Sunday, March 29, 2009

Postcards #8: The Pen

I'm not sure why I'm hitting a superhero streak in the postcards, it's just the order the requests have been coming in I guess.

Hi! You might be interested in the new online comic "The Pen",
available for free at

The Pen follows the inmates and staff at Wentworth Ridge Penitentiary,
a correctional facility for superpowered criminals. In the current
story arc, prisoners and guards alike must deal with the upheaval
caused by the arrival of an A-list supervillain.

Tonally, the comic is similar to Garth Ennis and John McCrea's Hitman,
and is heavily influenced by such TV series as Oz, The Shield and The
Wire. The Pen is scripted by new British writer Rob Bray, and
illustrated by talented Philipino artist Randy Valiente.

A new 24-page issue (in JPG and PDF formats) is released every
Saturday for the duration of the introductory 4-issue story arc.

Your comments and criticism are very welcome, and a link from your
site would be very much appreciated!


Rob Bray

This is one of the more professionally written requests I've received so far. Any webcomic creators want to learn how to write a review request that has the highest chance of being responded to can learn from this guy:

  1. An introduction and proper link to comic in question (Don't laugh, I've received requests with malfunctioning links before)
  2. Short description of the comic (For your information "This is an awesome comic" is NOT a description. It's self praise. Try something like "This is a comic about superheroes, but from a different perspective" instead please.)
  3. Politely letting the reviewer know what kind of feedback they are particularly looking for.

The only thing that might improve it a little further would be starting it off with the reviewer's name to give it a personal touch, but that would be the cherry on the icing already.

So on to the actual review. 

By the time I'd actually sat down to read the comic, I'd forgotten about the synopsis, so the actual premise of Wentworth Ridge Penitentiary a.k.a. "The Pen" was a nice change. I have to admit I started off thinking: "Oh great. Another superhero comic. Please don't tell me this is a cheesy Superman knockoff."

However, I hadn't even finished the first issue before I was laughing out loud at how the comic managed to give voice to a lot of little things that often bothered me about superhero comics. There's a dark, yet tongue-in-cheek kind of humour prevalent throughout most of the comic, and it is very welcome and refreshing. And not quite what I expected. In a good way.

Rob Bray's writing also has something that many webcomic authors lack: Succinctness and brevity. He knows how to to tell a story without making it drag. He knows what to put in and what to leave out, and when to pace it right. Most webcomic authors (yours truly included) sometimes fail at this due to not having the constriction of a certain number of pages we have to fit the story into. Self-editing and summarizing takes skill. Putting a story into balanced 24 page chunks is quite amazing.

Mind you the writing's not perfect. For example: I don't understand why in the most recent storyline... no one in "The Pen" has mobile phones so they can actually call for help. Maybe it's set in a world where no one invented the mobile phone. I don't know.

The art is very professional. Definitely no anatomy complaints from me this time; the crisp and edgy lines make the body language expressive and the backgrounds impeccable. You can tell Randy is a master of black-and-white comic art from his compositions and balance of tone.

But his art does have one drawback: it's too perfect.

While the crickets chirp, let me explain the above sentence. The characters are beautifully drawn and proportioned, but they are all based on the same ideal proportions and facial features. In fact, almost all the "normal build" guys are identically good-looking and if it were not for the hair and facial hair, I would be absolutely unable to tell them apart. A friend of mine once shared with me the secret of good character design: 

Include imperfection. And not a "little scar on the forehead" kind of imperfection. I mean, nose slightly too big, or crooked, or overly short eyebrows, and apple-chin... or things like that. They go a loooong way to making your character more distinctive and identifiable.

This may sound like a trivial nitpick about character designs, but it's not. At one point in the story, this flaw caused me a lot of confusion. Let's look at the below collage I made from various panels of the comic

These all look like panels of the same character, but they are two completely different people. One is "Bluestreak", the Superman equilvalent in The Pen. The one on the right is Brady Van Elsen, one of the criminal inmates. But they look so similar that I couldn't tell them apart during a fight between "Black Cape", the antagonist of the storyline, and "King Cole" another one of the inmates.

In this scene, Bluestreak pops up (to presumably save the day). Unfortunately, we have no idea Bluestreak is around since we haven't seen him for a couple of issues, so the most logical person we identify him as is Brady... which gave me the wrong impression that while the fight was going on and the guards were distracted, someone pulled a jailbreak and the inmates were loose. Of course I realized this was wrong within the next page or so, but it broke the flow of the story because I had to go back and check again, the two characters were just too alike.

This is not the only instance where the character designs impeded the story, but that's an example to show how it is a problem that might bear some looking into.

