Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Stand Still. Stay Silent - A Book/Web Comic Review

Stand Still. Stay Silent by Minna Sundberg.
The Rash illness spread too quickly for anyone to develop a vaccine or learn its true nature. In its wake, nearly all of humanity seems to have been wiped out, most of the known survivors residing in Iceland, which closed its borders at the beginning of the plague. Pockets of civilization exist throughout the other Nordic countries, but for the most part, the world is Silent.

90 years after the initial devastation, a team secures government funding to send a party to mainland Denmark to investigate what remains of the Silent World. Woefully underfunded, the team is staffed only by those desperate enough to work for little pay.

There's Tuuri, a Finnish scholar, mechanic and all around handy-gal who just wants to see the world.
Lalli, the team mage and tracker who let his cousin Tuuri drag him into this.
Emil, a reluctant soldier, this Swedish pretty boy comes from a once wealthy family that fell on hard times.
Mikkel, the Danish cook/medic who has an impressively long resume (mostly because he can't hold down a job).
Sigrun, the bull-headed, thrill seeking Norwegian Captain who can't turn down a challenge, even if might kill her.
And Reynir, an Icelandic farm boy who probably should have never left home.

Oh and there's cats. Lots of cats.

What Makes it So Good

I've been wanting to review a web comic for a long time. They're one of my favorite art forms and one of the primary reasons I'm a total internet junkie. In addition to that, most of my readers are not necessarily web comic aficionados. For those people in particular, I would LOVE to introduce them to the wonders of the medium, because it's incredible what's being made right now and put on the internet for free by these artists.

But up until now, I hadn't found one that met my rather extensive list of criteria. It was as follows:

1) A Long Runner. I wanted to highlight something that had enough story down that I could read through a sizable chunk of material and, therefor, give a fair appraisal of it. With a backlog of just under 500 pages, Stand Still Stay Silent (or SSSS, for short) has a good chunk to get you addicted, but isn't so long it intimidates new viewers.
2) A Frequent Updater. Because most Web comics are self-published, self-directed projects, it really varies how much time their artists have to devote to their work. Since the expectation is that the work is available for free, it can take a while to build a large enough fan base that the creator can derive a living through advertising/ merchandise/ print runs/ kickstarter/ patreon etc. While this is something I don't mind putting up with, for those new to the genre, I wanted their first experience with a web comic to be of one that updates dependably. SSSS keeps a brisk schedule of one new page per week-day which is incredible, given the level of detail on each page. This woman clearly draws faster than I do.
3) Relatively "Clean" Material. For the record, there are some "adult" comics I've really loved, but because I blog primarily about children's books and YA novels, I wasn't interested in highlighting an overly gritty or crude piece. Most web comics are about college-aged characters, and that often leads to raunchy material. SSSS focuses more on friendship, adventure and mystery, even with a cast that falls around the 19-30 age range. I'd rate it somewhere between PG and PG-13.
4) Visually Appealing. All skill levels exist on the internet, and all sorts of people make comics. With some, the art can be pretty rough, but if the story is still good, I'll stick with it. But again, as a "gateway" comic, I hoped to find something with a high level of polish. SSSS is so freakin' gorgeous, I'm kind of worried people will walk away thinking this is the norm. The design is so incredible, it's worth reading just for the art.
5) Story Focused. Web comics run the gamut and I love so many of them. Many people are familiar with things like XKCD or Dinosaur Comics which focus on the short-strip, joke-a-day style of comic. You can *kind of* piece together character descriptions for The Stick Figure With the Top Hat or T-Rex, but with both, the jokes and the words are the primary concern. I'm not as qualified or interested in reviewing those. SSSS excels in it's story telling, and it's that aspect I'll focus on for the rest of the review.

Story telling in web comics works differently from how it does in novels. As a rule, most web comics have more open-ended storylines; the kind that can be added to over the years, as the author gets new ideas. They're a bit like TV, in that the hope is that they can run for a long time and continue to build. So structuring them so that each episode feels satisfying while also leaving the door open for new adventures is a tricky balancing act.

SSSS does this very well. The expedition plot line could, theoretically, go on forever. But at the same time, there's a real sense of progression from one chapter to the next. The world opens up beautifully, and the reveals are well timed. It really is one of the most thoughtful portrayals of world-destroying apocalypse I've ever read.

