Snowflakes (2009-2013)

This is a lovely webcomic drawn by Chris Jones and co-written by the normally more adult and irreverent Zach Weiner and James Ashby of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and SMBC Theater. The strips concluded a year ago, but are still available online.

Snowflakes centres around over half a dozen protagonists, all children from the ages of five to ten, living in an orphanage operated by little-seen old nuns high up in the Andes in an unspecified year (sometime in the late 80’s, maybe?). Schooling is mentioned, but to the best of my recollection, never actually seen. Outside a flashback at the beginning, there are never any potential adoptive parents looking in, either.

So the children spend their time with quests of various kinds: the mystery of a vanished ring, an election for class president, and an adventure to find the lost golden city of El Dinoroboto. While I expected a more typical slice-of-life comic with consecutive, but separate arcs, the story actually unfolds much more like a graphic novel, with all of these subplots slowly developing side-by-side, ultimately merging only in the final third of the approximately 400 strips.

What makes the comic particularly fun is the way it visualises these storylines. The cartoony, but appealing art style never changes, outside of guest comics, but the closer it gets to the end, the more it shows us how the children experience these adventures in their heads. Thus, the opportunity for the artist to draw and for the audience to see, for instance, an epic battle between dinosaur vikings and troll giants for the future of all mankind (or at least for perceived control of the orphanage).

All of the protagonists (that is, all of the ones that get a brief flashback showing how they came to the orphanage) get character arcs, which are resolved with surprising economy. Most of them learn a valuable lesson about the world or about themselves by the end.

The driving forces behind the plot are the characters of Priti and Wray, both of whom would likely be medicated in the real world. Wray in particular is so highly imaginative even her peers consider her certifiable. She always has to play the warrior hero, a hammer in search of nails, even if a specific situation doesn’t call for one. In real life, she’d be a delusional bully, but in the comic, she’s strangely endearing. One wonders what happened in her past to traumatise her so (the flashback to her parents is so strange that it has to be considered unreliable). Without Wray’s enthusiasm, we wouldn’t get the awesome child’s-eye scenes, which start with her.

Her antagonist is Priti, a scheming little devil who wants to wrest the nuns’ secret power to talk to God from them, no matter how many so-called friends she needs to manipulate and push away in order to do so. She, too, has an ambiguous backstory that mellows her Machiavellian lust for power. A lesson about the value of true friendship is in the cards for her, but on the way she provides a lot of sly digs at adult politics.

The other characters have to deal with daddy issues, jealousy, the vagaries of young love, shifting alliances in an unstable political word, and the cost of doing the right thing. The comic is given additional edge by the very real dangers the kids are sometimes exposed to. Some of their adventures, such as a days-long excursion into the snowy expanses surrounding the orphanage or the use of an old, downed airplane as a make-belief castle, could have easily ended in serious injury or death, but the children are mostly oblivious to this. Said airplane in fact is probably a tomb for one of the protagonists’ parents, though that’s never explicitly spelled out. I like that there’s a darkness underneath which the children aren’t privy to, since that’s often the case in the real world, as well: When I was a child, my high school bordered an abandoned graveyard, which served as our playground when it wasn’t raining outside.

In short, I really liked the comic for its art, its character work and the way it conveys children’s imaginations. It’s a pity it’s not available in dead tree form, since it’s the kind of story I’d love to own as a book or give out as a gift.

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