conflict--oh, wait, they're making up--oh no, they aren't--oh, yes they are--oh, no, they aren't. That was my impression. The only mystery that remains seems to be the specifics of both a traumatic effect AND a grudge (which, by the way, immediately came off as a disorienting battle of bitterness, as Vale and Crystaleen competed for who should be more hurt/outraged).
The second issue is related, and the marriage of the two makes for one big cycle of narrative weakness--the story is relentless. In the last 15 pages, Vale and Crystaleen uncover or discuss an unending series of insults, bitter memories, accusations of nonchalance, and an intensifying olympiad of hurt, ending in the most recent page, where there is now ANOTHER horrifically damaged woman introduced. Every flashback is a battle. The problem here is that I have had NO time to naturally bond with the characters. I have only seen their traumas, implied and explicit, and their reactions, healthy or not. I know nothing about Vale or Bian or anybody other than that they are traumatized or dealing with the trauma of others.
I guess all of it comes down the issue of pacing. That's the cut and dry version--your pacing is relentless, and it is undermining your chances of making powerful moments. It is hard to bond with characters who only seem to exist to be hurt. I should be deeply moved by Crystaleen's AIDS or whatever wasting sickness she seems to have, but I feel bombarded by the story's glut of dark emotion--and it's only chapter 1.
If you can pace yourself better, give the reader time to organically bond with your characters without resorting to directly invoking their traumas, than you will triumph. There is power in stories of trauma-relief and endurance, tremendous power--but it is delicate, especially these days, where so many stories of trauma are everywhere.
The power of your story is being hamstrung by its own eagerness. The quick, relentless pace of trauma, and the discussion of trauma, is leading to emotional fatigue--and I don't even know the characters all that well. As the story progresses, take a breath and allow the reader to meet you halfway. They will see and feel the emotional weight that you have waiting for them. It takes confidence in both yourself AND your reader. As your art improves, and you are able to fully realize your own style, you will be able to avoid making scenes look too rigid, traced, and unnatural. You've made tremendous progress in a year--I have no doubt that a calmer, more thoughtful approach will pay BIG dividends.