Overall, I think "The Pen" is a very good comic. I certainly haven't enjoyed a superhero comic this much since Magellan. The online navigation through the archives takes a little getting used to, but it's good once you get the hang of it although it took me a while to find the back and forth buttons (which hide themselves)

A far better idea is to read the comics through the whole issue PDF releases. Having all 24 pages at once shot is nice, and I definitely appreciate being able to sit down, read and issue, go off and check on my baking/laundry/other things I do on a lazy Sunday while a new issue loads and come back and read another 24 pages.

According to Rob's email, every week we get an issue of 24 pages. How on earth they manage to churn out content that is publishing-quality at that rate is beyond me, but I'm not complaining. I always like having a new find on my list. 


Update: I got an email from Rob clarifying about the updates:

Just one small correction - the 1 issue per week schedule was only for the first 4 issues, when I put the site up Randy was halfway through drawing issue 4 so I had a backlog of completed pages. We'll hopefully be moving to a roughly monthly schedule, as I'm now completing work on the scripts for issue 5 and 6. The site's RSS feed should hopefully be working - will update as soon as we have new stuff to put out.
Still a pretty good system. I'm definitely looking forward to see what's next!

Postcards are reviews requested by (mostly) webcomic authors. They focus less on reviews and more on critical insight and unreserved, honest, feedback. You can request for a review by emailing Ping at webcomicfinds @ gmail . com but be warned, when Ping says honest feedback, she really means it.


  1. Interesting! I'm not a fan of super heroes, but if its set in a prison and is humorous I quite enjoy reading about 'unusual ' characters that can do a lot of damage :D
    Agreed about the perfect drawing thing, its an interesting subject to think about. So many people I know have grown up on marvel and mainstream manga comics, and as such have this built in need to make sure their characters have perfect anatomy and symmetry, they feel that its a big part in upholding their 'manga' or 'marvel' style! I remember when I was a kid I was the same as well, all the 'how to' books said that you had to make your characters look perfect! I think it is good to learn how the body looks and works to some extent, otherwise images dont look clear or understandable. But most people I know who create perfect images lack any of their own personal style in the drawing, and the drawings end up looking unreal and stiff, despite nothing really being wrong with them! I find this problem particulary in the webcomic 'Faust' its so beautifully drawn but lacks emotion, personal style, and although I can tell the characters part, they dont have much visual personality, they are all very pretty looking. It sounds shallow but I feel like it makes them lack depth. :(

  2. Thinking about it, my beef with the "perfection" in the art is more to the unvarying-ness of it. Randy's art does have a sort of american comic/manga influenced style of its own, but with very few exceptions, his protagonists are all mostly good-looking... in the same, unvarying kind of way.

    I do believe that the perfect kind of beauty can be used in appropriate situations (like say drawing a goddess or Helen of Troy or someone noted for their beauty) to make them stand out, but when everyone is beautiful... well... no one is.

    In a way it's related to that "you need to put a bit of yourself into your creation to make it live" thing I keep harping about.

    When I was younger I used to think that art was about getting the skill to draw beautiful pictures.

    Of course I was wrong. It took me a long time, but eventually I learnt that the reason we strive so hard to hone our skills as artists and writers is to be able to compose, to summarise, and to express accurately not just what we SEE, but what we PERCEIVE in what we create. Our interpretation of things.

    And the ultimate goal is creating something that allows someone sampling your work to feel the same things you were trying to express when creating it.

    In the end of the day, without an understanding of this principle, a pretty picture is just a pretty picture, and there are many many many people out there who can also draw pretty pictures without depth.

    So yes, style over skill, substance over style.

  3. Whoops left out one more rant:

    I'm really not a big fan of those "How to Draw Comics Marvel/DC/Manga style books". IMHO it really kills the artist's own style if they start on that too early. If you learn to draw from real life reference, you often develop your own style, which is what it should be.

    But when you follow those books like a Bible, you're copying someone else's interpretation of the world, and that's a lot of wasted potential right there. You're no longer a trailblazer, but someone following in the wake of someone greater than you. A surefire way leading to the path of mediocrity.

    Maybe that's why I was a little harsh on the review before this (Seek and Destroy). You could tell the artist had lost himself in someone else's style, and hadn't bothered to nail down the basics first before he did it. It was a shame to see that much wasted potential... I hope he finds his own style and niche someday, but still it's hard to go back at that point.

  4. I'll second that comment about submitting comics to blogs for consideration. I get a lot of these, and try to forward them when I can't use them so they won't be wasted, but some people adopt goofy voices or are painfully shy and it makes our job harder. Just tell us what we need to know. We're used to it. It won't put us off if you explain yourself.