Apologies for the long wait. Not only was this the longest comic I've read so far, but my 9-5 is time consuming and I have come down with a savage throat infection. I have a 1-hour break at work, so I should be able to hammer out some meaty reviews every day or so, normally. Excuses aside, we return to the task at hand.
This was a big test for me. I have committed myself to reading the whole work of anyone who submits their comic, but holy crap did I underestimate how huge an almost 5 year long comic would be. I am going to resist the urge to recant and institute a ban on comics longer than a given amount, because it was essential for me to read through the whole thing for me to really arrive at what I think are some very important observations.
I've mentioned it before, but it really is key that you're making content for characters and material that you enjoy. That sounds painfully obvious, but the larger point is that you have, I assume, maintained your enthusiasm for Mihai and friends over almost five years. That's no small feat, and I'd probably rank it as one of the most important aspects of any reading experience--can I, the reader, engage with the energy of the creator? My energy needs to be met more than half way if I'm to get invested.
One of the key points I want to make compels me to ask this question here, as you state you have a significant interest in this being a story about anxiety and mental health. I've seen quite a few of these so far, and I've come to understand it is one of the more prevalent and consistent themes in webcomics. It's an interesting phenomenon, that digital comics would have so much thematic and narrative emphasis put on mental illness and social ineptitude. I can only imagine that this is because of the ease with which otherwise shy people can distribute their own media. No doubt there is an activist spirit to it as well, some kind of grassroots awareness campaign. I'd be interested to know why you are drawn to these kinds of themes.
My question isn't as defiant as it sounds; it's very innocent, actually: how much do you know about it? I'll get into this more in the Writing section, but I will mention now that this is definitely the "cleanest" representation of the afflicted. Socializing 101 lacks the edge that usually accompanies such themes.
Technically, it's just about beyond my ability to meaningfully critique. But there is plenty to discuss.
I need to start by getting this off my chest: it was difficult, at first, to pay attention to anything that wasn't Adeline. Holy crackers, what a beauty. It's almost a problem, really. She is by FAR the most strikingly attractive thing in the entire comic, and I'm not just talking about how gorgeous she is. Everyone else looks like a comic character. They make sense in the space of a comic panel. Adeline is like an illustration walking among sketches. Sweet Jesus. Really, breathtaking character design here. So simple, but it checks off some whimsical archetypal beauty boxes.
That said, as lovely as she is, and as polished and technically competent the art is, I cannot help but think that Adeline is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this comic's visual problem. I'm not exaggerating when I say that she doesn't fit in with the rest of the cast. With the exception of MAYBE two other side characters, everyone else looks like an offhanded doodle. Yes, characters like Hana have a "distinctive" look, and yes, it is usually their hair. I'd call it same-face syndrome--and there are pages, recent pages, that are comical in how identical Adeline and Mihai's faces are when adjacent--but that's not exact enough. Adeline has presence. Nobody else does. Well... Noel has his moments, but the rest of the cast tend to blend together, faces and all, into a mob. I totally understand having Adeline outshine the rest of the cast. It fits her character. The issue is that close to everyone else wilts in comparison. She feels like a finished character. She has a polish others don't. Interestingly enough, there is a noticeable dip in art quality in the chapter or two right before the aquarium date in which Adeline loses that presence and joins the muddy throng.
I applaud your commitment to never having to really make backgrounds. The amount of time I imagine you save by either forgoing them entirely or using blurred/touched up photos must be staggering. It works so well, thanks to the character-focus of the work. Rarely if ever did it feel like a cop-out. I'm honestly envious. Would that I could. This isn't to say that your ambient work doesn't go unnoticed for the better. The aquarium environ was genuinely magical and really sold the intimacy. In a way, it makes me wonder about what it would be like to see you render backgrounds yourself to a greater degree. You have the eye for it.
I don't know how I feel about the sporadic chibi style flashes. Yes, they are amusing. Yes, they look good. That said, I noticed that they often made it difficult to take many of the accompanying scenes very seriously. I acknowledge that this is entirely because of my personal aversion to this kind of style, and thus isn't particularly helpful.
