Review: Paranatural

Zack Morrison’s Paranatural is a webcomic about a serious-faced young boy who faces schoolyard bullies and paranormal supernatural beings armed with a ghost-possessed baseball bat. It’s also a great source of cartoonishly expressive faces, hence my Twitter profile picture.

The comic begins with the aforementioned serious boy – Max – and his family moving into a new home in the picturesque little town where his father grew up. Though Max’s face wears a permanent scowl, the rest of his family – and as will become apparent, most of the rest of comic’s cast – are bubbly and effusive and kind of insane.

Even Max’s seriousness is not without its own over-the-top dramatics.

Even Max’s seriousness is not without its own over-the-top dramatics.

Over the first chapter, we follow Max as he settles into his new home, experiences his first day at a new school, meets a large cast of wacky characters and starts seeing strange purple creatures everywhere (later revealed to be spirits and ghosts).1 He soon finds out that he’s not the only one who can see these strange creatures and is invited to join fellow “spectrals” in the school’s most infuriatingly vaguely named group: the “Activity Club”.

This group of middle-schoolers, led by a teacher who never takes off his sunglasses, fight aggressive ghosts and spirits using spirit-possessed objects called “tools”. And, naturally, they must also keep the existence of the supernatural a secret from normal people. Not the most groundbreakingly original premise, sure, but the comic acknowledges that and has fun with it.

Paranatural’s pages explode with cartoon energy. Characters bounce across the pages doing normal things in dramatic, hyperkinetic ways, making exaggerated facial expressions and falling down stairs. Later on, as Max starts seeing more and more strange supernatural beings, the pages become full of imaginatively drawn monsters in and amongst the wacky cartoon characters. All throughout, everyone exchanges really sharp, humorous dialogue. Highlights include:

  • “…worst dad ever…"
    “Would the worst dad ever give you CANDY for lunch!?”
    “Probably, yes”
  • “I’m Suzy, and this is my assistant, Collin."
    “I’m more like a slave.”
  • “I missed first period lookin’ for you, which is bad ‘cause I deeply value my education.”
  • “I was just flexing my face, Mr. Max, sir. Gotta make sure my muscles are ready in case I’m ever happy again.”
  • “Do you assess the murderability of all your friends?”
  • “On a scale of yes to no… yes.”
  • “He’s got a lot nerve unknowingly appearing in my line of sight!”
  • Basically everything the antagonistic characters Suzy and Johnny say.

But while the comic’s fast and zany pace makes for a lot of fun, it can quickly become exhausting. In a few places the comic suffers from putting in too many clever quips and funny extra details. Take this panel:

Here we’ve got Max’s bullies exchanging threat-puns while walking under a bridge that he’s climbed up onto in order to give them the slip. This would work as a single panel all on its own, but Morrison includes Max making a strange face and whispering something over-and-above that, making the whole thing a little too busy and kinda confusing on first read. Unfortunately, this is a sign of things to come.

Paranatural’s art improves greatly during the first chapter, soon reaching a point of stability where it will remain for much of the rest of the comic. Lines and colours grow more distinct, and speech bubbles stop escaping the borders of their panels quite so often.

The pace remains relentless, but before long many pages are substituting rapid-fire banter with long, metaphor-heavy speeches that either spell out characters’ personality traits and relationships or serve as ominous this-will-make-sense-later foreshadowing with lots of references to people and things yet to be introduced. Which is fine in small doses, but unfortunately Morrison takes the same approach here as he does with quips – brainstorm more than you’ll need and just throw it all in.

“Blah blah blah.”

“Blah blah blah.”

In Chapter 4 (titled “The Activity Club and the Ghost Train”), this tumour metastasizes to the plot. At 151 pages, Chapter 4 alone is almost as long as Chapters 1–3 put together. Considering that even Paranatural’s shorter chapters are lengthy in webcomic terms, this thing is a unwieldy behemoth (much like its titular Ghost Train). Much is said and done in these vast, busy and often imaginative and beautiful pages, but (proportionately) very little of consequence actually happens.

In the first three chapters, the story is focused and already quite busy – Chapter 1 is an introduction, Chapter 2 is about Max and the ghosts in his house, and Chapter 3 is about Max and fellow Activity Club member Isaac. By the end of Chapter 3, Max is coming to tentatively accept his newfound ability to see supernatural beings and has somewhat reluctantly joined the Activity Club to figure out what it’s all about. He’s got antagonists – Johnny the witty bully who wants to beat him up all the time and Suzy the crazy journalist who wants him to spy on the Activity Club – and he’s got friends – the Activity Club, some minor character classmates and a friendly ghost who lives in his house.

