Insta Made Me Read It: UnOrdinary and Rot & Ruin

Insta made me read it column banner

Insta Made Me Read It is a bimonthlyish column covering a selection of those comics which are promoted on the official Webtoon Instagram account! Every time I take a look at two comics which I’ve seen on Instagram to get an impression of what’s a) popular and b) rewarded on Webtoon, a massive modern comics-reading platform usually accessed by their free app.

UnOrdinary has been appearing fairly reliably on webtoonofficial, most recently February the 6th’s StudyBuddy quiz. Before that, on January the 8th, a “which world would you like to live in” reader-response call and two days prior a character stats feature for Seraphina (below), the primary female character. Three days before that, unOrdinary characters appeared in at least three of ten fanart submissions reposted by webtoonofficial. Creator uru chan was one of the featured guests at Webtoon’s convention booth events in the con season of 2019. (Highlights from these can be seen in archived Instagram stories on the @webtoonofficial account.) Rot & Ruin received an animated introduction on January 13, 2020, which was the day that the series launched.

UnOrdinary by uru chan, webtoon, 2020

unOrdinary by uru chan

unOrdinary is not a comic I enjoyed reading. So let me cut in on myself here:

unOrdinary is an exceptionally popular American comic; over a hundred and ten thousand people have read every chapter. There are one hundred and twenty-six chapters free to read at time of writing. That’s a lot of kids reading, very often. Looking at the comments section, there’s currently a top comment, three weeks old, with 44,569 upvotes from other readers. In 2019, unOrdinary claimed the most comments amongst all Webtoon titles. The fans are invested. My impression is that the majority of them are young, and my expectation is that this a fandom inclined to perhaps be volatile. This is both due to the apparent mean age of its invested readers—teenagers are volatile—and to the tone of the comic itself. The dominant flavour of every chapter I have read (I read from the beginning, skipped to a few in the middle, and dipped back in for chunk of more recent chapters to see what had changed) is aggrieved, aggressive bitterness.

Many readers have registered their dissatisfaction with aspects of the comic and its progression in the aggrieved tones of the comic itself. I think their criticisms, on the whole, have been accurate; they must have been hard to read for the cartoonist. It would be easy enough to be equally flip and demanding about the negative aspects of this comic and the tone that I mention inclines me towards that; sustained negativity, which the narrative exerts, is influential. But I am an adult, and the cartoonist, uru chan, real name Chelsey Han, is not an enemy. I choose not to embrace the feeling inspired by the material. I’m going to be negative, because my opinion of the comic is poor. But I shall endeavour not to take it personally. I’m also going to note here, ahead of time, that the best thing about this comic is its sustained existence. It is for the people it is for.

UnOrdinary by uru chan, webtoon, 2020
(I just have a hard time seeing the value in shape diagrams like this. What is it telling me that columns couldn’t? That’s the one personal strike I’m allowing myself.)

unOrdinary made a bad impression on me at first point of contact: seeing its characters on Instagram. I avoided reading it for a long time, despite its fairly regular presence there, finding the character designs over-complicated and derivative and the power diagrams irritating to parse. Hair is too finicky, the uniforms make no lasting impression at all, and facial expressions are bland enough to block perception of character. They’re far more similar to anime faces, kept still by cost of additional cels and balanced out by emotional voicework, than to the expressive facial anatomy of the same audience’s manga successes.

In interviews, uru chan has said, “unOrdinary started off as a way to poke fun at anime stereotypes.” If unOrdinary’s style is satire or pastiche, it’s neither evident at first glance nor thematically congruent. Without that cue from uru chan outside of the text there is nothing to suggest these elements are “a joke” rather than simply the “visual trope usage”—close referencing, from a small pool, without innovation—seen in many Webtoons and fandom-alumnae produced comics found elsewhere. The Japanese school-style architecture and classroom layouts have no contextual relevance beyond “making it seem like an anime” and the school uniforms, which I believe are fairly rare in America, aren’t customised when applied to different characters. All of the girls wear black thigh-highs under their plaid skirts, that all fit exactly the same way, at the same level. It’s not “inspired by” because it’s not inspired. It’s just reproductive. If the anime design-ripping was done with intended irony, this at least explains the character called Blyke. Why would an American call a character Blyke, unless it was a joke?

UnOrdinary by uru chan, webtoon, 2020

More distressing than the sense of simulacra is the work uru chan gives themselves that they simply don’t need to do. Here’s (above) a google image result for Arlo, an A-tier supporting character. Every single chunk of his exacting, uninformative and underdesigned hairstyle is drawn every single time he appears. He appears a lot. Because he barely moves in relation to the “camera”, consistently scowls, and essentially only rotates from ¾ view to ¾ view, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether a panel’s hair has been repeated or re-drawn. This question arises without conscious bidding because the complexity is innately stimulating, and nothing about the style is narratively dominant enough to stop that loss of attention to the story—and both answers have been correct. Sometimes the whole hairstyle is redrawn almost imperceptibly. Sometimes the hair has been copy-pasted from a few panels earlier. Where I have investigated this, the choice has been based on nothing I can perceive.

