Knite by Wenqing Yan

I have never been a huge fan of attempts to pep up the comic medium for the digital platform. Hybrid initiatives like Marvel’s motion comics, where panels of pre-existing stories are sexed up with dynamic animation or panel transitions, always aim for some magical uber-comic space that doesn’t actually exist. They bend the form, warping perceived limitations that actually benefit and strengthen the medium. The result comes across as ashamed of the static nature of the comic page, and ends up drawing attention to the weaknesses instead.

And all those rationalisations aside, my love of the comic medium is pretty traditional, and part of that is to do with the innate nature of the form. The ability to look back and forth through the pages, or to look at the whole layout of the page before reading each panel, or vice versa, is something simple and beautiful about comics, and it’s something that is traditionally drastically compromised by digital intervention in them. I also love animation, and neither that medium nor this one benefit from the car-crash that often gets inflicted on them.

So I was kind of surprised, midway through a browse at Deviant Art, to find a Flash-driven comic that turned my head completely.

Knite is a comic set in a fictionalised – at least to my primitive, uneducated mind – version of contemporary China, in a city where the stars are blotted out by pollution. Sen is a young and anxious dreamer with an unhappy background, who has accidentally begun a movement called the Knites – people who fly kites strewn with lights to bring stars to the night sky. The story begins when Kai, the cunning son of a politician, finds Sen and decides to befriend him. And it goes from there.

The story is a fairly basic modern fable, with threads of intrigue and an emotional window onto family dynamics appearing in the third chapter – the most recent to date. The creator Wenqing Yan’s writing is spare, and flows well, and the art is absolutely beautiful, heavily Asian influenced and fully rendered, with an incredibly rich colour palette.

What the Flash delivery method brings to Knites is a navigation method that isn’t unique, but is used here with a creative insight and instinct that creates nuance and narrative flourishes where a heavier hand would become gimmicky. There’s a button at each bottom corner that the reader uses to move forward and backwards in the story, which is a familiar mechanism, and the pages are a fairly uniform size, and consist of one panel. That’s what makes this different from a normal webcomic – where the majority of those deliver a page at a time, and each page has to fit in a certain amount of story, you move through Yan’s comics at a deliberate pace, informed by the amount of information there is in each frame.

And occasionally the pages literally become frames, and Knites stays on the tightrope that most similar comics fall dramatically from, with a sequence of two or more panels that only have the slightest of details changed. These are used to create a pause, or suggest depth of field or motion, which is a technique that Manga has been using for several decades and Western comics have been using for at least two, but other artists with Flash in their hands often try to create an illusion of animation, instead of savouring the unique nature of comics – that what you see in two consecutive panels isn’t the transition between two moments, but the two moments themselves, alongside each other. The pause between them is a moment of synchronisation between the artist and the audience, that draws specific attention to any instant it illustrates.

It’s a technique that makes a comic feel more cinematic, without compromising the medium, and it’s one that Yan seems to understand completely.

Knite isn’t going to be for everybody. Wenqing Yan has a poetic approach to narrative, and a look at her lovely story 1000 Words, which I think may have been a technical prototype for this longer comic, exposes a preoccupation with emotive subjects that aren’t necessarily in tune with cultural expectations that favour brashness. But it features such a beautiful central motif, and uses technology in such a rare and subtle way, that it certainly merits a look from anyone ready to see something different.

You can read the first chapter of Knite at Wenqing Yan’s Deviant Art gallery, though you’ll probably need a Flash Player.