We're all guilty of shutting doors due to aesthetic concerns. I'm certainly guilty of that. I often find myself skimming a few pages of a book or comic, or watching isolated scenes of a film, and making rash decisions based on my unique, mercurial, and ever-changing aesthetic interests. "It's not my cup of tea" or "This isn't my jam" are nice, generalized ways of saying "I don't like it because this doesn't meet whatever criteria I have established for myself."
And this is fine. Of course it's fine! "It's not my cup of tea" is absolutely a reasonable response to something that, for whatever reason, doesn't jive for you. It could be the style of prose, the heaviness of the shading, or the aspect ratio that just rubs you the wrong way. "This isn't for me" is as good a reason as any to disengage with a work and move on to the next thing.
But, sometimes, you catch yourself shutting the door to a quality piece of work due to your own aesthetic concerns. I catch myself doing this more than I'd like to admit. That's why I want to talk about The Demon Archives.
Written by Daniel Sharp and illustrated by Sebastian Pirez, The Demon Archives is a military-combat adventure sci-fi webcomic. Here is the series description, so you can get what they're going for from their mouths rather than mine:
I bring up aesthetic concerns because The Demon Archives is the kind of series that I don't seek out. It took me a while to dig through the website and the review PDFs because military-warfare action/adventure just...doesn't do it for me. But that's when I thought back to the opening quote by Matthew Goulish on looking for wonder in art: the small, often hidden spark within a work, regardless of medium, that draws you to it. And my experience reading The Demon Archives has been an exercise in finding wonder.
(Note: At the time of this posting, I had only completed Chapter 4, so that's the content I'm largely going to refer to.)
Sharp and Piriz present a complex, lore-heavy apocalyptic landscape. They ride the line between grounded, hard science fiction and fantasy adventure in an anachronistic game of mix-and-match. Together, Sharp and Piriz blend vastly different periods of culture, military technology, combat techniques, and architecture. The wasted world is dirty, scary, and high tech, marked by hulking war machines, lumbering weapons, and scenes of intense, wide-spread violence. These images are contrasted against settings seemingly lost to time as humanity returns to older, tried-and-true schemes of urban development, and the natural world continues to encroach in the margins of society.
This is all pretty typical post-apoc fare, but Sharp's research and world-building justifies these aesthetic clashes. He documents the lore on the site and makes it readily available for interested readers to dig up. The multicultural, pan-timeline melting pot of aesthetics and iconography generally feels earned rather than out of basic genre shorthand or expectation. Tanks squaring off against well-trained swordsman? Yeah, makes sense. It's cool, sure, but it also makes sense within the world as presented.
What really draws me to this comic, and inspired my aforementioned search for wonder, is Piriz's artwork. This book is a polished, competent, and excellently paced example of what one artist can do when acting as a jack-of-all-trades. While the nature of publishing webcomics and other independent projects sometimes (unfortunately) emphasizes the technical weaknesses of those who are trying to do it all, simply out of the lack infrastructure or other resources, every element Piriz's work is outstanding. It's so good, it's a little irritating, and I mean that in the best way possible.
The combat, whether it's a shoot-out between soldiers in mech suits or an intimate hand-to-hand bout, is visceral and relentless. Violence has a weighty, kinesthetic logic that makes every blow matter. In contrast, his figure work presents characters with open faces and big, inviting eyes that beg our understanding. The juxtaposition between the human and the machine creates a powerful tension between the warfare itself and how it impacts those living through its hell, whether enacting violence or having violence enacted upon them.
This tension is further emphasized by the quality of Piriz's line work. Big, rounded rectangular shapes construct mech suits and war machines with the same organic softness of humans in and around them. With the exception of the clean parallel lines of urban architecture, the hard edges that are associated with technology and combat are remarkably absent from the world of The Demon Archives. (Tanks and helicopters are appropriately sharp, of course.) The visual distinction between vulnerable humanity and cold, cruel militaristic violence blurs, as both recede into the natural scenery of the larger world.
These were the things that made me wonder as I read, pondering how we perceive and interpret violence in visual mediums. So often I see military combat presented as a sharp, hard, thick, weighty affair, with big, imposing shapes. The lines typically used to express the nimble grace of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat are light and barely-there, as characters are able to move effortlessly from one panel to the next. Piriz's style meets in the middle, with figures that look downright soft even as they perform brutal acts of violence. They're weighted but graceful, energetic but capable of immense cruelty. Yet it's played completely straight and competently so, carrying careful emotional impact as the series unfolds.
The result is a world that draws you in through the sheer inviting quality of its construction, and hits you with its inherent violence. It presents you with characters that you just want to like from their face alone, but are all subject to brutality. Nobody's safe, and the visual language at play ensures that it means something when you're reminded of that fact.
And that's what stayed with me about The Demon Archives. That's the wonder that I found there, despite my initial aesthetic assessment. So, if any of this sounds interesting to you, check out the webcomic at DemonArchives.com