There are a whole lot of webcomics out there, and a whole lot of them take the same approach to art: They don't use a lot of it. Confronted with the pressure to constantly produce new content and the ephemerality of the online medium, creators will use simple doodles or even stick figures to convey their jokes and plot devices. Ophiuchus is notable for doing the opposite. While its sci-fi plot is sparse and schematic, its art is dense, complex and sometimes overwhelming. No wonder the series is now being published in print form; every page demands to be digested slowly if the reader is to make sense of it at all.
And yet Natasha Tara Petrović's artwork does reflect the series' original medium in one key way. Created digitally, it reflects a digital aesthetic so thoroughly that there's hardly evidence of a human mind behind it. Many artists these days sketch by hand, then scan their work and augment it on their computers. Petrović's panels have a cold geometry that's completely free of the rhythms that imbue a physical drawing. It's hard to see evidence of even an electronic stylus here. She builds up forms using shapes, not lines, so there's no sense of a hand moving across a page. Some of her most powerful effects come from creating patterns, as when she generates fields of electrically glowing blue flowers (actually just diamond shapes with little stalks attached). The resulting landscape — if you can call it that — is so eye-grabbing, it distracts from the characters' movements in and around it.
Other drawings look more like graphs of data than representations of characters' actions. A few have a ritualized, totemic quality. The book's characters — most of whom are either robots or clad in armor — don't seem to move even when they're running or leaping: You see the beautiful arcs of their trajectories rather than feeling the pain and exhilaration of their effort.
Petrović uses her digital toolbox to layer in so many forms and colors, there's a huge amount of information to take in on every page. It seems strangely ironic, then, that Ali Leriger De La Plante's story should be so thin. Aimed at a YA audience, the narrative follows a robot who's been given the task of guarding some kind of interstellar gate. But that was long ago, and over the eons the robot has forgotten why the gate needs to be guarded at all. As it wrestles with this problem, two strangers turn up warning of a virus that corrupts the minds of everyone it infects. The robot agrees to help them stop the virus, and the little group embarks on a series of adventures.
Their experiences have a similar digital quality to that of Petrović's art — but in this case it's just because the rudimentary nature of the story makes it feel like a video game. De La Plante is clearly aiming for a mythic tone; the idea of a guard that no longer knows what it's guarding is just one of the many concepts here that call for symbolic interpretations. But with such shallow characters and flat situations, the reader has little impetus to reflect on the broader meaning of the story's events. An afterward expounds all sorts of background lore that was originally posted along with the comic, but this, too, feels arbitrary. The best parts of De La Plante's story are those where the stagy sense of portent falters for a moment or two. When the robot tells the nearby villagers that it's leaving, they're stunned: "Guardian, you can talk? Why didn't you ever speak to us before?" "I never knew what to say," the robot replies sheepishly.
The villagers, who look kind of like kittens, are the only soft-edged things in Petrović's world. Other characters seem to drip and flow around the edges or look like they've been extruded — always in an airless, menacing way. It's funny, then, that Petrović uses such a girly color scheme. Even when her pages aren't an eye-searing pink-on-pink — which they usually are — they're dominated by blues and purples. The colors seem to be a subtle joke, a decidedly antimacho palette that's as icy and remote as the glow of a neon sign. It adds one more layer of meaning to pages already bursting with it. There's so much going on visually in Ophiuchus, it almost doesn't matter that the narrative is so flat. But while this story may have held readers' interest in online installments, it falters outside the glow of a computer screen. It's unfortunate that a book so full of interesting ideas should, in the end, say so little.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.