As I began reading it was impossible to miss the early chapters’ similarity to the early chapters of My Hero Academia, a comic that was less well-known in America in May 2016 (unOrdinary’s debut) than it has become since. MHA began licensed translation in August 2015. Discussion of the similarities between these series can be found in fan communities and is often rejected as coincidence or dismissed on the grounds of there also being some differences. But this isn’t an accusation of plagiarism; it’s a more specific observation of over-referencing. In my opinion the similarities are too resonant to be irrelevant. One freakishly unpowered teen boy enters the high school he has striven to get into, finding himself amongst very accomplished superpower-users and getting bullied. He makes friends with a cute girl and continually gets into superpowered fights he can’t handle, causing the school nurse, a magic healer, to scold him for damaging himself unnecessarily because he knows he can get them to fix him. The aspects of the comic and its main character that uru chan seems to really believe in develop too long after this to outweigh it if you start reading at the beginning. There’s nothing new enough, in these early chapters, to distract you from how you’ve already read this.

The way uru chan has described the creative process of the early chapters—inspiration coming from manga and anime, characters being modelled on anime archetypes first and foremost, “I figured out where I wanted to take [my protagonist’s] character at around Episode 4,” and comments about how the literature they have encountered in their life hasn’t focused on character development—further inclines me to believe this is not coincidence, but structural tracing due to insecurity as a storyteller. unOrdinary began as an off-the-cuff entry to a superhero-themed Webtoon pitch contest. It shows. This is not necessarily something to disparage, as many cartoonists and series begin in weak places, but it is also not something easy to celebrate as a dominant aspect of a continuing series. The whole time I was reading I was thinking “If only they’d had more time to workshop, before the production actually began.”

Essentially, I feel for uru chan—in unOrdinary their craft is unripe, and their visibility and appeal to an audience young enough to still feel entitled to a seamless experience with entertainment mean their weaknesses will be taken personally and gnawed over in public with all the pique of a disciple scorned. If they can weather that, all power to them, but it must be hard—especially with their apparently rolling series of work-related injuries and health problems. I very much hope Webtoon runs interference between uru chan and their unhappy fans, but as I’m aware uru chan lurks on fan boards and read all of their Webtoon comments I suppose there’s only so much a publisher can do.

The comic is violent (I want to say “gratuitously,” but that’s not quite what I mean—it’s a violence that feels questionable, as in “but why are they battering each other though?”) and unpleasant from the start, presenting the protagonist John smirking in triumph as a sneering classmate is hit in the face by chalk thrown by the teacher, causing tears, humiliation and a nosebleed. On his way to the bathroom John happens upon two more peers engaged in a wall-cracking physical altercation over the breakage of a borrowed pen. Avoiding involvement, and with no apparent surprise, John walks on and tells the reader that he is rare in having been born with no “power” at all. As the comic develops, and uru chan’s ideas for the story solidify, this becomes a lie—he’s pretending not to have any power, because he secretly has so much power. John’s introduction is distasteful at first read, because he’s emotionless and mean, and worse at second because he’s lying to his audience. To be fair this would be a valid creative decision if it were made ahead of time and developed into thematic texture. But it’s just a mistake. As a person, John only gets worse, which is fine if you like spending time with bitchy nihilists. I mean it—if you like that, you’ll maybe like this.

The world doesn’t get much keener either; fist-to-face bullying of bruised younger schoolmates, equally violent powered attacks on peers—everyone in this world is an abusive, abrasive presence, and they all seem to hate each other. Every school mentioned is ostensibly otherwise a normal high school, the world is ostensibly “ours.” But society is different in one way: an insecure misanthrope’s belief in the selfishness of humanity and the vindictive, dishonest nature of all social interaction is literalised through the additional fact/s “everyone has a superpower, which they use to bludgeon their way up the social hierarchy.” Every school has a “monarchy,” which is made up of the “strongest” (? most combat-applicable) students, and they have formalised “turf wars” which are street fights at agreed locations with RPG-style battle rules and no apparent wider social consequence, meaning or purpose. Are they illegal? Are they OK’d by the schools? It was not apparent to me during my reading.

