A GIF in the right hands is a powerful tool, as R.A. Villaneuva explained to AAWW the other day. Using, of course, naught but a series of GIFs, the award-winning poet delves into the versatile superpowers of the simple, soundless moving image format. However, the interview stretches to prove that GIFs can capture the whole range of human emotion by inherently limiting itself to reaction GIFs, the kind you find in emails or image boards.
MFW they could have just mentioned Thunderpaw: In The Ashes of Fire Mountain and dropped the mic:
Integrating GIF artwork into webcomics has been around for years (MS Paint Adventures is probably the most well-known example) and using the “infinite canvas” has been around for even longer (Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life turns eleven this November. Eleven!), but Thunderpaw, an in-progress webcomic from Jen Lee about two dogs navigating the end of the world, may be Exhibit A for devastating use of both innovations.
It starts out innocuously enough with some wobbly text on an ominous gradient: “It was the brightest night we ever saw…” Once those words sink in, Thunderpaw‘s apocalyptic hellscape dashes your throat and refuses to come out. Thunder crashes on a mountain. Birds swoop from the sky (a Hitchcockian motif that never fails to turn my stomach) behind the gnarled faces of a dog-like demigod (demidog?). The canine brothers Bruno and Ollie—“good dogs,” Ollie keeps reassuring—awake in an abandoned car with no masters, no signs of life besides themselves. Lightning flashes, fire rains from the sky, and the race against time begins.
As if the main plot weren’t enthralling and mysterious enough, Lee pulls back from the action at crucial moments for surreal flashbacks, abstract diversions, and one honest-to-demidog drug trip. These creative tangents pay off remarkably, keeping up the kinetic pace by ramping up the psychedelic visuals. In one such moment, a fever dream by Ollie turns into a nightmare when Bruno, flickering on a park bench in the distance, slowly turns around. His face is hollow; smoke plumes from his eye sockets. The effect is more than disorienting, more than just a window-dressing mood moment or a cheap piece of dark shock. Imbued by childhood fears, curdling brotherly love, dream logic, and Jen Lee’s superbly disturbing style, the panels are downright terrifying.
Try as I might, though, my words cannot do full justice to Lee’s incredible art. If cartooning were a seven layer cake, Thunderpaw is baking the eighth layer. Bruno and Ollie’s characterizations are packed into the way their eyes move in their introductory panels, how Bruno jumps between chairs while Ollie visibly shivers in a ball, the Squigglevision avatar of fear. By cloaking her birds in shadow, or rocketing them by at breakneck speeds, Lee turns an entire class of beings into angels of death. I could write treatises on the details that bring each panel to life, but that would be invariably way duller than just letting them soak, in all their glory. Thunderpaw itself is still in its infancy—only one chapter is completed and, according to Lee’s Patreon, the story continues apace at four pages per month—but it manages to pack two frames of nuance into every panel.
These aren’t waterproof scientific measurements, but take my word for it that Thunderpaw rocks incredibly hard, despite the subtitle that sort of sounds like a family film starring Dwayne Johnson. But as far as nitpicks go, that’s about as small as they get. As it stands, itis one of the most breathless, engrossing works-in-progress on the web today. My heart was palpitating when I got current, and I look forward to it palpitating again in the coming months.