Review: James O'Barr's Sundown #1
Motion comics. Are they the wave of the future? A kooky gimmick? Or a new tool in the comic industry’s arsenal?
The latest entrant to this new medium is Texas based Motionworks Entertainment, with their debut title, James O’Barr’s Sundown, available exclusively for iOS and Android devices. James O’Barr is best known as the creator of The Crow, and he applies his gothic sensibilities to the Western genre with this new title. Created and written by O’Barr himself, Sundown is the story of a mysterious traveler named Krait and his companions. Krait is a seven-foot-tall man whose visage is always hidden. What’s he hiding behind that mask and goggles? Is he man, or monster? And why is he wandering the American wilderness in the aftermath of the Civil War? He has some similarities to Eric Draven (The Crow) with his darkness and brutality, as well as some mildly religious overtones, definitely feeling like vintage O’Barr.
Then there’s Krait’s best friend, his most loyal companion, the one who understands him best. Nope, not the girl; I’m talking about Zuzu, the strangest looking horse you’ve ever seen. Zuzu has a patchwork body and a weird, decomposed-looking horse skull for a head. She looks like a nightmare out of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. She talks too, though her speech is rather unsophisticated. No effort is made to explain what exactly Zuzu is, and I got the impression that O’Barr isn’t terribly interested in explaining her. So just accept her, and you’ll have more fun.
I think the implication in the writing is that these two partners have escaped from Hell. Sundown may never even address this, because it seems secondary to all the gunfights, Wild West roaming, revenge, and other Western-y goings-on.
Krait’s other companion is a Chinese girl he once rescued from racist soldiers. Her name is Lucy, and she’s in love with Krait but he does not reciprocate her feelings. Still, she stays utterly devoted to him, traveling with Krait and Zuzu wherever their path is taking them. She knows he’ll never love her, but she can’t tear herself away from him. Even knowing she’s doomed to a life of unrequited love, she can’t leave him.
This first story introduces these three characters with a short plot that finds Lucy kidnapped by wilderness thugs. When Krait tracks down the men that took her, it’s time for some violent retribution, James O’Barr style. We never get much of an explanation of what these three are up to, only that they’re traveling together and have to keep moving. Are they on the run? Are they headed somewhere important? No idea, but one assumes all will be explained in time.
What we do get instead, by the end of the issue, is a strong sense of what makes these three tick. Krait’s pragmatism and lethality in a fight. Zuzu’s pet-like loyalty and unsophisticated speech. How Lucy met Krait and fell in love with him (revealed via flashback). These are all communicated with tremendous ease by a master storyteller. It’s a fairly simple, predictable story, but the characters feel real.
As for the technology, Sundown neither proves nor disproves the merits of this new medium. This is Motionworks’ very first production, so it’s understandable that they’re still feeling out the software and learning how to finesse it by finding the right balance of imagery, animation, and audio. For example, the lack of speech bubbles will be a little off-putting for comics purists. On the other hand, I’m a movie score lover, so the music was one of my favorite parts of the experience. It’s very smartly done, thanks to the tech seamlessly shifting the music’s moods according to whatever panel you’re currently viewing.
O’Barr’s artwork is painted with an almost chalk-like feel. It has visible strokes and a tactile paper texture, setting it apart from the smooth lines of most modern comics. And it’s surprisingly vivid, with a wide variety of colors and gradients. You can choose to manually move from panel to panel with swipes or touching the right edge of the screen, or you can select an auto-advance option that plays each panel for about four seconds before moving on to the next.
Motionworks promises “love, misguided philosophy, and violence on a Greek scale” with Sundown, and I’m curious to see where the story ultimately goes. Right now, there’s not much we know about the ongoing storyline, so it could be a slow burn. The technology adds an interesting twist, never getting in the way but always acting in service to the story (as it should).
As for that question I posed at the very beginning… Comics have always been more closely related to visual mediums like film and TV than to the written word, so separating elements of each frame and animating them with music and sound effects seems to take comics even further in the direction of film. Some people see it as shoehorning elements of another medium into comics, but moving the comics industry in this direction feels very organic to me.
The technology is still in its infancy, in the experimentation stage, so who knows where it will be a few years from now. Until then, stories like Sundown will lead us to the future, and James O’Barr seems like a worthy tour guide.