Catalist: Rough Draft of a Grand Experiment

Tiresia reads the will of the Red God

Ever since Scott McCloud posited the existence of an “infinite canvas,” artists have been doing all that they can to extend the definition of “comics” as wide as possible. On the smallest scale, a webcomic can use its own webpage, beyond the panel, to capture a mood or, to drop a recent and hypeworthy example, mark the passage of time, like in this recent strip from the legendary, resurrected-at-a-snail’s-pace A Lesson is Learned But the Damage is Irreversible.

On the largest scale, we have massive multimedia undertakings like Homestuck, which have weaponized the internet as a medium, prioritizing moving images, interactivity, and original music. Taken as a whole, the comic is a brash sensory overload that barely resembles a “comic” at all. In a post-Homestuck world, the word “comic” has as much to do with Garfield and Action as  “marriage” has to do with old-school Christian mores.

The new, episodic more-than-a-webcomic Catalist, written by Daniel St. George with art by Jerome Queval and character designs by Jen Lee (of the fantastic Thunderpaw, which I previously wrote about here), follows the Homestuck tradition of going big, then bigger, then bigger and bigger and bigger. Though Catalist has obvious roots in webcomickery, its creators prefer the term “epic visual novel.” The project, published in weekly .gif servings and scored by atmospheric piano loops, stinks of genre-busting ambition for better and worse.

Still in its infancy, Catalist follows tribes of humanoid cats through a high fantasy plot bogged down by a two-ton dramatic prologue, all-enveloping mysteries, and RPG-dollar-store names like “Ultima” (the evil empire), “Fata” (the vengeful God), and “Olimpo” (the mountain of great portent). Cliché aside, it is far too early to judge the comic by plot content alone; here, the eminent substance is in design. And aesthetically, Catalist swings for the rafters and comes out, fairly equally, with fouls and home runs.

The comic’s boldest experiments are also its least successful. With visual shorthand indebted heavily to RPGs like Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior, all dialogue appears in massive boxes at the bottom of the screen, occasionally accompanied by a static portrait of the speaking character. Though a novel invention (spiced up by little visual gags, like a five-bar reception signal) for a multimedia webcomic, the dialogue box inevitably crowds the screen and clumsily distracts from the action at hand.

In crucial moments, particularly an interrogation that occurs around Episode 9, this intrusion drains the dynamism from a scene that needs to be immediate, physical, even violent. Behind the artifice, too much space exists between the action and the reader, and a tough smack on the head reads as little more than a mild “bonk.”

oh boy oh boy theres trouble aint it

Which is truly unfortunate, since the rest of the comic is a damned feast for the eyes. Armed with a host of delicious beiges, purples, and muted blues, St. George and his team creates an arid desert setting that feels comfortably worn-in after less than a chapter. Before they get derailed by clunky dialogue, individual scenes are established with quick, luscious clarity. The camera pans down from a yawning azure sky. Muzzle-flash pixels flicker off of a campfire as shadows dart across an oracle’s wizened face. Even with a stilted .gif framerate and frequently recycled artwork from page to page, the setting is spellbinding.

To be expected from her excellent work in Thunderpaw, Jen Lee turns in evocative character designs. Even weak spots, such as the billowy-nomad-with-dozens-of-unexplained-satchels-and-pockets outfits worn by 90% of the characters so far, are strengthened by points of contrast, like the Roman getups sported by the other, antagonistic 10%, inherently violent in their anachronism. Peeks at future characters from Catalist’s official blog offer even further variation on these two modes; at least visually, the comic has the potential to eclipse its lofty ambitions.

Projects with scopes as large as Catalist’s are bound to singe their Icarus wings in spots, and regrettably one of the comic’s biggest weaknesses (yet also its most distinctive element) is built into the core of its many spinning mechanisms. Most projects of this size also do improve with age, and I’m optimistic that Queval, Lee, and St. George will find a way to naturally integrate (or altogether eliminate) the rougher elements (repeating art, constant typos, the dialogue box) that stand at odds with the momentum that a grand, fantastical feline desert opera sorely needs to survive. It has already proven that it could stand tall outside of the “webcomic” box. All it needs to improve are fundamentals.

One Last Thing

  • A big reason for my optimism comes between Episode 10 and 11, where a previously weightless sequence climaxes with an expressionist freakout that is nothing short of dazzling. This one moment really proves that Catalist’s creative team can bring the ruckus at its rawest moments. Now, they just have to start nailing the buildup.