The cast is also delightful. Every character rings as distinct and their voices all sound very different - often quite literally. One of the joys of this comic is how much of it is about language and culture. The author is half Swedish/half Finnish, and you can see how deeply familiar she is with the intricacies of all the Nordic languages and mythologies. The cast, being multinational, do not all speak the same languages, and so Tuuri often has to translate between group members. It's super fascinating, reading this, because as the fantasy unfolds, you can't help learning things about Scandinavia.

The use of folklore is also fantastic. Again, you can feel how deeply lived and researched this comic is. Monsters of Norse times have been given a futuristic twist and spiritualism of early Finnish peoples guides the mage culture. On top of that, she's added variations in the levels of technology that survived in the various countries, so that the whole world and cast feels wonderfully diverse.

I really can't recommend this enough! And it's FREE TO READ! Click the Link now!!!!

What Could Be Better

While I love the characters, they are (at this point) a little lacking in motivation. Now don't get me wrong, each person has their own reasons for being on the expedition. But with the exception of Emil, who has family and a fallen heritage back in Sweden, we don't really get the sense that anyone has really given anything up. Or even totally understand what each character needs to learn.

That being said, I'm optimistic this stuff will develop over time. A recent flashback helped give some more depth to Lalli, and each of the characters is clearly flawed, so surely they need to learn SOMETHING. The reality is, it's tough in a web comic to foreshadow your cast's ultimate development, because the overall length of the piece is often undefined. But I don't think this gets the comic off the hook entirely. I've read a few comics that do a very good job of at least telling you what to watch out for during the first few chapters.

Right now, the primary concerns of the story are WILL THEY SURVIVE and WILL THEY LEARN THINGS THAT HELP THEIR PEOPLE and for now, these are good goals. I'd just like to see some more character dependent goals mixed in, because I like the characters so much. In particular, I adore Sigrun, who we currently know the least about, backstory wise.

Another potential weakness is the super long prologue, which gets a big solid MAYBE from me about whether or not it was needed. I loved the prologue. I loved the foreshadowing. I loved going back and figuring out which main characters were descended from which prologue people. But it was also really long and it took me a while to figure out that I wasn't reading about the main cast. Oddly enough, the prologue is actually FAR more character driven, as it shows a diversity of reactions that are happening around the region to the news of the Rash illness. All those stories are justified purely in terms of the emotions they convey. Probably why I liked it so much.

Final Verdict

For anyone who has wondered about web comics/graphic novels or for anyone who already loves them and needs something new to read, open up Stand Still Stay Silent NOW! It's beautiful. It's interesting. It's charming. It takes a lot of well known tropes and makes them wonderfully new, through the power of language, culture and research.

And should a Troll happen across your path, remember the best way to survive - Stand Still. Stay Silent.


  1. Hey! You're reviewing my #1 favourite web comic! I've loved it from the moment I started reading it (almost 300 pages ago). I recommended it to my siblings and now my sister and one of my brothers are also following. I'm sorry if I didn't recommend it to you before.

    I found it through a link on the other comic I still follow, Girl Genius, which is a very much over-the-top steampunk story with plenty of mad science, romance, destruction, spies, minions (no, not the yellow ones), even an army of bears. Girl Genius was my favourite until SSSS came along. It's fun, witty, full of tributes to pop-culture icons of varying degrees of familiarity/obscurity, trope-mocking, and it still manages to throw in an engaging story line.

    However, Girl Genius is long and I must admit that the only reason I am still reading is that I do still want to see how it ends (it's hard for me to leave a story unfinished). I do hope it ends, and doesn't just fizzle out. Already the story has had a couple of unnecessary side-tracks that I just wanted to see finished off and left behind, even despite how enjoyable they actually were. It's like watching the the 3rd season of The Pretender, for those old enough to remember that one, where the episodes are all the same format and nothing seems to be happening to further the over-arching story line that we are really interested in.

    That's another thing I currently like about SSSS, there is almost always progress on the main story. Sidetracks such as flashbacks are few and last only a short time. Most of the "delay" pages are actually info-graphics on real subjects (like the Language tree, which I love to look at) or imaginary (like background details on trolls or the plague). They add flavour to the story without taking away from it.

    For the short strip types, I like Whomp!, "a semi-autobiographical gag-a-day comic that chronicles life's ups and downs through the eyes of a big hairy guy who loves anime and McNuggets", as the author explains it. scattered throughout the gag-a-day format is the story of Ronnie, the main character, and his dad, of sorts, Kris Kringle (yes, that Kris Kringle).

    Anyways, glad you enjoy SSSS! It was good to read your review.

    1. I knew there was a reason I liked you so much. What good taste we share! :D