|Original review author:||Plarblman|
|Author:||Yan "Kern" Gagné|
|Defining Flaw:||Grimderp, Edginess, Cognitive Dissonance, and just general stupidity|
When I was browsing 1d4chan, I saw a picture with a caption beneath complaining about Drowtales. This was before they had written an entire article about the comic; they do have a pretty strong pro-dwarf, anti-elf bias, but that hasn't effected my own review of the comic. Curious, I decided to start reading it myself, and at first, I thought it was ok, although very heavy on the exposition and with bad pacing. Over time, though, I started to peel back the layers and found it to be a more complex mess than one might initially assume.
I'll probably get some hate for this review since Drowtales has turned into this crazy media empire with a huge following, but I'm of the opinion that this is one of those comics that you may not see the problems right away if you only read it every time it updates. So long as you're paying attention, you may find yourself wondering what it doesn't make any sense.
The prologue didn't inspire much confidence, since it has the exact same problems Game of Thrones has, only worse; we get a massive infodump in the beginning, followed by the backstory, and we're introduced to a whole bunch of characters who aren't the protagonist with confusing names. If you found it hard to keep all the Stark brothers straight the first time you watched the show, you'll likely have a trouble with the Imperial family, the name of the conspiracy, even the city's name (Why is it that fantasy authors always insist on overloading readers with way too many made-up names right out of the starting gate? You gotta ease them into it!). They only start shortening these names later in the book, probably when the writer himself got tired of it. I probably wouldn't have been able to keep track of anything had the website not included a whole wiki dedicated to the comic.
But that's not what stuck out to me as the biggest problem. The big underlying problem is that the story is so complex that it falls apart when you start applying some thought to it. Very early on, my first time where I went "Wait... what?" was during the prologue was when one of the Nidraa'chal conspirators was revealed to be Kalki, Snadhya's daughter... even though Sil'lice had said before that her sister Snadhya was childless, so how the hell did she know she had a daughter? Let alone that Kalki even existed? More examples are covered in the Writing section.
Story and Plot
There's dozens and dozens of characters, but here are the important ones:
- Ariel Val'Sarghress: The protagonist and everybody's favorite punching bag. The story focuses squarely on her right up until the other girls get introduced. She was raised by her sister Syphile, who's idea of proper child-rearing included threats and cat murder. But because her father was a spider monster (I don't get it either) she has totally OP shape-shifting powers.
- Quain'tana Val'Sarghress: Leader of the Sarghress and a very talented military leader. A not-so-talented mother, as she managed to get two of her daughters to betray her, and despite being loyal her only granddaughter still was still badly neglected. She's been able to rally the commoners against the Vel'Sharen clan, which has painted a massive target on her back for various schemes and plots.
- Mel'arnach Val'Sarghress: Ariel's actual mother and a delusional hippy. She hates Quain for forbidding her from seeing Snadhya and wanting her to have children. She's so myopic that she can't see how tyrannical Snadhya is despite witnessing it firsthand on multiple occaisions.
- Snadhya'rune Vel'Sharen: The lead conspirator of (nearly) everything bad that happens in the comic. Her mother's murder, multiple civil wars, insanity-inducing plagues, assassinations, famine, she's behind it all. Her big evil plan is to bump off all political rivals, including her sisters, and name herself Empress of all Drowkind. She has such a haughty demeanor that you just want to punch her in the face, which makes Mel's support of her all the more aggravating.
- Sil'lice Vel'Sharen: One of the few members of the Imperial family still loyal to the Empress. She was caught with her pants down by the other sisters and was officially blamed for the Nidraa'chal rebellion. She goes into hiding with the Sarghress clan to plot her revenge.
- Chrys'tel Vel'Sharen: Snadhya's niece and one of Ariel's former classmates. Unlike the other Sharens, she doesn't buy into the lies and slowly realizes what kind of insane schemes her aunt is up to, just as Snadhya decides she doesn't need her sisters anymore.
- Faen'arae Val'Sullisin'rune: A wimpy empath who freaks out a lot and is Ariel's first friend, later her first girlfriend. She's pretty damn useless for most of the plot, though sometimes her empath abilities makes her go kill-crazy.
