By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X
Word of mouth can be a powerful tool. It was through the recommendation of a friend that I was introduced to the webcomic True Villains, an adventure-fantasy webcomic that appears to have stayed largely under the radar. Its website is understated, it has less than 30 Twitter followers, and I hadn’t heard of it from any other source until now. But it definitely deserves more of a spotlight because of its clever writing and unique premise.
True Villains features the adventures and exploits of Sebastian Jalek, a former adventurer of the lawful and good persuasion who gleefully jumps on board the chaotic and evil bandwagon. He enters the service of Xaneth, a demon who runs a dungeon with Elia, a necromancer. Along the way, he picks up other colleagues and companions: Mia, magically attuned child, and Bayn, an aged sorcerer who is stuck in the body of a child.
The main draw of True Villains is how it seeks to take standard adventure-fantasy RPG tropes and turn them on their heads. The main cast is made up self-professed bad guys, a whole team of villain protagonists. The entire story, however, centers around them trying to accomplish fairly pragmatic objectives through flagrantly gruesome and ruthless means.
Sebastian’s entire arc focuses on him trying to define his own ethical code. It comes to the point where he makes a self-justifying speech before his former adventuring pals about his newly acquired Blue and Orange morality. Oddly, most of the “good guys” are at best self-righteous jerks and at worst stupid and vicious bullies. Nevertheless, the fact that True Villains even dared to go down the road not taken and examine in depth the whys and wherefores of morality in such a world is a mark of true brilliance.
Aside from unconventional takes on the concepts of good and evil, most of which I have very strong opinions on, True Villains benefits from smart writing and proficient art. The tone of the strip is generally lighthearted, though its subject matter frequently ventures into the realm of dark comedy. One early gag involves Sebastian being assigned by Xaneth to blow up an innocent, unsuspecting small town where everyone is happy and content. It’s played for both drama and laughs, which, while fairly innovative, still bothers me.
Strong characters are an essential element of any good story. From Bayn to Claire the soldier to Sebastian himself, each of the characters has a strong, understandable motivation, personality, and flaws. Sebastian wants to do his own thing and help his friends, darn the consequences. Elia is loyal to Xaneth, wants to keep people she cares about out of harm’s way, and kind of likes Sebastian. Mia is loyal to Sebastian and has all the silly innocence a six-year-old girl with magical powers could have. What all of these characters have in common is that they change and grow as the story continues.
Particularly notable in this webcomic is its natural and flowing approach to world building. We don’t get stilted expository dialogue or long walls of text. When something about the world needs to be explained, the need is justified, often for humor, and the exposition is done in a clean, simple, engaging way. The result is a rich, detailed world that feels perfectly understandable and immersive. Other writers would do well to learn from True Villains in this regard.
The art of True Villains has evolved and changed since the early strips. It began more stripped down and less sophisticated than it is now. Over time, however, it became more organic, no doubt the sign of an amateur artist steadily improving his craft. Most of the comic’s archive strips are black and white, though it’s always in color these days. The point here is that the art may be drawn by an amateur, but the quality of the work is that of a seasoned professional.
The primary writer on this series, Joshua Kurtz, is a talented and ambitious (if obscure) creative mind. He is heavily involved in theater productions, to the point of having written and produced a musical based on True Villains. The talents of he and his colleagues definitely deserve the spotlight. With a more intentional buildup of their fan-base, a slicker website, and a more savvy approach to social media and internet marketing, they could probably make it really big. They have plenty of good content, now they just need to focus on their delivery and packaging.
True Villains is a unique, inventive webcomic that defies the storytelling limits of the fantasy genre. It makes you laugh out loud, creates complex and memorable characters, and contemplates weighty concepts in a competent manner. I won’t pretend to be a fan of the strip’s trivialization of occult practices, nor am I completely satisfied with its advocacy of what is essentially moral nihilism, but I will admit one thing: It is a fine example of great comics and great storytelling, and therefore deserves attention.
Images from truevillains.com.
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