It’s harsh and pointless. This is the appeal, and, sure, the value of the comic. It’s negative stimulation. It’s delivered at a fairly constant pace. And—this is the vital part—it isn’t going to radicalise anybody. Much of John’s unpleasantness comes from his tendency to denigrate his peers on the same scale of values from which they first attempt to devalue him. That’s “bad,” obviously; he upholds the harmful status quo even as he claims to disdain it and he’s no kind of role model to anyone. But upholding the status quo is not as bad as devolving from it. Nobody here is a nazi; uru chan doesn’t seem to infuse the comic with conservatism or bigotry (although the word “cripple” is used for non-powered people, and it is used a lot—there’s vaguely metatextual judgement against slurs generally, which uru chan uses dialogue full of this slur to effect. It pretty much sucks to read, but at least it’s clear that people who believe in the negative construction of that word are supposed to be found threatening or sad). As a whole, unOrdinary actually has a tendency to overlay the bitter violence with pro-social homilies. They don’t really connect, but there’s some effort there, they’re made available, and valorised even if they’re specifically beyond the ability of the characters to achieve. It’s ugly to read horrible kids being horrible, and there’s a hopeless tinge to all of the characters’ philosophies, like they’re drowning in teenage nihilism. But there are tons of teenagers who are drowning in nihilism, and they need somewhere to go. Here’s an open pool.

I don’t recommend reading this comic if you can help it. I think if you’re already reading it and it’s annoying you, or influencing your mood to be stand-offish or snide, or if you think the weaknesses of uru chan’s craft are too obvious—you should stop reading. It’s probably not going to get any “better” in the ways that matter to you. The colouring has gotten tighter over its run, the art is showing a more confident hand, and uru chan has clearly developed a passion for the ability of the comic to exhibit the social ills they have convictions about. It’s probably going to keep on being the same comic until it’s over. When it’s over uru chan can take what they’ve learnt on this comic into a new, more extensively planned one… or not. They can be glad they provided something that gave a minute to a lot of kids who needed a minute. They remain the unfathomable, unknowable Author—uru chan can do whatever they please. The important, the controllable thing, is whether or not you expose yourself to something you don’t need, and how you respond to fairly harmless stimulation your abhor. I don’t like unOrdinary at all, so I’m not going to read it any more.

Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, Taylor Grant, and Alempe

Rot & Ruin is a Webtoon adaptation of a fairly long-running young adult-targeted novel series. I believe that other contributors to this site are working on analysis of this comic as, specifically, an adaptation; as such I won’t be considering that side of the matter here as regards plot, tone, or character differences and I have not read the original book/s. This will be, only, analysis of Rot & Ruin as a comic, although that must include discussion of the multiple creative inputs that result in the whole—Jonathan Maberry, the original author, is being re-written (or co-written?) by Taylor Grant (this is picked up from tweets, rather than onsite credits)— and presumably (although I can’t, at this point, be sure) that adapted script is being cartooned by Alempe.

Rot & Ruin by Maberry, Grant & Alempe, webtoon, 2020

The story, as a whole, is mostly rather good. A heavy dose of world building is encountered early on: this is a zombie genre novel and it’s largely interested in examining what the social and emotional impact “would(/could) be” if a zombie epidemic truly overran the world and left your town an oasis in a sea of the wandering, hungry dead. New social roles are very firmly at the forefront of things. As the plot begins, our protagonist Benny is in a bind because he only has a few days left before his fifteenth birthday. That’s important, because if citizens of this isolated survivor-town don’t lock themselves into a career by fifteen, they lose half of their rations. This fact is tossed in very casually, like of course they have rations—and fair enough, that makes sense. That’s good offhand establishment. Benny cycles through various short job trials, all new roles that only have relevance to a post-zombie society. Each is unpleasant, but presented by older townspeople with a farmer-like resignation/acceptance combo that rings psychologically true. These are things that would have to get done. The people who do them would get used to them. A teenager, even one for whom these are not “new,” would not look upon them with joy. The environment is very convincing.

Benny eventually allows himself to be shunted into a position that forces him to ask his older brother Tom to make him an apprentice. Tom has been offering this throughout, but Benny’s complicated resentment of Tom has prevented him from accepting. Tom is a zombie hunter, like Benny’s macho heroes, but Benny thinks Tom is a coward because he believes he can remember exactly what happened when the zombies came and it involves Tom abandoning their parents to die by teeth. When Tom takes Benny on his first foray outside of the town compound Benny begins to see that there’s more to reality than his own assumptions, which is not comfortable for him.