- Kiel'ndia Vel'Vloz'ress: An Invader Zim reject who's special ability is to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, and even enlist their help in the story. Her eldritch abomination of a sister is technically the leader of her anarchist clan, but because she has the mind of a four-year-old, Kiel calls all the shots. Which mostly revolves around an obsession with turtles.
- Chirinide Val'Kyorl'solenurn: A crusading fundamentalist who can see the future, but spends most of her time complaining about how her peers aren't pure enough.
- Liriel/Diva: A blue-haired slave Ariel picked up as a child who was obsessed with beer and sex, but after bringing her to the surface she had a massive personality change and revealed that she was actually the murdered empress Diva, reincarnated in the body of her old slave girl. On the one hand Diva's less obnoxious than Liriel, on the other she doesn't actually do very much with this revelation.
Buckle yourself in, because this is a doozy. Drowtales suffers from excessive worldbuilding that seems to plague many fantasy-related stories. It's ok to have more than one subplot, but you really have to manage it well since if you veer too far off you may distract from the main story. Anyway, I'll do my best to summarize all the need-to-know information.
A thousand years ago, the light elves and dark elves used to live on the surface until demons started killing everything, forcing the dark elves underground. The dark elves gave birth to the Drow, who were complete bastards and killed their parents to seize power. Things settled down for a while in Chel'el'Sussoloth until a bunch of demon-tainted Drow showed up calling themselves the Nidraa'chal, and started a really bloody civil war. But this was all just a ruse as the civil war was just a smokescreen to allow the royal family to usurp Empress Diva'ratrika Val'Sharen (these names are too damn long) and rule from the shadows. And that's the prologue.
The real story is about a precious cinnamon roll named Ariel, heir to contender of worst-mother-of-the-year Quain'tana. She's abused by her incompetent sister before being shipped to school to be abused by sociopathic boys, then forced by Quain to kidnap and kill one of those boys (to be fair, he did try to murder her first), then she goes on a journey to save her runaway future girlfriend on the surface. Meanwhile, Queen of the Mean Girls Snadyha'rune Vel'Sharen has her sisters provoke a civil war against the Sarghress clan, plunging the city into a terrible civil war.
Timeskip fifteen years later and the war's starting to come to a close, though it ends messily. A demon god gets summoned and wrecks everything, Quain's forced into an alliance with Zala'ess Vel'Sharen in order to stop her sister Snadhya, a bunch of religious fundamentalists from Clan Kyorl'solenurn want to purge everybody, and Snadhya unleashes a plague in order to hold all her political rivals hostage. Meanwhile, Ariel's busy shacking up with her waifu, dealing with her out-of-touch mother who's shacked up with Snadhya, and dealing with her potentially insane grandmother once the plague breaks out.
I just summarized the bare essentials of the plot in three paragraphs. There's fifty chapters total, and they're not short chapters. The story moves at a snail's pace in certain parts, stuffed with either filler or with random subplots that have no explicit bearing with the main plot. I didn't even mention the civil war in another city, the visit to the light elf settlement, or the lead-up to the demon-god battle. That's because it meanders all over the place and I can't be arsed to describe in detail what happened. I tried doing a single paragraph summary of every single chapter, and I couldn't even be arsed to do that.
Most of the art looks great, but it's far from perfect. The most noticeable issue happens when a different artist takes over from the main one (Kern); Namely, that they can vary in quality by a wide margin. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if it were on a chapter by chapter basis, but it can happen very abruptly mid-chapter. And while I'm not terribly annoyed by the main style used, many of the other artists use a more manga-based style that really doesn't sit well with the setting, makes it harder to see what's happening, or else just defuses all tension.
Even Kern sometimes uses "chibi" art; I admit that I'm a little biased against the style, but I think others will agree with me that the way it's implemented isn't appropriate. Normally this is just for inconsequential filler in the back of each chapter, but it's really jarring and really annoying when it happens in the story parts that actually matter. Perhaps the fact that they don't use it all the time like most manga artists is what makes it really stand out. And it certainly doesn't sit well in a comic that features plenty of gorn, either. Sometimes it's one right after the other. If you wanted to have some dark moments, fine, but this is pretty gratuitous.
