In a land drenched with magic, Sette Frummagem, heir to a thieving empire, is on a mission to cross the continent with her undead, magic wielding bodyguard Duane Adelier. Along the way, the two get wrapped up in a gang of human traffickers, international conspiracies, religious factions, and each other’s mistrust.
Unsounded is a long running epic fantasy comic written and drawn by Ashley Cope. The world of Unsounded is large, immersive, and creative. Reading it brings back memories of obsessively devouring a favorite mass market paperback fantasy between classes. Mercifully light on info dumps, the reader gets to absorb pieces of history, culture and magic as they go through the story. If one wants to get into the details, though, the author’s online presence is a treasure trove of all the Tolkienesque nitty-gritty. If you’re like me and want to know about every person and faction in Game of Thrones, Cope’s accessibility and internet presence is a gift. While the comic stands on its own in terms of plot and character, the lack of exposition can make some things pretty opaque. I couldn’t figure out the magic system until I did some digging on Cope’s tumblr. The good thing is all the answers are there.
This world building doesn’t exist for its own sake. The most impressive part of Unsounded (and what a lot of high fantasy often fails to do) is that the world exists to deepen its characters. Each character feels like a product of their environment; their opinions on gender, sex, religion, and class depend on where they came from. A character from the Matriarchal, money-less empire of Cresce versus a character from the rigidly divided and deeply magical Alderode have widely different biases and beliefs. Cope lets these opinions be uncomfortable as well. Characters who are heroic can hold ideas that a majority of the audience would find distasteful. Duane, the aforementioned undead bodyguard, is generous and brave, but his culture and religion have strict ideas about gender roles, and his war experiences have left him bigoted against his former enemies. Unsounded isn’t a fantasy story about good and evil, but about different people with different goals. It has a huge supporting cast, and watching characters with competing world views bounce off each other is incredibly rewarding, especially as the plot thickens and the story increases in scale. All of these elements come together to make the comic a meaty meal that I recommend for people who really want to delve into their reading.
Cope’s art is fantastic as well. The characters are animated and diverse, and the backgrounds bristle with details. When I said one absorbs details about the world, a lot of that is because the environments are filled with little bits of information. The comic mostly adheres to the rectangular comic page everyone is familiar with, but it occasionally uses the comic’s digital nature to great advantage. Dramatic moments will sometimes pop out of the borders, magical forces will infiltrate the website design, or a joke will be animated for full effect. These tricks are used sparingly but to great effect. In many ways, this speaks to Unsounded as a whole. It can feel conventional, until it suddenly doesn’t.
This is the part where I feel I must warn readers that Unsounded is often NSFW. While popping with bright colors, the comic goes some dark places. Child abuse, assault and dismemberment show up more than once. Also, gore, oh the gore. If you’re easily grossed out, this might not be the comic for you. The fact that Duane is a rotting corpse is not ignored; maggots are drawn and cell shaded lovingly. With its willingness to put children in harm’s way and truly despicable villains, it might be tempting to classify Unsounded as grimdark, a subgenre of sci-fi/fantasy with an amoral or dystopian outlook. But while the author has mentioned her affinity for the subgenre, Unsounded is too optimistic, wondrous, and goofy to be grimdark.
This particular mix of light and dark is why I find it hard to imagine picking up Unsounded with my weekly comics. Being a webcomic, the comic feels free to stretch itself out and find its own niche. What makes a successful webcomic is passion. I mention that the author will answer questions about her world, because it’s clear she knows all the answers.
Unsounded was started July 14, 2010 and is still going. It updates promptly Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
[Maggie Vicknair is a cartoonist and writer living in New York City with her three legged cat, where she draws and drinks too much coffee. You can read her comic Penny Dreadful here. Follow her on twitter and tumblr.]