Benny’s confused and aimless grief, both for his actual parents and for a life other than the one he has, is the driving force of this comic and one interestingly centred by the arrangement of its genre elements. Benny’s not really a great person. He’s emotionally juvenile and stunted by his hurt feelings but choosing to stay stunted rather than relate to those around him and grow into his potential for compassion, respect, and forgiveness. He’s too shallow to appreciate the grief that other people have, even though it’s based around the same traumatic event as his own. He’s too immature to see zombies as dead people, or people who once lived, perceiving them only from a distance and as monsters. He can’t appreciate that his older brother raised him, or that mucky or sensitive jobs are worth doing properly, or that people who project a showy coolness might have other aspects to their nature.

Rot & Ruin by Maberry, Grant & Alempe, webtoon, 2020
Big brother, big bummer

This is understandable and widely applicable teenager grief processing stuff, and framing it with zombies is a very neat way to make you are not the only one neither abrasive nor tacky—sure, in a straight novel, a kid can discover that the lady next door has also been bereaved, and so has that guy, and this peer. But how can you affect enough 1:1 comparison to let it uncomplicatedly register their love and loss is as real and abrupt as yours? You can’t, because nobody’s grief or circumstances are the same. Using a natural disaster or domestic attack to create that sympathy runs the risk of being either too close to experience or appropriative, or looking too worthy to be really enjoyable. Suddenly, there were zombies, and they ate one of everybody’s family makes learning to see the humanity in others’ loss dissociated enough to be a thrill, and therefore EASIER. I think that making growth processes easy is very good.

The weaker part of this comic is the thread about Benny’s crush. The very first chapter begins with three pre-teens making a blood pact to never make a move on the one girl in their friendship group, because they all have a thing for her and don’t want to lose each other’s affection. Snapping to the “present day” where Benny and pals are turning fifteen, they all still have the same crush on the same girl—and Benny claims she has no idea. This, I do not like. I do not like it at all. Of course she knows! A girl pointedly refusing to “notice” that every one of her friends wants her because acknowledging her own desirability would lead to the violent implosion of her entire social world is, indeed, a scary zombie story. But it’s not the one that Rot & Ruin is trying to tell. This b-plot is off-putting enough that when it cycles back into the off-compound-with-Tom a-plot, I’ll most likely be dropping this series. That’s a shame as the emotional content elsewhere really is very solid.

Rot & Ruin by Maberry, Grant & Alempe, webtoon, 2020
She knows.
Rot & Ruin by Maberry, Grant & Alempe, webtoon, 2020
SHE KNOWS, DUDE

Alempe’s style is a sort of streamlined anatomical cartoon realism, recalling Legend of Korra or similar. They’re proficient with this, very good at subtle gesture, expression and body acting. It’s always clear what a character is thinking, and how that relates to what they’re saying or doing. They know when to move a lip, an eye, crinkle a small amount of skin. There’s a lot of emotional impact without utilising expressionistic stretch or squish. The horror content is drawn matter-of-factly, underplaying detail and always muting the otherwise warm and fairly cosy palette, far less about distressing stimulation via grotesquerie than the vaguer, more upsetting horror of dead things just lying there. Or standing there.

Rot & Ruin by Maberry, Grant & Alempe, webtoon, 2020

The majority of their artistic choices are absolutely a benefit to the purpose of this story. What I find a massive weakness is their character design: it’s as if the principles of Grey Man Theory were applied. Benny wears a hoodie and jeans, I guess? His hair is there, I guess? His brother’s hair is longer, I guess? The townsfolk aren’t super fashionable, I guess? Every single person in this comic is absolutely forgettable, bar Benny’s unsuitable bounty hunter role models. When they appeared I though “Oh! At last! Some character!” Then it turned out they’re sex predators. Awesome.Rot & Ruin by Maberry, Grant & Alempe, webtoon, 2020 Rot & Ruin by Maberry, Grant & Alempe, webtoon, 2020

It’s possible, and I’m willing to entertain the thought, that the characters are nondescript because Benny is bored. They don’t look interesting because his town is too small to let them; they have no resources, let’s say. Nobody is out there doing salon work because everybody is busy warding off the undead. Okay. Girls just naturally wear crop tops and shorts… sure. The bad boy bounty hunters look good because they look good to Benny, and we’re supposed to sympathise and work through his perspective change with him. That’s a respectable choice, in theory. I don’t really want to develop with Benny, though, because I’d need to regress first. I’d rather be interested by who I’m looking at as well as cognisant of how they’re feeling about the adventure they’re having. And I’m not sure it can really be said that this explanation feels true—Benny and his friends wear clothes with graphic elements that don’t look as if they’ve been being worn by successive sets of teenagers for fifteen years, and the lack of detail on supporting-cast adults’ outfits feels like the lack of detail on background characters in cheaper anime. Let’s be fair: as an adult, this comic isn’t for me anyway. I think there’s the possibility this development cycle could work for its target audience if that’s really what it is, and it’s not a deal breaker either way.

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money
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