Apparently, I’m way behind the curve when it comes to quality webcomics out there on the internet. Granted, there’s so much content in the bloated webcomic genre to sift through, it’s fairly easy for the babies to get chucked out the fourth story window along with the noxious bathwater. Still, it came as a pleasant surprise (and caused a very unproductive afternoon) when I stumbled upon Zack Morrison’s comic, Paranatural after someone linked me to one of the pages. Paranatural has been going since 2010, but if you’re like me and you’ve somehow failed to notice it these past two years, then take my advice and cancel your plans this afternoon so you can immerse yourself in the hefty archive. Once you start, it’ll be hard to stop.
It’s difficult to describe Paranatural without making it sound derivative of similar contemporary media that follows like subject matter. Rest assured, though, that a concise plot summary would fail to put into words just what makes this webcomic such an addictive read. But I’ll do it anyway.
Paranatural follows main character Max, a cynical twelve year-old who has just moved with his dad and little sister to the bizarre town of Mayview. Max is instantly besieged by an eccentric and insane gaggle of weirdos making up the local township and soon finds himself seeing strange creatures crawling out of the woodwork… Creatures hardly anybody else notices. Before the end of his first school day, Max is aggressively enlisted into the rather generically named “Activity Club”; a hush-hush school-sponsored extracurricular program made up of other kids with paranormal/supernatural abilities. As Max struggles to overcome the unearthly monsters that have now taken notice of him, he also encounters further conflict in the form of bullies (often more humorous than threatening) led by a punk named Johnny and the needling, clinging, hovering presence of Suzy, the lunatic in charge of the Journalism Club.
The basic idea of young, pre-teen kids having weird supernatural adventures has become rather popular in today’s media, with a surprising host of quality shows and movies cropping up simultaneously. Both Coraline and Paranorman tackled the subject theatrically with some beautifully animated movies, while Gravity Falls is currently one of the funniest shows on TV thanks in large part to following the same general treatment.
So if Paranatural isn’t exactly a trendsetter, what exactly makes it stand out in the crowd of other “kids with ghostly powers” cartoons, comics and movies? Well, it all really has to do with Morrison’s clever, snappy dialogue and expressive, fluid, fast-paced artwork.
Art-wise, Paranatural has a heavily animated aesthetic that combines expressive faces and body language with dynamic, hyper momentum. The layouts and use of perspective give the pages a sense of dimension and rarely do things feel “flat” or static. You can spot a lot of influences on Morrison’s style, with his manner of facial expressions reminding me quite a bit of both Jhonen Vasquez and Katie Tiedrich. On occasion he’ll employee some anime/manga visual clichés, but his style never devolves into an aping of Japanese cartoonist trends with the end result being an excellent fusion of Western and Eastern visuals.
The early strips are in black and white and the quality of the coloring, once introduced, improves at a rapid rate. Before the first chapter is through (the strip is currently on chapter three), Morrison’s linework and coloring have reached a point of consistency and you’ll no longer be distracted by the visual evolution of the comic. One of the most entertaining elements of Parantural is how, after Max begins seeing the ghosts and monsters, Morrison proceeds to fill every panel with strange critters of all shapes and sizes cluttering the backgrounds. They go unaddressed by the cast because they’re insignificant and are merely fun window dressing for the reader to spot.
Despite the supernatural theme, Paranatural rarely goes for scares and is more interested in comedy. While Morrison occasionally dabbles in some spooky scenarios, they seldom extend past more than a page and the edge is usually taken off by the next week’s update, showing the humorous side of the supposedly scary situation.