Because this comic has been around for so long, most of the earlier chapters have been redone one or more times. The prologue chapter is up to the quality of later chapters, but chapters two and onward are still fairly anime-esque, especially with Ariel's kawaii doll-eyes. However, it would appear that Chapter 9 still uses Kern's original crappy art from 2003 and never got it fixed. Seems like an oversight to me, especially in light of the fact that the page immediately before has better art from 2009.
Aside from the style, there's also some technical issues as well. For example, eye color is really important because it indicates whether or not an individual is tainted. However, this is complicated by the fact that all Drow, tainted or not, are supposed to have red pupils, though most of the time they just have a single solid color for the iris. This inconsistency caught me by surprise and I didn't know what was happening at the time. And then there was one time were two of the panels looked very bizarre and out of place; I think Kern might've used a 3D model for them instead? Whatever it is, it's very distracting.
And then there's just these surreal design decisions with things like Faen staring up slack-jawed like a turkey about to drown from rain.
Problems with the Setting
Before we get started, there's something that I think needs to be clarified first. Because this is a story about Drow, and Drow are commonly known to be dickish if not always evil, some people might claim that my critiques are unnecessarily harsh in this regard. In response to that, I'd like to say that I don't have a problem with a story about Drow featuring morally dubious and even sometimes horrific elements, as long as it's internally consistent and well-written. This is where the story slips up the most: it is constantly contradicting itself on where it stands on many issues related to the character's heroics or with their civilization's morals. It's as if Kern wants to have his cake and eat it too: he wants to have a good and pure woobie protagonist as well as his dark and edgy setting where terrible things happen to anyone, oftentimes for stupid reasons. There's a term for this kind of setting, and that's "Grimderp." Let's take a look at what TV Tropes qualifies as Grimderp, shall we?
- "Characters drop like flies before they can develop meaningful traits which would make their demise both more shocking and saddenning." While we haven't had core characters die just yet, there's an utterly massive number of supporting characters who barely have enough screentime before kicking the bucket.
- "Gorn is depicted to extreme bloodbath levels. A Grimderp utilization of this often relies on not just bloodshed, but dismemberments, disembowelments, decapitations, bifercations, and other visceral demonstrations for shock value, and because the concept sounds cool to both the creator and portions of an audience who do find excess killings to be cathartic." See the art review above.
- "Rape is often used. In a Grimderp work, rape can be commonplace and depicted in almost every chapter of the work." While not explicitly stated, sexual slavery seems to be acceptable in Drow society. But the most explicit example is far worse than simple rape, which we will discuss later. Thankfully, this isn't something that's depicted in every chapter.
- "Characters can have unrealistic powerups and abilities compared to similar entities in a Grimderp world, which often is used as an antagonistic trait. The focus when this villain is fought winds up being for the hero to basically ride the storm out and let the villain exhaust all of their abilities before finishing the job. And, even then, the villain will have an Ass Pull that the good guys miraculously survive." Snadhya certainly has this going for her, staying one step ahead by suddenly demonstrating new abilities to outwit her foes, including faking being dead, but really it's Ariel who abuses the unrealistic powerups. If it weren't for the fact that she's barely the protagonist of her own story, this probably would've counted against it being Grimderp. More on that below.
Problems with Characters
Ariel's supposed to be the protagonist, After all, we've only been following her since she was born. And she's got super-special-awesome shapeshifting powers that don't just allow her to change appearances, like the only other shapeshifter in the comic. She can:
- Grow wings and fly around
- Absorbs magic weapons into her body
- Turn her finger into a key
- Instantly close all wounds
- ...somehow learn how to speak enemy languages?
- RIP SOMEONE'S ARM OFF JUST BY PHYSICAL CONTACT!
Yet despite all these amazing powers, Ariel's goals and actions barely intersect with the main conflict outside of mere happenstance. She fights on behalf of Quain'tana, who is opposed to the main villain, but Ariel's actions have no direct bearing on stopping Snadhya. It was another group that found out about the flower plague. It was another group that uncovered Snadhya's scheming during the civil war. And it's another group that's seeking to take out Snadhya herself. So what the hell does Ariel do? Look for Faen in the overworld, fight a couple battles, and then go exploring some more. She does have a direct confrontation with Snadhya in chapter 46, but she's still far behind everyone else when it comes to working against her.
