When a link to Melodies of the Heart, a webcomic by Australian cartoonist Sarah Boxall, popped up in my inbox, I’ll admit, it immediately caught my interest. I don’t know if it’s the mood I’m in at the moment, but the prospect of what appeared to be a sweet romantic comedy comic actually seemed rather enticing to me, and Sarah’s light, manga-influenced art style seemed to set an enjoyable tone. So, I began reading with quite high expectations.
Unfortunately, Melodies of the Heart didn’t quite live up to those expectations. In terms of the writing, there are some serious issues with the pacing. With a webcomic in particular, lulls mean death, and every page needs to engage or achieve something. And so it’s particularly damaging when you have an entire 3-page sequence dedicated to scenes like, “Oh, you gave me a fright on the bus, why did you do that? You know I don’t like it!” When you consider that the cliffhanger at the end of the first chapter is the suggestion that our lovelorn protagonist Rhi may or may not ask out Rhi on a date that’s not really a date at some point in the near future, you can see that the story may run into serious problems keeping people hooked and coming back for more.
It’s a shame, because though it takes its sweet time getting to it, an interesting story starts to emerge as the Rhi/Lucy romance develops, with what initially seemed to be a comedy bit about Rhi fainting from nerves being revealed as a more serious issue. It’s revealed to be a medical ailment related to his heart as opposed to panic attacks and anxiety as a symptom of depression, which may have been a more interesting avenue to explore, but it still gives Rhi an interesting wrinkle. In general, Rhi is an offbeat, nervy, but strangely likeable presence, at this early stage at least more fully realised than Lucy’s nice girl love interest. But arguably stealing the show are bossy grump Abby and sly jokester Keth, the respective best friends of Lucy and Rhi. Another strength could be the characterisation of the teens: Sarah is very capable of capturing awkward, stumbling teen speak, even if the likelife meandering ties back into the aforementioned pacing problems.
There are some issues with the art, too, namely inconsistency. It seems that Sarah Boxall is adept at drawing two styles of art very well, but can’t quite decide on which one to use. There is a more conventional, manga-influenced style, with large heads, wide eyes and small noses on figures of generally human proportions that is employed in quieter, more emotional moments. Then there is a super-deformed, highly cartoonish manga style put into use during funny moments or beats that require comedic reactions, where the characters more closely resemble the cast of Peanuts. Both of these are perfectly valid styles, and Sarah draws them both skillfully, but the problem is that she can’t decide on one style to stick with. And so on just about every page, it seems there is some switching back and forth between each art discipline: it gets disconcerting when characters’ noses disappear and reappear from panel to panel!
There are also some issues with clarity, partially tied into this shifting art style. There were times when characters were returning from previous scenes, but looked so different I thought they were new characters. And, on the flipside, there were times when I thought a new character was someone we’d already met because they looked so similar. Furthermore, when we first met Rhi, with his long hair and feminine features, I thought he was a girl, and that this would be a lesbian love story. It took someone referring to Rhi as “him” somewhere on the second or third page before I realised my mistake. But inconsistency and confusion aside, I do think there are large parts of this comic that look very nice, complimented by bright, crisp colours.
There are some quite major flaws running through the early chapters of Melodies of the Heart. But as the story continues, it seems to be taking shape, and a more focused direction is beginning to emerge. Evidently, Sarah Boxall is very much using this webcomic as a learning tool, and her growing skill in making comics is becoming clear as we move forward. If readers can withstand the shaky opening, they might find an enjoyable teen romantic comedy/drama with some well-realised characters and fun art waiting for them at the other side. But in this #1-driven “hook me now or die” culture that comics currently resides in, can a creator afford to have a slow-burn?