|"Unicorn Jelly" Review
I would seem to be the ideal audience for "Unicorn Jelly", being a fan of Sci Fi/Fantasy stories and enjoying philosophy enough to have majored in the subject in college. "Flatland", Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books and Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker" books are all personal favorites that combine philosophy and fantasy in fun and ingenious ways. I heard good things about "Unicorn Jelly" and was really looking forward to this philosophical fantasy. Unfortunately, I just didn't connect with "Unicorn Jelly" at all. While on one hand I respect the intelligence and care that went into crafting the meticulously detailed universe, I found the actual reading experience to be quite tedious. I didn't really care much for the characters and the plot was rather convoluted and uninvolving.
"Unicorn Jelly" is a science fiction epic involving a witch Lupiko, her adopted daughter, a logically minded hybrid crystal-human named Chou, and Uni, the cute unicorn jelly of the title. We follow these characters through low-key initial adventures that expand to cosmic proportions as they become involved in a Noah's Arc-like exodus from their doomed planet and re-establish civilization living in conjunction with jelly beings on a new world.
The strip had a bitmap-style, pixelated look, having been crafted by a mouse directly onto the computer. What was so odd about the artwork though, is that unlike nearly every other webcomic we've reviewed, in "Unicorn Jelly" the buildings and backgrounds came off far more impressive than the characters. The various ships, devices, landscapes and diagrams often looked amazing, despite the limitations of the pixelated mouse style. Examples:
Strips 390, 426, 435, 602, 615
Unfortunately, the figures and faces of the characters were very weak and unappealing. The jelly beings were cute though.
"Unicorn Jelly" occasionally used limited animation in a very effective way. A couple of good examples (among many):
Strips 54, 358
There were also several very imaginatively designed elements, such as the Shatterel Storm and the Bellwalker Vehicles that moved via the production of sounds.
The main weakness for me in "Unicorn Jelly" was the lack of well-rounded or appealing characters. Reitz includes on her site very detailed character pages with lengthy personality descriptions, but within the actual story, the characters didn't come off convincingly as living breathing personalites, but more as story props. Though superficially distinctive, they all shared an overall blandness and just didn't always react to situations or to each other like real people would. They seemed to mostly operate in two gears, melodramatic emotionalism or professorial exposition.
My favorite character (and is some ways the main character), Chou, was an ultra-rational Mr. Spock-type figure who said things like "I observe great agitation in you." Although her dialogue was often cornball along those lines, at least she felt more genuine for who she was supposed to be.
Like most science fiction, "Unicorn Jelly" introduces a lot of faux-scientific concepts and history. This is something I have no objection to if it helps add a sense of background reality to a fantastic world. But this material often impeded what little narrative momentum existed. I'm just more interested in becoming involved in a riveting story than in learning about all this background stuff. Reitz includes an almost encyclopedic amount of supplementary material for the diehard fans, so she really could have freed up the main story from much of this.
After about strip 250 or so, I had great difficulty keeping track of whom exactly was doing what and why, and kind of surfed through the rest of the story in a stupor of marginal interest. Even during a sequence that should have thrilling--when the world was coming to an end--my degree of plot comprehension and emotional involvement was lacking. All of these characters I really didn't care about were running around frantically, scrambling toward ships, engaged in combats and talking about alliances, conspiracies and betrayals that just washed over me like random noise.
One persistent note of irritation was the constant use of the pseudo-curse word "Farg" by nearly every character. "What the farg?", "farging this", "farging that" really got on my nerves by the end.
The only part of the entire lengthy epic that really engaged me was the young witch Lupiko's brief retelling of the creation of her incantation-free, more efficient broom based of rational design.
This was the only sequence that seemed to really integrate the much touted theme and struck a universal psychological chord. Here was a smart kid wanting to impress her elders and trumpet her own genius by showing off a new way to do things. There was probably more of the real Jennifer Diane Reitz in that one very human sequence than all of the other cosmic baloney.
This is the area where "Unicorn Jelly" really should have shinned. I was slightly offput at the start by some of the introductory remarks made by the author. I guess I'd rather discover the themes of a work myself than be told bluntly that it's about "the meaning of Ideals, and the curious and sometimes conflicting mental tools of Rationalism and Mysticism". Also, being informed that "Every event in the story is important, and has meaning, even if it may not seem so initially" smacked of extreme pretentiousness. It should go without saying that any good author/artist has carefully selected every element in their work for a reason.
In Strip 42, the mysticism vs. rationalism theme is brought up explicitly. Can mysticism be reduced to chemicals or, by its very nature, is it something irreducible and "mysterious"? This is a fascinating topic, but I wasn't able to glean much on it from the comic. Though much is made plotwise about the conflict between the Alchemists (the scientific/rationalist approach) and the Witches (the intuitive/mystical approach), I didn't find a whole lot of meaty exploration of the core differences between their respective approaches to reality.
For thick readers like myself who just didn't "get it", author Reitz generously includes an "Understanding Unicorn Jelly" section, which details the hierarchical levels of complexity at which the webcomic can be appreciated (conveniently fruit-coded). But if an author needs a separate section to explain to readers how to appreciate her work, then it's likely failing on some basic level of communication.
It required an enormous amount of "sisu" (determination) on my part to get through the archives. But don't get me wrong; "Unicorn Jelly" is no juvenile dud like "Shifters". Reitz is obviously extremely intelligent and well read (she includes lots of literary quotes, puns and references beneath the strips); I just didn't find her to be a very engaging or effective storyteller. As fully detailed as the jelly-history and crystal-cosmology may be, as brilliant as everything may tie together thematically and structurally on every level of cosmic fruit, if you don't care about the characters, none of it matters.