Rumbirds: Cross-Cultural Lunacy / by David Anderson


I will now divulge a secret of mine: Despite my appearance as a hard-line comics fan, I have casually consumed manga in the past.

Okay, okay, here’s another one: I still do from time to time.

Well, the last time I read any was back in the winter of 2010, and it was a bunch of books of Battle Angel Alita published online by various users before copyright law kicked the whole show down. Just the same, I have been known to indulge.

My sister asked me to review Rumbirds, run by her friend Sarah O’Donnell, and while I was a little bit skeptical of reviewing something via a family connection, I figured it didn’t hurt to check it out. Once I read the first chapter, though, I was impressed. I think her work is unique and very high quality, and is worthy of the Spandexless seal of approval.

Rumbirds is a story you may be familiar with--two best friends want to become amateur detectives, and their personality glitches turn their half-baked endeavors into a roller coaster of hijinks and ridiculous accidents. The two main protagonists are Pippa and Vivie, but they are soon joined by several other characters on their adventures. Pippa is the reasonable, somewhat insecure one, while Vivie is the dynamic and irrational hothead balancing her out. They're both pretty vulgar twenty-somethings, headstrong and confused, and so it's easy to predict what kind of trouble they'll get into.

The premise might not be the most original, but then, nothing ever is, I suppose. What really matters is how many variables you inject into a story, and if they fit well, then it doesn’t matter how “original” something is. The setting makes this comic unique in this respect, as the entire story so far (about two chapters complete right now) takes place on an island where the girls spend their days as tour guides for the land and its exotic fauna. This single detail makes the story all the more interesting as there are plenty of opportunities to let the island direct the story, with new animals and locations that set the stage for plot advancement and comedy. The art style is easily recognizable as manga-inspired, and as such the characters are more easily identifiable by their silhouette profiles and their hairstyles, rather than, say, facial structure. While each character has a distinct image in normal proportions, much of their time is spent in caricature form, particularly when they are in action. Relaxed dialogue is usually the only time you see them in higher resolution.

I’ve read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and in it he talks about how the Japanese pioneered a type of comic panel shot in which a series of panels are used to set up a scene with various random bits of the surroundings--no connection between them--like taking snapshots of a scene around you and using them to construct the feeling and atmosphere of the setting. O’Donnell eschews this in favor of focusing entirely on the characters in action as they pursue their goals, a distinctly American influence.

Speaking of American influence, what I like about this comic the most is the cross-culture pollination. While the style is 100% Japanese, there are almost none of its tropes to be found here. The dialogue is written by an American for American audiences, so it actually feels like real conversations and character development instead of listening to a bare-bones translation of Japanese text with all its subtext lost in the process, which has always made a lot of dialogue in Japanese media feel stilted and robotic. It’s our cultural memes and slang built into the writing, so it’s easier to connect with the characters.

The sheer lack of clichés from the other side of the ocean makes for a really fresh experience. There is no mascot character, no ostentatious, over-the-top genderblending, no gratuitous sexualization or needless exposition to be found here--no tangents or wandering subject matter, no babbling about the meaning of emotions and friendship in the middle of a fight scene. The characters might look like they dropped out of a CLAMP concept art book but their interactions are entirely a product of their authors’ experiences, and it makes all the difference in the world--for the better, I might add.

I'm interested in seeing more of this kind of stuff. TL;DR: Between the great art style and writing, along with a closer-to-home influence that gives it a distinct character, this is a great webcomic and I recommend you check it out.

Rumbirds is written and illustrated by Sarah O'Donnell. You can check out the comic here, and even buy her comic as an eBook for any amount. You can check out her main site here.