The Cat, the Vine, and the Victory
I apologize again for the long wait time. In the interest of clarity and honesty, I'll tell you why, and it isn't JUST because of life interference. As I mentioned in the original post, I generally find it extremely difficult to engage with anime/manga styled works. This isn't just a stylistic genre--it involves a large array of conventions and themes. Now, like I also said in the original post, I refuse to let this be a barrier of entry. I am proud to say that while I was tempted by many of the submissions to not read the whole comic, I read all of them to the end, including this one. This is no comment on quality, only another reminder that I am the furthest thing from your traditional audience. Remember that while reading my analysis.
Long-form stories are rare, if only because it takes quite a long time to make them that way. You've been at this for 3 1/2 years, now, and with almost 700 episodes, I think it's safe to say that you've achieved long-form storytelling, regardless of where you are in the story arc.( We'll talk about that in depth later.) My initial question here is how long you anticipate this story to be? 650+ pages is quite a bit more than most people manage to crank out, and is far larger than most graphic novels.
You mention encouraging others to share their stories. I did not pick up on any thread of that sentiment while reading, which is only important if that was a major theme of the actual narrative. Otherwise, what exactly do you mean by this kind of creative bravery? Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, because you did also say that your intention, at least initially, was to put thought to screen and translate your fantasies into a real comic. I can only imagine they are related.
It's interesting that I could have identified your artistic inspirations without knowing them beforehand. Sailor Moon humanoids, in keeping with your notes, but I found all of your beastly characters to be very reminiscent of Disney, which made for an interesting clash of styles that sometimes worked and sometimes did not. The times they did NOT work was usually when, juxtaposed, it showed higher line quality on animal faces than on human faces.
This once again treads the line of conventions vs effort. I will leave it to you to determine which this is: your human characters' faces are notably less dynamic and polished than your animal faces, which is conveniently most apparent on your most recent pages. Chapter 12, pages 14-15, shows exactly what I'm talking about. Measure the personality and line quality of all three mobile-form Guardians and compare that to the shoddy, half formed faces of King, Tarrow, and Victory. I can't say whether this is a stylistic choice, but throughout the comic, the level of attention given to the animals far outweighs what you give many of the main characters, at least to the reader's eye. It's not surprising that the dragons and beasts would be more demanding, but you should consider trying to bring the humanoids up to snuff. Seeing Noelle become such a fleshed out beast and then fight a blocky, clunky Tarrow is pretty jarring.
Personally, I would have thought that animal anatomy would have been more difficult--but you clearly don't have that issue. Rather, it's the human forms that stand out as lacking. It's the limbs and hands. You deserve a lot of credit for trying out many different kinds of dynamic poses, even if perspective and camera angle stay roughly static throughout, but the legs in particular almost always seem like they're in braces. This is less of a problem with the women, for reasons only you would know, but Maltor and Enne both look OK from the waist up and odd from the waist down. In fact, I think most of the men (with human legs) are relatively identical in build and form... at least, when they aren't half naked. You could do with some gesture studies--it will help to resolve these stiff, scarecrow poses that keep popping up in your menfolk and beyond.
This brings me to my most important issue, which eclipses any other problem you may or may not have--in the 3.5 years you have been working on this comic, I can confidently say that your art has remained static over the entire period of time with no momentum towards higher quality or a more polished look. This is something that only you can qualify as a real issue, as it is tied to your expectations and ambition, but from where I'm standing, I find it hard to imagine how you could go so long without making notable steps in polishing your work. If it's a lack of interest in improving fundamental art skills, that is genuinely fair. There is no need to improve technical art skills if you aren't invested in that path.
Regardless of your intent, however, the effect remains the same: there is no evolution of design or style, there is no realization of the mind's eye, and there is a sneaking suspicion that you aren't putting your best foot forward. When certain smaller technical problems persist--wonky limbs and hands, dubious lack of effective contrast, and the text bubble clutter, to name the more obvious ones--it begins to leave a bad taste in the mouth. As I have said many times over many reviews, it is hard for a reader to invest in a comic when it appears that the creator is not particularly invested.
That said, consumers don't see the process, only the product. Only you know for sure if any of this is reasonable. If you reflect on this, you'll have the answer, because I can only guess.
I don't have too many other notes--the character design is touch and go. Nothing sticks out as distractingly ineffective, but the only visually compelling characters that tend to stand out are Noelle and, to my surprise on reflection, Sugar (in mobile form). Vine doesn't look like he belongs in this comic. He looks straight out of a Don Bluth cartoon, but he regularly mingles with Sailor Moon characters. Mysaphia has cleaned up her act--she was over-designed earlier on, with ribbons, frills, antlers and other dress details taking up attention. Maltor suffers pretty badly here--the only thing he's got going for him is his large beard. Otherwise, like Enne, he's a blob--except when he's half naked.
