As an unrepentant comic nerd in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, I often found myself defending the art form as best as I could to my middle school classmates. Since then, in the last few years, the comic book and the graphic novel have increasingly been treated with more gravity in academic circles, and I can only imagine that a fundamental observation that I made at the age of 11 is a common current of discussion in any of the numerous classes you can take at major universities that discuss the medium in terms of its aesthetic and literary value and cultural significance. My youthful, hey, maybe even precocious observation was that without the physical and financial limitations of movies and with a graphic element that doesn’t exist in regular books, comics can tell a story in a way no other medium can.
There’s no doubt that Broken Saints creators Brooke Burgess, Ian Kirby and Andrew West were keyed into this fact, too, when they decided to undertake the creation of this serialized, apocalyptic tale of politics, faith, technology and intrigue. In combining the traditional comic book form with Flash animation, the Broken Saints crew entered previously unexplored aesthetic territory. Broken Saints offers not only a captivating story that wears its myriad of influences on its sleeve, it’s a seriously slick-looking endorsement of the unique and staggering directions that tech know-how and DIY distribution can push storytelling when combined with a good old-fashioned desire to create and innovate.
The Broken Saints: The Animated Comic Epic DVD set collects the entire run of the series, dubbed a “cinematic novel” by its creators. The series ran in online installments from 2001 to 2003, free of charge, as explained in an interview, because the creators felt that the spiritual impact of the story was so deep that taking money from viewers would be antithetical to their mission. That’s a leap of faith not taken by many mainstream artists in this day and age.
Three of the main characters in the series are archetypical, if not caricatures: the sagacious yet child-like monk, Kamimura; the displaced maiden given the chance to return to her homeland and find the truth about herself, Shandala Nisinu; and the warlike Oran Bajir, the most controversial character, an Iraqi and devout Muslim set to take up arms against Western military forces. Then there’s Raimi Matthews, a computer security wizard with a rapier wit and a snarky, silent critic of the society he’s forced to take part in just to make a living. Raimi cracks codes and cracks wise in most any situation, employing his own inventive vulgarisms, and ihe’s probably the most realistic, black humored, easy to relate to character. He discovers that something shady is going on at the Biocom Corporation at which he works, his hacking prowess gets him inexplicably electrocuted, and while he experiences a vision fraught with untold pain and fear, the audience gets eye candy that blurs the lines of dream and reality and features a bevy of enough apocalyptic imagery to illustrate the Book of Revelation.
The other main characters experience similar visions, and find themselves serendipitously brought together, each playing a key role in an impending, technologically driven Armageddon. The viewer is treated to a staggering array of different styles of artwork, strung together and heightened by a brooding soundtrack. In true comic style, the age old, convoluted corporate associations that threaten humanity are unraveled, leading up to a grandiose, explosively messianic finale—literally, with a dystopic cyberpunk dream image of a human crucified on and plugged into a cross made of televisions, figuring heavily into the action.
Early on, the story moves slowly and is a bit bewildering, due largely to the mood-setting but baroque language in which the characters sometimes speak—in particular the musings of the religious devotees and the arcane ramblings found in the inverted-color speech bubbles of techno-preternatural unknown evils. We expect this type of tangled poetics in our comic books, where we can flip back and forth and clarify what exactly a character is talking about, and read at our own speed and leisure, but on DVD it doesn’t quite work that way. These conventions applied to DVD make Broken Saints a bit tough to follow, but the sheer amount of beautiful and horrifying imagery keeps you hooked. In fact, there’s so much visual stimulation, it’s hard to take in all the first viewing. Almost every episode features blasts of visuals run together at an epileptic pace, the illustrators and animators dipping into the avant-garde to find new methods of expressing fear and rage. Gripping battle scenes and surreal horrors are often accompanied by electrified shrieks, intensifying the sense of immersion.
Classic literary quotes and left-field pop-culture references abound throughout the 10 hours, with nods to Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, and a slew of other pioneers of dark, brooding art and literature that clearly influence the paranoid Broken Saints worldview.
Despite the clash of old-worlds and new, Broken Saints doesn’t dip into tales of arcane ancient gods the way you might expect. Instead, it focuses on enduring evils all bound up entirely in humanity’s search for meaning, and the capability of corporate hegemony and militarism to hoodwink a frightened populace and foment the end of the world. With discussions of privacy, wire-tapping, and the monitoring of citizens having become mainstream political issues since Broken Saints first ran online, this side of the story resonates in a whole new way. Of course, at one point or another, we are treated to a George Orwell quote.
Existential angst is never far from the surface, as Raimi, being thrown full throttle from the quotidian into the deadly serious, finds himself, in some of the most powerful scenes, facing his own potential mortality with a frightening immediacy—for instance, as he helplessly watches an EMP pulse set to vaporize he and Oran target his apartment.
The theme of human unity in the face of struggle, evil, and meaninglessness is central to Broken Saints, and so it lends itself to some emotional moments, and oddly enough even more oddball, odd-couple comedy amid the gripping terror, with Oran playing the straight man and Kamimura coming off as alternately deeply stoic and wandering around like he’s hit-on-the-head. Not to mention, at the end of every couple of chapters, the bottom-right credit makes some sarcastically goofy observation related to the episode. All that messianic imagery and the makers are still able to keep a sense of humor about it.
The fact that Broken Saints is a contemporary, computer savvy work is apparent through the Raimi’s rapid-fire tech-talk, and it’s also reflected on the DVD. It’s no surprise that the creative team didn’t skimp on special features. Each disc contains a bevy of trailers, behind the scenes/making of footage, and documentaries. From the packaging on, the DVD is sold as its own little universe. Most interestingly, there is an option to view the series with only music as it originally ran on the internet, rather than with the dubbed-in voices that, while they make it easier to follow, tend to frustrate the mood. Interpreting characters’ voices through seeing different fonts and speech/thought bubbles is one of the most valuable and distinct parts of the comic art form, and it ads a great deal to the mood of the series.
The unique brand of eye candy and the amazing interface aren’t the only things that identify Broken Saints as an internet phenomenon. A previous DVD release in 2005 found a great deal of the early artwork redone from the internet debut, and this newest DVD release has even more art updated. One gets the feeling, between that and the varieties of interactive venues available on the Broken Saints website, that this is a continuing work-in-progress in a way that’s a bit more sincere than say, the Star Wars: Special Edition fiasco.
The fact that Broken Saints has gotten critical acclaim in its DVD release adds an air of mainstream legitimacy to the burgeoning world of Flash animation. This can only be a good sign for the throngs of independent, DIY animators who, like the Broken Saints team, are using the internet to push the envelope of creativity and actualize their idiosyncratic artistic visions.