From long-running soap operas to comedy-drama slices of life to daily gag strips, the digital comics scene has exploded over the last decade and readers have never had more options. Feeling overwhelmed? Jen Overstreet and Joe Stando are here to take you on an expedition through the webcomics wilderness and show you the best specimens in our monthly Deadshirt Webcomics Field Guide.
One of the things I love most about webcomics is that they’re necessarily projects of passion. Creators don’t get into the genre because (as cynical as it sounds) they want the money of a Batman or Iron Man story that gets turned into a movie. It’s a scene that rewards persistence and effort, and lacks the barriers to entry that sometimes crush diverse stories into a more familiar mold. Obviously, the genre has its own pitfalls, but it’s this kind of environment that leads to some truly unique, engaging stories.
The Meek, by Der-shing Helmer, is one such story. It follows several disparate leads in the land of Dia, a continent with a dense political history and a fair amount of unrest. The primary character is Angora, an upbeat girl who grew up in the jungle and is suddenly thrust out into the larger world, tasked with a mysterious destiny by her “grandfather,” a giant salamander creature. She reluctantly teams up with Pinter, a mapmaker, as a guide, and the two make their way, mostly oblivious to the rising unrest and conflict in the outside world. Other chapters follow the troubled Emperor of the Northern Territories and a pair of ersatz outlaws making their way through a great desert. It’s a meandering story so far, but an immersive, enthralling one.
Helmer has had the details of the story outlined for years, and it shows. The worldbuilding and history are incredibly lush, reminiscent of Game of Thrones or Avatar: The Last Airbender. Ethnic groups, religions, languages and cultures all come into play, in a way that’s intriguing and engaging while still remaining mostly understandable. Helmer has set up a wiki with ancillary info on the series, and while it’s helpful, everyone’s well-written enough that you can understand them immediately. Emperor Luca deSadar’s backstory and military history is interesting, but you don’t need it to see that he’s full of a deep rage and barely keeping it together.
Artistically, The Meek is gorgeous, with a lush color palette and elastic, stylized character designs. The eye for worldbuilding and infrastructure is present in design too, with everything from architecture to military or couture outfits reflecting subtle details of the characters and their world. From the lush jungles of Angora’s chapters to the deserts in which outlaw protagonists Soli and Alamand reside, to the ornate, ominous chambers of the Emperor, every setting is imbued with a sense of place and tone that draws the reader in. The world is both fantastic (giant, deity-like creatures and elemental manipulation) and believable (characters facing uncertainty, loss or danger), a unique fantasy series with the same craft of some of the classics of the genre.
Another element I should probably mention is that The Meek is not always safe for work, as Angora spends most of the story thus far nude. “NSFW” as a descriptor here is pretty misleading though, since the nudity is totally unsexualized, a breath of fresh air that’s worthy of its own praise (as disconcerting as that is). Oversexualization and objectification is a pretty rampant issue in the comics industry, and webcomics are far from immune. Rather than cheesecakey poses and pervy angles, Helmer opts to actually treat her characters like people. It shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is, but it definitely warrants a mention.
The Meek is also no stranger to drama or stakes, even if the tone is generally light and breezy. Characters bicker and quip in mostly charming ways, but there’s also real danger and loss. The spectre of violence, war and poverty looms large in several chapters, and the greater world isn’t as idyllic as Angora’s childhood memories. It’s a good balance, and a series that leans harder into drama than a lot that I’ve covered for this column.
The Meek began in 2009, but updates were somewhat sporadic until recently. Thankfully, the comic now updates about once a week. It’s a great story with a long future ahead of it, and I’m excited to have it back on a regular basis. The best fantasy draws you into a fully formed world, and Helmer has crafted the world of The Meek expertly.
Read The Meek here, and check out more entries in the Deadshirt Webcomics Field Guide!