So who is the real protagonist? I posit that it's two other characters. The first is Chrys'tel, who starts having doubts about Sharen propaganda when she discovers that her aunt Sil'lice is still alive, and that the Empress has in fact been murdered. This drives her to figure out how far the conspiracy goes, even as she serves in her mother's army during the civil war. It was her group that infiltrated the peace conference in Felde and discovered Snadhya's diabolical plan to unleash the plague upon the clans.
The other protagonist is Kiel'ndia, and I really wish that she wasn't. Kiel might be best thought of as the secondary protagonist; while most of her screentime is devoted to countering the insane plans of her clan (such as the aforementioned demon god), she is also one of Chrys'tel's allies in uncovering the conspiracy, and is there for most of the major events. The problem is that Kiel is annoying. Very, very annoying. She comes from the "I'm so quicky and contrarian LMAO!!!" school of "comedy," meaning that she breaks the fourth wall, is vulgar and dismissive at every opportunity, and has a nonsensical obsession with turtles. Or to put it bluntly, she's less Heath Ledger genuinely insane Joker, and more try-hard Hot-Topic Jared Leto Joker. And she has something that Chrys'tel and Ariel don't have: her own facebook page! And to add insult to injury, her speaking to the audience isn't just a sign of her insanity; I'm not exaggerating when I say she is speaking directly to the audience, who can actually talk back to her. Half of the site's content is related in some way to Kiel getting direct input from the audience as her "demon friends." Yes. This is actually canon. And the fans just eat this up like it's black truffle sauce on a moldy mackerel.
There's one more character that suffers from serious problems. Mel is someone that is poorly written for her role, whatever that role may be. I can't decide if she's a naive pacifist, an apathetic hedonist, a victim of an abusive relationship with her manipulative girlfriend, or just as genocidally deranged as her. Mostly I'm of the opinion that she's stupid as hell, because Mel's had multiple opportunities to see just how dangerous and evil Snadhya really is, but either ignores it or can't put two and two together. Even if she's been locked away for 15 years, she knows who the Nidraa'chal are, so she should know that Snadhya being their leader is a massive red flag, let alone that she surrounds herself with complete sociopaths. Even her husbando Zhor knows that Snadhya's bad news, and he's been locked up just as long as she was. Then again, this is the same idiot who decided to be a lesbian because she didn't like her mother's soldiers. That's as stupid as Summer Winters becoming a lesbian because she was the only girl in a house full of boys. She doesn't care if her clan falls apart even though it's explicitly stated to her that her children would die as a result, and then has the audacity to be surprised that her children are endangered after supporting Snadhya's schemes when she explicitly said she was going to destroy the clans. I can't feel sympathetic for someone that willfully ignorant.
Problems with Storytelling
Now that we've covered the characters' faults, there's a few more topics to go over. Drowtales commits the classic mistake of having Walls of Text on multiple occasions; it gets so bad at one point that we spend thirteen pages covering a pointless debate with characters we don't give a damn about before we finally get to the point of that scene. This is partly why the story moves at a snail's pace; it is far from economical with its dialogue and doesn't prune away totally unnecessary and irrelevant content. We don't gain much from scenes like the above-mentioned since most of the other clan leaders are hardly in the comic anyway.
Going back to the topic of Grimderp, Drowtales does feature an extensive amount of slavery. This is unsurprising since this has always been established as something that Drow are wont to do. The problem is with how slavery gets dealt with in the comic, and it's intertwined with problems of interspecies relations. Virtually every non-Drow is seen as an inferior species, with humans in particular labeled as "Goblins" instead of by their proper name. You see one in Chel, and odds are 99.999% of the time they're a slave. Light elves are only marginally treated better, and many times they're just used as sex objects; we even have one page featuring smiling ass-naked slaves. Why do they even have slaves, anyway? They have such frequent food shortages and population issues that it's too costly to begin with, and they have golem technology that can pretty much replace them; they're even sophisticated enough to be mistaken for real people. The Sarghress do liberate a lot of slaves during the civil war, though it's ambiguous if it's because their populist idealism means they'll abolish slavery, or if they're just denying slaves to the enemy. Because if it's the former, they certainly only extend it to fellow Drow. Why bother caring about humans, anyway? They're an infestation as far as the Drow are concerned. If they're in a good mood, they'll just take your valuables without killing you, to hell with niceties. But according to the comic, any villages that get wiped out would've just been due to "misunderstandings." Right... that's what you call looting and pillaging.