This is where I feel most confident this time around. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, this comic took me a long time to read, Somewhere in the neighborhood of two weeks. Now, this is partly due to the size of this comic--but that's only a small reason. It is also because, as I've stated, this style of comic is the furthest from my interests. Even that, however, isn't the full story, because I have committed to getting over my immaturity and reading full works in the interest of making relevant observations.
The big reason is that this comic's story is dull, and not only is it dull, but it is relentless dull. Having read the whole thing, i can say with some confidence that an arbitrary (but representative) percentage of the story thus far--maybe 60% to be generous--read like filler episodes. The fluff and bloat is intense, here. It is one thing to explore character relationships and interactions, establish intimacy, and spark a slow burning narrative, but your characters spend at least half of their time batting eyes at each other and just hanging around. Looking back on your episodes, there is a FIVE chapter (~200 pages) where the only notable development in the story is the main group moving from one location to another and getting romantic along the way. I think somewhere during that time, King flies in literally out of nowhere and drops a plot-moving device (a talisman) as if to say "GET ON WITH IT!" And not only do they not get on with it, they camp and continue to get romantic. It's a reasonable pace until Tarrow slaughters the would be rapist family in the manor and then gets mauled by Noelle, which were both great scenes (not just because they're gnarly), but as soon as Tarrow is (to my disappointment, and not because I don't like her) healed, the plot loses all steam and crawls along.
All of this is aggravated by sporadic lore dumps--perhaps this is desirable for your 500+ audience, but for me, it was exhausting. Because the world is 100% custom made and has no visible threads to real world anchoring cultures, I cannot make any immediate inferences--If I want to understand your world, I HAVE to meticulously comb through the lore and remember the important cultural pillars. You hear that and think "Well yeah, I went to the trouble of detailing it all out for you." and you're technically right--but with so little happening in the actual plot, it's hard to invest and look forward to the exposition being realized in the actual story.
My final big issue is the romance. Yes, I realize that this is a romantic comedy, and I fully expect romance to play heavily into the story, but I think you may be getting lost in your own world. The only example that needs to matter is, of course, the relationship between Tarrow and Mysaphia. First of all, I was disappointed to see them become involved, because I was amped and prepped to see an Amazonian beast woman practice the chivalrous, chaste love of idealized knighthood from classical pre-Renaissance fantasy. For me, their relationship was and is cheaper than what it could have been. But that's a personal preference. The second problem is objective: this relationship has eclipsed every single other facet of the comic, without exception. The scenes where they are together are many and interminable. I think the characters themselves even comment on this, feeling frustrated that they have to wait for these two to stop cooing at each other before the actual quest--one with globally existential implications--can actually start. The most recent chapters are almost comically guilty of this. I just checked again--there is a single romantic scene between these two that takes 15 pages across 2-3 chapters. That's incredible. The titular Victory and her crush, who haven't even sealed the deal yet, get comparatively token scenes--and I think Enne's reunion with his dad comes out of nowhere and lasts all of 5 pages?
My point is that romance is easily the most important facet of your comic. I can't keep track of the world lore, but I am ever mindful of the romantic plots--not subplots, plots--that control the inner fibers of your comic. There are smaller issues, which are important but eclipsed by the insatiable hunger of the romance plots: perpetually resolved conflict, in which all possible tensions are fixed within pages (I'm looking at you Maltor/Enne/Vine/Victory); blatant and direct over explanation of all feelings, inferences, and intentions of every character; constant cycle of revelation--insecurity--comfort--romantic moment, without any attached growth so as to reduce future insecurity. Pity parties and compliment fishing are rife, here. The final note: Victory is a minor character in her own story. This is a comic about Tarrow and Saldry (the cat, I think that's his name--neat that you had a contest about that). Victory can taste their footnotes, because she's gotten narrative crumbs ever since Maltor and Tarrow inexplicably joined the team (another instance of perpetually resolved conflict).
This definitely comes off as one of the most, if not the most, critical reviews I've ever done, and there are genuine reasons for that--admittedly, many of them connected to personal tastes. Truth be told, I want to be where you are. I would envy you, if I was less confident in my work. You've stuck it out much longer than the vast majority of comics out there, and that has reaped you an invested audience and almost 700 pages of YOUR original story. I dream of that, friend. That said, I think you're hamstringing yourself with the lack of progress, both artistically and narratively. The plot isn't moving and the art isn't getting much better. Fortunately for you and your audience, these are problems that are easily and cheerfully solved by something you already have in spades--the energy and stamina to bring your vision to fruition.