Sometimes you can’t help but notice that there are similarities between stories. I always find this pretty spectacular because it shows how certain themes and aesthetics can be simultaneously universal and idiosyncratic. Even when they come from separate genres this is true, and those genres themselves could share similarities as well. That is why for this review, I want to talk about not one but two webcomics: Altar of Pine by Cayde and Disorder by Erika Price. One is a historical dark fantasy tale, the other is arthouse horror. One gets its art style from watercolor expressionism and medieval woodcuts, the other is a black and white demon crossbreed between H.R. Giger and heavy metal album covers. And yet, both series are about identity, depression, anxiety, queerness, and a search for a deeper meaning to life beyond struggle.
Created by Cayde
In a colonial New England town, there lives a poor fisherman by the name of Alexander. He is lonely, doesn’t connect with his community, and is in debt to the miserly Montgomery. Not even Alexander’s only friend Pritchett is much of a friend. Alexander prefers to get lost at sea and not have to think about life, a certain freedom within nothingness. On one of his expeditions, Alexander is capsized and washes ashore on a seemingly abandoned island. Except for the cabin with strange potions…the totems made from skulls…and the spirits within.
Altar of Pine is based on heavy research into history and witchcraft. The latter of which series creator Cayde is a practitioner of. Yes, unlike most cases where your mom is wrong about comics, this particular book will teach you the dark arts. If that is not your jam, I suggest you go read a Chick tract.
The witchcraft hits early when you first go into the comic’s main website and, BAM!, there’s a very polite Satan warning you that there is explicit content in the series. Thanks, Satan!
The coloring in Altar of Pine is done with watercolors. This approach has taken some ground in indie and non-Big Two comics as an alternative to the polished look of digital coloring. For many artists watercolor can give comics a softer, more traditional look. It’s also great for creating surreal and experimental designs. The artists participating in this movement are diverse, from mainstream icon Dustin Nguyen to cult superstar Niina Salmelin.
Cayde’s technique is more subdued than these contemporaries. The first chapter of Altar of Pine focuses heavily upon the sea. The application of blue is grainish and ghostly. It invokes deep feelings of melancholy, the same feeling written all over Alexander’s face.
This approach, using color to reflect the character’s mental state, is used later in a scene of Alexander’s town. The color choice is a yellow to symbolize the concentration of human life that exists within the village. Traditionally, that would invoke feelings of warmth and security. Alexander, however, feels fear, pain, and isolation as Montgomery and his men ransack his home, and no one lifts a finger to defend him. After the confrontation, a three-panel page shows a three-step transition from the yellow of the village to the green of the forest and, finally, the blue of the sea.
In each panel, the colors and the feelings they invoke become more melancholy in nature. Yet Alexander’s emotional state improves as illustrated by this image.
Watercolor becomes increasingly experimental when Alexander arrives on the mysterious island. The application of a singular shade in previous pages is replaced with a cabin scene with multiple colors. Not only does it look like how it would in real life, but there is also a feeling of peace and balance. After applying a suspicious green cream to himself, Alexander enters a realm where everything is cloudy and spooky, an unknown territory where anything could happen. The ultimate purpose of watercolor in Altar of Pine is empathy. The reader is meant to feel the same whirlwind of emotions that Alexander is feeling.
Color also adds to character design. No one in Altar of Pine is a perfectly chiselled superhero or baby-smooth waifu. Nothing against the supes and waifus of the world. Most are middle-aged people with skin issues, gray hairs, and always some kind of belly fat. These characters live in a rough time period and eat some dank-ass food that Gordon Ramsey would need days to spice up. They aren’t exactly going to be in Vogue is what I’m saying.
Aside from looking realistic, the characters drawn in Altar of Pine‘s grimey fashion also better express their emotions. Whatever they feel, it always gets reflected by the watercolor scheme around them. Sometimes it is an intentional effect, other times it’s a natural occurrence that just seems to fit. It is not trying too hard to make a point of being symbolic. Everything is just so naturally in-sync to the tone of the story that it does not need any extra effort.
Grimey melancholy might not sound like the best emotion, but I think it makes sense to the story. Alexander is in a crappy position, and his only relief right now is to be alone. This might be when his depression intensifies, but it also might be helpful in unconventional ways.
I am not a mental health professional, but I do suffer from anxiety and depression. I have for some time now. Because I’m introverted, being around people exacerbates my downward spiral. When I walk alone though, along the streets, by the side of the sea or deep in the forest, I experience relief unlike any other. My mind clears and I regain a sense of purpose. I don’t want to die, I want to live and marvel at the treasures of the world. Ironically enough, loneliness is the key to recovery.
This is just my own interpretation, but I feel Alexander suffers similar episodes of anxiety and depression. It’s symbolized from the time as he escapes town on a boat to washing up on the shore of the island. As he struggles and makes new discoveries, I can’t help but be reminded by the same feelings I go through during those dark times. While Alexander’s return to the town does not conclude with elation, his desire to tell of his journey shows that, ironically, alienation pulls him out of the depths of despair.
That’s as far as I can analyze the story. Partly because I don’t want to give too much away but also we are not that far into it. There are only three completed chapters so far, and Alexander has only begun to discover the mysteries of the island. There isn’t much to analyze or discuss from such an insignificant chunk of story. However, it’s enough to keep me reading, and perhaps for those who enjoy a dark fantasy about healing mixed with wonderful watercolor art.