You'd think that Ariel would be different, given how she emancipated her human bodyguard Vaelia and thinks fondly of her, and even said she wanted to do away with slavery, and likely still feels remorse for that one time she murdered one in a fit of rage. But let's skip ahead a few chapters. A bunch of evil, dastardly humans attack a settlement that Ariel's arrived at for the nefarious purpose of... freeing other human slaves? It's completely glossed over that all they wanted was to rescue their people, as Ariel's more concerned about tapping Faen's ass. Our hero, folks.
Lastly, there's the part that I mentioned earlier from the TV Tropes list. There's a particular scene in fourth chapter where Ariel tries recruiting a half-dragon pit fighter named Rikshakar. Now, Kern left a note in the beginning of the chapter, as follows:
I normally wouldn't have brought up a retcon like this if it were totally removed, but instead we have the author explicitly stating he needed to alter the scene for a specific reason, and that's what I'm going to critique. The scene in question basically involves Ariel being sexually accosted by Rikshakar. In the original version, Ariel shapeshifted herself into a teenage, half-dragon version of herself, and had sex with him willingly. This is the most SFW page I could find of that scene, though it's also the most damning in that she explicitly says she's still just a child in an teen's body. The new version basically turns Rikshakar into a pedophile who knowingly sexually assaults Ariel. We don't see it in-frame, but it's obvious by the context what is happening. And he continues this behavior every time he's near Ariel, so it baffles me why she decided to keep him around since he pretty much tries to rape her again.
Kern claimed that he wanted to show how the Drow could be evil in a way that didn't seem evil to them, but I don't recall Drow ever being open pedophiles in any other work of fiction, nor is it excepted as far as I know in this universe. Furthermore, I'm not inclined to believe Kern's stated reason given that he apparently drew a whole sequence of them having sex for his porn collection (more on that below). There was also another retconned scene where Ariel was nearly raped, and it wasn't dealt with any gravity either. And I don't know what plans he had for Rikshakar in the original version, but he pretty much guaranteed that his character could never be redeemed in the eyes of his fans no matter what direction he took. If his intent was to show "the Drow race's evil nature from a human perspective," it still comes across as evil from a Drow's perspective too, and only seems to serve as shock value. He did a far better job of that feat with how he handled the issue of slavery, which I don't even think he's aware of.
This is something that needs its own section to explain. Everything above applies only to part of the Drowtales website, the Moonless Age story. It's the biggest part of the site, but not the only one. There's a subscriber-only section of the website called Daydream. What is Daydream? Well, in-universe it's the daydreams of Liriel. Out of universe, this is the true moneymaker of Drowtales, and decribed as "a subscriber-only uncensored fanservice section of the Drowtales site." What does Liriel daydream about? What is this fanservice? Lesbians. Lots and lots of lesbians. They're not even subtle about it, it's full-frontal porn. "Wet Dream" probably would've been a more appropriate title, at least you'd know what you'd be in for. "Fanservice" implies cheesecake and silly parodies, after all.
It would seem that Kern got smart and realized he could make money off his fetish art and divert it away from the main comic. It's probably for the best that this is separate from the actual comic, since the pedophilia scene used to be on Daydream instead of the main comic (so the section itself had to have been around since about 2002). Most likely it's not there anymore, but I can't confirm since most of it is paywalled. You can still see the thumbnails of most of the content though if looking through the archive, and some of the content is free to bait you into buying a subscription. Now you'd think that having a dedicated porn section, the main comic wouldn't be so cheesecakey, but you still get an implicit vibe of fetishism now and again in the main comic (and that last one managed to draw in the ladies, too!). This is partly because Kern also takes in money to add roleplay characters to the main comic; it honestly wouldn't surprise me if Kern was into BDSM roleplay himself seeing as how he's been using slavery as an excuse to post fetish material even when it makes no sense in context.