I’ve been enjoying the plot and watching it unfold so far, though I’ll admit that Paranatural is more character-driven than it is story-driven. That isn’t to say that the story doesn’t carry the comic well, it’s just that it isn’t what I’d call unique enough on its own to really define the title and keep me coming back. The idea of a kid with an affinity for the supernatural obtaining powers and learning to either battle or assist otherworldly phenomenon isn’t boring by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been done before, so to speak. Morrison acknowledges the clichés of the subgenre he’s dabbling in, so even though the overall plot may elicit a “been there, done that”, the self-awareness of the content elevates it over feeling like a bore. The way Isaac (a member of the Activity Club) describes Mr. Spender (the teacher/chaperone for the club) and his terribly mysterious and vague means of educating his students on their powers in a neglectfully piecemeal fashion puts an amusing lampshade on that whole thing.
It’s the characters that keep me coming back every Friday (when the comic updates) and at times it can feel like agony waiting for my favorites to show up again (Suzy was absent for way too long). Max, the star, strikes a great balance of character traits that few leads manage to even draw near to. He’s cynical and snarky and at times downtrodden, enduring most of the comic’s physical pratfalls, but he never feels like a useless wimp, either. While he actively avoids getting into fights with bullies, he doesn’t cower before them, either, but makes cracks at their expense and antagonizes them right back. While he’s naturally acrobatic and a bit standoffish, he’s no “too cool for you” loner, either. He quickly finds his crowd of “freaks” among Mayview Middle School’s population and wastes no time calling for help when a giant blob-thing invades his home in the middle of the night. When it comes to coping with his powers, he’s almost apathetic about the whole situation; he isn’t thrilled about them but he isn’t resentful of them, either. None of that “Oh why oh why can’t I be a normal kid like everybody else” s--t you see all the time.
The supporting cast is equally strong, each boasting their own unique quirks and eccentricities, but few actually rub off as loathsome or obnoxious. Even Johnny and the bullies are likeable in their own way, despite being hackneyed antagonists on the surface (again, much of it has to do with the strange and hilarious dialogue passed between the characters that makes everyone so much fun to read). When it comes to the actual members of the Activity Club (Isabel, Ed and Isaac), I actually found that they paled in comparison to most of the non-powered supporting cast. Suzy was almost instantly my favorite supporter, being aggressive and confident and crazy, whilst being relentlessly cute at the same time. One would think her insistent attitude and abusive, badgering nature would make her irritating, but like all the other characters, the way she employs those traits makes all the difference.
Even the peripheral characters are brimming with personality. We’ve hardly met any of Max’s teachers beyond a couple pages each, but they pretty much stole the show for every panel they were in. Mr. Starchman was my favorite among them, with his gold star stickers that can be redeemed for ill-defined prizes. Max’s dad is an immature single parent that doesn’t seem especially competent at raising children, being more of a child himself. He isn’t played as an “imbecile” like a lot of dads are in comics and cartoons, but he’s definitely not a strong role model. Zoey, Max’s sister, is oh so very cute and I love the way she trades verbal barbs with Max (but without ever turning into a precocious know-it-all prodigy, as happens so often in this post-Lisa Simpson generation).
I suppose if there’s any distracting issue with Paranatural, it might be that it all seems reminiscent of that Japanese cartoon from about 10 or so years back, FLCL. Very, very reminiscent. A pre-teen boy in a small, isolated, bizarre town populated by the insane is suddenly given uncanny powers and forced to balance his new significance with his mundane day-to-day school life. His friends are all weird dorks and there’s no shortage of pushy girls to emasculate and chide him at every turn. Still he takes it all with a spoonful of cynicism and apathy. And he lives in the bakery his dad owns. Or, wait, convenience store. Excuse me.
While I said earlier that Paranatural has a basic premise that’s fairly common and overcomes a generic flavor with strong art, characters and dialogue… I can’t deny that the similarities to that Gainax cartoon are so strong it at times reads like “FLCL for Americans”.
All in all, though, I haven’t much ill to speak of Paranatural. While it only updates once a week (on Fridays), each update consists of a lavish full-color page and each installment is worth the wait. There’s a huge backlog of material to get through, in case you’re new, so catching up should take you a little while. My only grievance with the pace is that the characters I like can be absent for months at a time. Still, “liking characters” is hardly a grievance at all, as it means the creator is doing his job right.