And of course there are a whole bunch of weird spirits and things hanging around everywhere, and as the first two chapters establish, they’re often aggressive and looking for a fight. So we’ve already got a whole lot of dynamics in place, ready and waiting to be explored in future escapades.

Chapter 4 initially appears to be one such escapade, but the introductions and setups continue. This chapter is not so much about the Activity Club or Ghost Train of its title as it’s about everything. We’re shown the secret organisation behind the Activity Club, one character’s grandfather and his disciples, and a cavalcade of spirits with mysterious plans. A number of pages in, members of the Activity Club finally board the ghost train and then spend the rest of the chapter alternating between fighting ghosts and having overwritten conversations with spirits in their subconsciouses.2 More characters are introduced and many more portentous words are said.

Funny lines don’t wholly vacate the comic, but they’re never again as thick on the ground as in Chapter 1.

Funny lines don’t wholly vacate the comic, but they’re never again as thick on the ground as in Chapter 1.

The biggest plot point in this chapter is the loss of a character only introduced earlier in the same chapter, in an extended sequence that isn’t as nearly as heartfelt as it might have been a bit later on… that is, if this were the kind of story where “a bit later on” meant “after a number of meaningful events have transpired featuring this character” rather than “in one hundred pages when this game of dodgeball finally ends”.

Pacing is Paranatural’s biggest flaw – the story manages the unenviable feat of moving both too quickly and too slowly. And it only gets worse as the comic goes on. Rather than a breather after the massive Chapter 4, Chapter 5 is another lumbering behemoth, front-loaded with a confusing and narratively close-to-worthless action sequence3 that lasts around sixty pages. This is followed by a brief attempt to return to main plot that is soon derailed by a host of other digressions. Some are amusing, but by this point my confidence in the plot’s ability to be resolved in a reasonable length of time had reached an all-time low.

To make matters worse, with all of the ancillary characters introduced in Chapter 4 doing all sorts of things that will be Important Later(TM), the story has to keep cutting to whatever it is they’re doing, giving everyone shorter and shorter individual scenes during which they accomplish less and less. And we get more overwritten conversations between characters and their spirits, telling rather than showing what’s going on with the characters internally.

Paranatural is so eager to set up everything that will be important later that it can’t focus on the now and tell interesting smaller stories with their own setups and resolutions (over-arching storylines are best when they have something to over-arch). It’s got so much new cool stuff to show you and to foreshadow about that it can’t leave any room to breathe.

That smaller stories like this happen is used as a throwaway joke in a couple of places, as if to wink to the reader and whisper, “You already know how that story would have gone so we don’t need to bother – just mentioned it to make you aware of how awesome this world is.” But without shorter arcs, the reader is left without the confidence that the comic’s author is capable of resolving anything, and the act of reading the comic resembles taking a very, very deep breath in without a breath out.

And even when there are shorter sequences and stories, Paranatural’s maximalist tendencies balloon every minor encounter and short action sequence into page after page of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The pace continues unabated – there is never an opportunity to breathe. Paranatural is hyperrealism without the realism; it’s Homestuck without the medium-advancing experiments to justify a plot with too many moving parts.

A rare page without dialogue, near the beginning of Chapter 1.

A rare page without dialogue, near the beginning of Chapter 1.

I really, really, really wanted to like this one. I loved the first few chapters and the idea of getting more of the same. The characters are extremely likeable, the writing sparkles (when it sticks to breezy banter) and the art is everything I could want from a webcomic, with expressive characters and boatloads of imagination. But the whole thing just buckles under the weight of a plot that simultaneously moves too fast and too slow. There’s a lot to like here, and a lot to be disappointed about.

Paranatural is literally bursting with potential. Or rather, it burst with potential, making an enormous and very colourful mess. Some areas of the mess are very pretty to look at and in some places you can see what individual items that make up the mess might have been given time to develop properly and maybe on the right day in the right state of mind you might be happy to just roll around in the mess – but ultimately it’s a mess. Great source of Twitter avatars though.

  1. Similarities to a film with a title also matched by regex /Paran.*/i are (probably) purely coincidental, as it was only released about a year and a half after Paranatural started. ↩︎

  2. “Spectral” characters are able to, at any time, slip into their own minds and talk with the spirits possessing their tools. This slows their perception of time down to a crawl, allowing action scenes to be bogged down with oodles of dialogue. On the plus side, the spirits all look really cool↩︎

  3. “$CHARACTER needs to get sent to the principal’s office for harming another student… how to do it… oh, I know! I’ll have him throw a ball too hard in dodgeball. Better write a hundred pages of dodgeball action to set up the first part of what this chapter’s actually about!” ↩︎

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