The reason I asked about your knowledge of anxiety and mental illness is because I had an uncomfortable question popping out of my head at many different parts of the story thus far. I need to give context, because the question on its own is potentially callous and ignorant. I must know much less about social mental disorders than I thought I did. I must be missing several layers of understanding. That's the best reason why I kept asking myself: What the hell are these people talking about? What is the problem? Where is the tension? Put simply, I must not have the knowledge, because the conflict in this story flies right over my head--comically so. I laughed out loud at several points throughout the story because of what I perceived as comical melodrama.
The best example of this: my boy Alec. What the hell is everyone's deal? Why is he so hated by half the cast? It's possible it hasn't been revealed yet, but there was at least a tentative explanation: that he drifted apart from Lydia at a time during which she, unbeknownst to him, was the target of bullying. If that's accurate, then I'm not sure what the issue is--and I certainly am confused with how vehemently he is shat upon routinely throughout the story. I don't understand.
Another good example of my confusion is encapsulated in Mihai's inconsistent interactions with other people. Truth be told, he seems to do just fine until the story demands the next in a long line of dark, heavily shaded moments of self loathing. His inner circle, sure; but the rugby players who punched him? The other intersecting circles of friends? He gets along with all of them. Yes, we have ample evidence of his social ineptitude, but narratively speaking, there is no outside pressure or threat from which his insecurity can draw legitimacy. As a reader, I feel no sense of urgency or tension. He's prone to anxiety attacks in a world that 99% of the time has treated him amazingly well. The one time that the outside world shows that it IS a brutal place--and he gets punched--is resolved pretty quickly, leading him to not only watch his antagonist grovel before the mob for forgiveness but to ALSO make a whole new friend group.
This is why I'm curious about your experience with anxiety disorders, et. al. As it is depicted in your comic, it seems borderline ridiculous. It just hit me. I know the problem. I feel no sympathy for anyone. Their fears are ALL groundless. Mihai is afraid of human interaction--all human interaction ends up netting him a win. Adeline is a̶ ̶G̶o̶d̶ ̶D̶a̶m̶n̶ ̶p̶s̶y̶c̶h̶o̶p̶a̶t̶h̶ skeptical of intimacy and transactional relationships--she is destined for a utopian relationship with Mihai and has yet to be betrayed by anyone (this one may be pending the explanation of the cute scar). Hell, even Zoe, who can at least say she was... led on? I think. Again, Alec hasn't really done much wrong as far as I can tell. Well even Zoe seems to have gained the upper hand by being flanked on all sides by sympathetic friends with which she can ballbust her supposed antagonist, Alec.
My real point here is that everyone looks irrational and borderline insane. That could be intentional, given your stated interests, but I would guess it isn't. Right now, your characters are not earning sympathy---they are earning pity. I don't sympathize with the delusional, I feel pity for their situation. Because there is no argument in Mihai's favor--that social interaction is hard, that people are judgmental and hostile, that public humiliation is a fate worse than death--there is no tension. it's just a crazy person wallowing in his own head. That is sad and pitiful, but it does not make me feel for him beyond that. He's not fighting against anything. He has near infinite support. There's no dramatic tension when it's this obvious that he's not putting himself in any kind of risky situation.
I'm not kidding about Adeline, by the way. She looks beautiful--I cannot stress that enough--but she acts like a psychopath. Extreme narcissism. Her "innocent" teasing takes on a completely new character after her genuinely appalling treatment of Lydia and friends. She frightens me.
As a last note, I cannot help but feel there was a missed opportunity to have a real adversarial rivalry begin between Mihai and friends and Alec and the Rugby Team. When tempers flew in the bar, I was ready for a new kind of social tension. I suppose that's not the kind of story this is.
As a rule, I avoid comics like this. It's reminiscent of manga style (very light), it's slice of life, and it's romantic drama NOT set in a period piece. I tend to have no interest in such things. And truth be told, I can't say that I was able to invest in this story regardless of how gorgeous the characters are and how skilled you are at what you do. You make lovely work, truly gorgeous. Unfortunately, I think that shine drains the tension from the story and is largely localized in the psychopathic smile of Adeline. You have a significant following, so you've found your niche for sure. All I can say is that despite being the furthest thing from your audience, I read the whole thing and not ONCE checked my watch. That has to count for something.