Monthly Archives: January, 2009

A is for Aki, Asocially Adrift

acoverI was shocked to discover not only had Aki Alliance returned from it’s nearly two-year hiatus – but that this return happened over six months ago, and I had somehow missed it completely.

The upside of this is that I had half-a-year’s worth of new strips awaiting me – and I discovered that certain facts are a lot more apparent when reading through complete storylines in one sitting, rather than as a continual series of independant updates.

The fact I realized was this: The strip’s protagonist was kinda, sorta, essentially… a jerk.

Style isn't everything - but it certainly helps

Presentation isn't everything - but it certainly helps.

Let’s start at the beginning – Aki Alliance is the story of Aki, a fifth grade student at Nakagawa’s Girls School. Here is the premise, in convenient haiku format – though the true plot begins several pages in, when Aki – who has alienated every other student in her class – vows to gain their friendship, one way or another! Wacky hijinks will inevitably ensue.

Now, the thing is – all of the other girls in her class actually have very good reasons for not wanting to be friends with Aki. She has hopped from one extracurricular activity to another, inevitably abandoning her former teammates as soon as a new whim strikes her.

As a story, it is an entertaining one to watch unfold, as Aki embarks on one attempt after another to make friends with every girl in her class – a task that ranges from being whimsically easy, to requiring absurdly complex schemes to pull off.

What I find thoroughly fantastic about this is that the episodic nature of the comic is one that is rarely seen in webcomics. There are plenty of gag-strips out there, and plenty with intricate ongoing storylines – but comics with a more delineated progression are few and far between. The certainly exist, but they are an exception rather than the rule – perhaps because it can be hard to pull off such a format, and find a pacing that will satisfy readers looking for an ongoing story without driving away those who enjoy digesting shorter tales.

Fortunately, the comic is produced by one Ryan Estrada, who you might remember from such features as The Cantankerous Welton Colbert, A Goat Named Frank, and hundreds of guest comics around the world wide web – and many more. With all the comics output he has done, it should be obvious that Estrada knows his craft – and, honestly, knows several of them.

It might be a risk to play around with new art styles - but talent doesn't develop in stasis.

It might be a risk to play around with new art styles - but talent doesn't develop in stasis.

The comic’s core art-style is a very active, almost cartoony style – almost like old school afterschool cartoon shows, with characters that are vibrant and expressive, but still confined within the boundaries of the comic itself, still well-situated enough on the page that you never feel like they don’t belong in the setting. Other comic elements are added in as Estrada plays with a sketchbook style framework and various visual tricks – but his little experiments only serve to enhance the final work, and rarely distract from it.

So, we have a good concept, with a good story, good execution – and a character who is a big fat jerk.

Aki is a great character, of course – the strip wouldn’t even be functional if that wasn’t the case. She is smart, but not so smart that she automatically overcomes all intellectual challenges. Clever would be a more accurate descriptor; she is a quick thinker, adept at putting together elaborate schemes and plans, and she is very, very skilled.

After all, the very premise is that she alienated most of the school by shifting from one activity to another – but you get the sense it isn’t because she failed at any of those activities, but because she quickly mastered them and moved on. And now that she is turning her skills towards acquiring friendships, and actually seems focused on this one task, it seems unsurprising she begins to meet with success – but does she deserve it?

Are her friendships actually earned, or just the result of one scheme after another? She approaches each friendship as a commodity more than a relationship – if she can deliver x to one of the girls, they agree to be her friend, where x involves her helping them win a boxing match, or figuring out a phrase, or helping one side emerge victorious in a gang war…

She clearly wants real friendship. She just doesn’t seem to be very good at it – especially with a tendency to look down upon others, and have insults pop out before she realizes what she’s saying. And sometimes, it doesn’t even seem to bother her: “What? I don’t have to be nice to you, if I win the bet, you have to be my friend no matter what!”

She might understand people profoundly well, as that same strip clearly shows – but she doesn’t seem to really understand how to connect with them. I know that the insightful yet antisocial genius is a popular figure in modern culture, but it seems an odd starting part for a comic about fifth-grade schoolgirls.

And yet… it works.

It's one thing to deliver a righteous smack-down. It's a whole new level of awesome to do so over a game of scrabble...

It's one thing to deliver a righteous smack-down. It's a whole new level of awesome to do so over a game of scrabble...

I mean, it seems inevitable that, in the end, Aki will eventually understand what friendship is all about – each chapter already has its own little moral to be learned, and ‘the meaning of friendship’ seems pre-ordained to be the ultimate one of them all.

The strip is an afterschool special, from setting to premise to presentation – it hits every bit of formula designed for such shows, with kids in school learning valuable life lessons in an episodic nature, filled with all sorts of educational material, even as it shows kids playing video games in an effort to keep it real.

Yet just looking at those elements in isolation misses the big picture – this isn’t a strip being written to formula, this is exactly the sort of story that the formula was written to replicate. Estrada doesn’t need to go by the book here, because he is already succeeding at what those formula shows try to do – try to produce a work that is both serious and silly, smart and spastic, all at the same time. The comic is whatever is needed to deliver, and the intelligence and ‘life lessons’ that shine through don’t detract from the jokes and humor – they only serve to reinforce it.

And that is a lesson many comics could stand to learn – the form of the strip, the genre, doesn’t define it or its audience. The fact that it is a cartoony comic about fifth-grade schoolgirls might lead you to expect a very specific audience for it – but the fact is, almost anyone can enjoy the entertainment and cleverness found in every strip of Aki Alliance.

Thus, it was quite a nice surprise to find the comic had returned, even as that return also brings the comic one step closer towards completion – the goal itself (to befriend every girl in her class) is one with a definitive end point. Still, enjoying the journey is half the fun, and the comic’s humor and inventiveness remain top-notch… even as it begins to set-up deeper blocks of story, with the ramifications of one storyline setting up challenges for future ones. What comes next for Aki might not be the toughest question in the world… but it is still one I’m eager to see play out.