Comics Features

REVIEW: Beyond the Western Deep

Written by Darryl Gangloff

When you first glance at Beyond the Western Deep, you may dismiss it as a comic that is targeted solely at children due to its anthropomorphic animals and cartoon-like art. After reading the first volume, I can assure you that readers of all ages can find something to enjoy in this complex tale of war and politics involving the seven races of the Four Kingdoms. If Games of Thrones was reimagined as a Disney film, this would be the result.

Intrigued? You should be. Beyond the Western Deep is a webcomic written by Alex Kain and illustrated by Rachel Bennett. The first page of the series went online on Jan. 1, 2012, and it’s still going strong on a weekly basis. I read the first collected volume, which is a physical book that contains updated material from the prologue and first chapter of the series.

The quality of work that is showcased in Beyond the Western Deep is ridiculously impressive. Kain and Bennett have meticulously crafted a living, breathing world that is full of interesting characters — who happen to be based on squirrels, otters and other animals.

The prologue provides the important details of the world’s rich history. After 200 years of war between the seven races, the Four Kingdoms were created:

• Aisling, where the wolf-like Canid control the strongest army in the land

• Kishar, where the cat-like Felis brought logic and reason to the civilized world

• Navran, the desert home of the fox-like Vulpin

• Sunsgrove, which is ruled jointly by the otter-like Lutren and the squirrel-like Tamian

You may have noticed that only five of the seven races are included in that list of kingdoms. The ferret-like Polcan were driven out to sea following a battle with the Lutren, and the stoat-like Ermehn were exiled to the Northern Wastes when the borders were drawn. As you can imagine, the Ermehn aren’t too happy with this arrangement.

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That’s an intricate backstory, right? And that’s just the prologue! The first chapter introduces Quinlan, our protagonist. He’s captain of the Royal Guard in the Tamian capital of Terria. (If you’re overwhelmed by all of these names, he’s a squirrel dude.) Quin would rather spend his time hanging out in the forest, but finds himself forced to deal with the possibility of war due to a conflict between the Canid and the exiled Ermehn tribes.

Kain’s writing is perfect for this series. There are a lot of details to share about this world, but he’s able to keep it simple and interesting without burying the reader in text bubbles. For example, the prologue covers the races and formation of the Four Kingdoms in succinct sentences paired with drawings that could be found on a scroll or a cave wall. These pages are incredibly important to the story — if the art was hidden behind a complex wall of text, the book would have suffered. Instead, Kain draws us in with short, powerful lines: “Alas, this a story of war and death. A story of how a single life… a single breath… a single thought… destroyed everything.”

The first chapter tells the story almost solely through natural-sounding dialogue, which is an impressive feat. There’s no narrator explaining the motivations of these characters — we learn everything we need to know through their conversations. Quin’s discussion with his childhood friend, Janik, unveils that Quin is concerned about filling the captain position left vacant from the death of his grandfather. A tense, realistic discussion with the king about the possibility of war shows that there are high stakes in this conflict: Should Sunsgrove help “massacre a helpless foe,” as Kenosh, captain of the Lutren Sea Guard, angrily puts it?

Thanks to the natural rhythm of Kain’s writing, I found myself eagerly turning each page to continue to story. While the webcomic publishes one page a week, the tale really lends itself to being read in a collected volume.

Bennett’s art is beautiful — it’s clean and colorful, and I can imagine that it would translate quite well as an animated movie or television series. Some pages don’t require any dialogue due to Bennett’s ability to keep the pace moving solely through wordless panels, such as Quin jumping through trees or silently mourning the loss of his grandfather. The action scenes have a wonderful flow to them, such as one where Quin fights Crim to showcase the three tenets of Tesque, which is a martial art used by the Tamian.

The costumes and cities are quite intricate, which adds to the feeling that this fleshed-out world could possibly exist in some universe. Some of the characters chat over drinks at the packed Land’s End Tavern, and it feels like a setting plucked from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

My only minor artistic critique is that some of the characters look a bit similar to each other since they’re all based on animals. During a fight scene involving the Ermehn, it was slightly difficult to differentiate between everyone in the crowd. However, I did notice that Bennett tried to give them distinguishing characteristics, such as bandages and capes.

As I said, Beyond the Western Deep is great for children and adults. The topic of war and a slightly bloody fight scene may be too much for very young readers, but I think it would be perfect for anyone in middle school and above.

Beyond the Western Deep: Volume 1 can be purchased on the comic’s official store. The webcomic is updated on Saturdays. What are your thoughts on Beyond the Western Deep? Let us know in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!

About the author

Darryl Gangloff