But that's not everything that's on Daydream, there's actually an ongoing story that's nearly as popular as Moonless Age called Space Age. You've probably already guessed, but it's just the sci-fi version of Drowtales. Also it has lots of explicit porn. I can only read the first issue without paying a subscription, but I can tell you that Space Age has the same anti-human tendencies of Moonless Age. The only difference being that these humans are explicitly from Earth, so there's no argument about them being influenced by Drow politics or anything, they're just ugly, killy and rapey from the get-go. Also, the humans on their home planet are still living in mud huts, so I guess what the Drow meant by "making peace" and "giving them protected status" is to not share any technology with them and let them continue to live in disease and squalor on the edge of civilization. But hey, at least they're not randomly killing and enslaving them anymore, right? This storyline would've been a lot more interesting if it were like District 9 but with the species flipped, especially given how the elves are baffled by the humans' non-magitech. But no, we need to reinforce Drow Supremacy and have them win the day by having desperate virginal nerds rebel against their commanding officers. There's a bunch of other storylines and one-shots, but I'm not able to access them, nor am I willing to look them up.
I have to give Yan "Kern" Gagné credit, he took his DeviantArt hobby/fetish porn and managed to turn it into his own media fiefdom. He's been involved in all kinds of projects for Drowtales, mostly games, music, and animations (Most of the stuff is Newgrounds flash animation quality, though... oh wait). Whereas most webcomic artists only think to monetize their work through Patreon or booksales, this guy knows how to string readers along by selling them porn, the ability to join roleplaying games, and cameos. All that money probably goes towards paying his army of artists and animators, so who knows what his actual profit margins are. One thing I've noticed though is that the wiki, twitter account, and various other parts of the site seem to have not been updated in a few years, and that they admit to having people come and go frequently, so who knows if certain staff members are actually just volunteers and not paid employees.
But for the guy himself I can't find that much information. Well, besides this little interview. He comes across as exactly how I pictured him: a soft-spoken, nerdy, almost embarrassed guy, which is probably why so little information about himself is available. Well, judging from his earlier work, I can gather that he's a weeaboo who's watched a little too much early 90's ultraviolent anime (including repeating a myth that came from Tekken the Motion Picture), and somehow got it into his head that it blends perfectly with cute and girly things. The anti-human grimdark wank is usually written by the type of misanthrope that grows out of it after High School, but given how long ago this was started he may have simply written himself into a corner, or found a like-minded audience that would pay him. I wouldn't make any further suppositions regarding the above-mentioned sexual assault scene, since that could just be attributed to terrible writing.
I think Drowtales has potential to be a great comic, but it is in dire need of pruning and restructuring. Even Tolkien, famous for taking his sweet time to tell his stories, had to cut lots of content from his book trilogy to keep the plot moving. And it's not just the plot, the setting needs an overhaul as well in order to make the Drow a little less aggravating in their sociopathy. Monetarily, I think they've come across a fairly successful scheme if they've been able to stay in the webcomics business this long without having to resort to e-begging on Patreon, but that's not a sign of quality, just of popularity. Some better character consistency and ensuring that Ariel's goals advance the plot would go a long way to keeping the story from becoming a victim of its own bloatedness.
- Ninja ridding on a Chupacabra Add-On:** The story, last time I checked, is 3000+ pages long, divided between 50 chapters. To retcon stuff this big, entire arcs and subplots might have to be re-written from scratch, or removed for good. Lets remember that this story is trying real hard to make sociopath, sex-offender tyrants into palatable characters. Works with Drow fans, as much as making everything pony works with MLP fans, whether the idea works or not. The story would be better left to root than to try to fix it. Honestly, the amount of work necessary may potentially extend the story yet another 16 years, plus the other decade or so necessary to complete the main plot. And, if Kern doesn't rehabilitates himself into a competent writer, we might just get Chapter 4.2.0: Electric Boogaloo spread all over the place.
- The Drowtales Website
- 1d4chan's harsher review of the comic
- For the low price of seven dollars a month, you too can spank the monkey to brown pointy-eared lesbians! Or nineteen dollars if you want to include your roleplay character in your BDSM fantasies!