Created by Erika Price
Where do I even begin talking about this comic? The simple answer is that I can’t because there is so much complexity to it, anything I say will be merely a scratch at the surface. The series’ website describes it as a “series of dark and surreal short horror comics, created as art therapy.” Boy, this must be some therapy because the stuff that goes down in Disorder would make Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Kathe Koje, Junji Ito, David Cronenberg, and honestly any other dark creative drop dead from feelings of inadequacy.
There are no traditional plots in Disorder. It reads like a series of vivid nightmares accompanied by cryptic narrations and surreal images. Each involves an entity of some sort as it endures pain, dread, and a never-ending struggle for self-actualization. The true greatness of the series is how, in both writing and art, it never fails to be simultaneously unique and signature to Price’s ouvre, and touching upon themes that are universal and esoteric.
In Issue #1, the cover displays many key characteristics of the art style: Black and white, heavily detailed lineart, unique patterns, and alien bodies. The story of this particular issue involves ginormous humanoid entities constructed out of cities. Concrete, glass, wires, steel, plaster, skyscrapers, railings, and asphalt twist and bend to shape these behemoths into being. As a result, it causes them great pain, at least that’s what I’m able to deduce. Interestingly, there are onlookers who walk toward the city and become citizens, as though the grotesque terraformation hypnotizes them. The layout for each page consists of large panels, some of them splashes, to fit in as much detail as possible. The effect is a sense of the grand scale of this humanoid city.
The other four chapters have similar stories of humanoids and the pain they experience. While the style remains the same, creator Erika Price varies in themes and execution. In particular, the panel layouts get into some delightful mischief. A good number of them are standard, albeit pushing the boundaries of those standards. Some are straight out trippy, such as in issue #3.
This issue has heavy organic aesthetics to it, many of the life forms consisting of reptilian, amphibian, and fish qualities. Panels are constructed out of shapes resembling air bubbles and cellular patterns. The entire chapter is quite chaotic much like the biosphere it represents, and yet it all makes a visual sense to the cryptic narrative being told.
In every one of the chapters, recurring themes of pain, alienation, and subjugation are presented in fresh ways while maintaining running visual characteristics unique to Erika Price’s style. With just a few short comics, she has already proven to be an auteur in terms of figuring out a brand and ethos. This is something that even the greatest artists in history took up to decades figuring out. Hell, double so in comics where, in the past, editorial mandates and trends held back a lot of highly talented artists. Free in the wild west landscape of webcomics, Price does whatever the hell she likes and distinguishes herself in the process.
As much as I have talked about the universal themes in Disorder, there are esoteric themes at work too. Mental illness is a big one. I get a serious sense of depression and anxiety from the comic; those are illnesses I can relate to, so in a way they are still universal even if Price is presenting them esoterically.
One theme that I think is much more esoteric is bodily dysphoria, a feeling of being trapped inside a body that’s wrong. This might be particularly personal for Price given she is a trans woman. Although I am not transgender myself, so I don’t really know what that experience is like. I don’t want to step in and explain an experience I don’t have, so I will avoid going in any deeper. I will just say I wouldn’t be surprised if gender dysphoria is a theme here. If I did offend in any way, I apologize.
That said, the theme of body dysphoria can encompass more than just gender; after all, the two can relate to each other but are still different categories. Diverse people can experience body dysphoria if they feel like something is fundamentally wrong with their body. I’m going to speak from my own experience as someone who experiences this issue because of my weight. Since I am so preoccupied with it, my other issues of depression and anxiety multiply. I repeatedly feel like I’m trapped inside a gross body full of negative emotions, and it can be suffocating. Erika Price visually captures this feeling perfectly with how the humanoid entities twist and bend and break and mutant in excruciating ways. She has captured with the pure existential id of this state.
Erika Price also captures the pure id of Horror. Now, it might seem presumptuous to attach Disorder to a genre when its storytelling methods defy all traditional notions of narrative, but visually speaking it is pure Horror. Disorder looks horrifying. It is horrifying to read. It perfectly encapsulates everything about the genre and the various forms of media and genres under the tent, from the slimy practical effects of David Cronenberg to the gothic landscapes of black metal. It can’t be denied how Disorder is Horror in its purest essence.
Given how much I’ve described the series, it’s still not enough. Disorder is the most abstract, complex, and challenging comic I have yet read. I’m barely able to comprehend it still given I have only read through the series once. I feel like my analysis is just scratching the surface and that smarter critics could dig deeper and find more layers to thoroughly discuss. Simultaneously, I think I’m underselling this comic by merely trying to describe it. Much like Lifemahcine’s Weaker Sides, this is a comic to read and experience more than to analyze. I hope to go back, reread the comic, and relive the experience of the first go round so that my understanding of this peculiar series increases.
Altar of Pine and Disorder are both unique works of art, radically different in their styles and approaches to storytelling but similarly about mental illness, introspection, and a search for self. There is beauty in these comics’ darkness, one as strange and infinite as the entities of older, darker realms. If you’re looking for dark horror and fantasy stories that will challenge you to explore dangerous worlds and uncomfortable thoughts, then I can’t recommend reading both series enough.
Art: 10 Story: 10
Recommendation: Buy, er well read ’cause these are webcomics