I must admit that webcomics are something of an undiscovered country for me. I used to read a fair amount back when I was in university, but that was back in the early 2000s, when the medium was new and taking many of its cues from newspaper comics. Since then, of course, the medium has blossomed in every conceivable way, with the only limits being the imaginations of the creators and the technology available. As for me, I drifted away from the medium after university and have only begun dipping my toes back in again rather recently. Indeed, at the moment there are only two comics I read regularly: Drugs and Wires, Cryoclaire and Black Io’s pessimistic comedy about post-Soviet life in the dystopian cyberpunk future of 1995, and the subject of today’s review.
The Out-of-Placers is a fantasy webcomic written and drawn by Sal Valia (or Valsalia…I’m not quite sure myself). The comic started sometime around late 2013 and over the past few years has developed a small but loyal following. While the subject matter it handles is perhaps a little unorthodox, there is a charm and humor to the comic that just makes me want to ramble on about it for several paragraphs.
The main setting for The Out-of-Placers is the late-medieval city-state of Valsalia, a hardscrabble little burg built around two massive buttes. Sandwiched between the desert and the ocean, the place has developed into a trade hub of some repute. While most of the city’s population are human in origin, judicious government and a few quirks of geography have made Valsalia a meeting place for a number of sentient species. To the west, in the sandy mountains, live the Indrel, a race of human-sized insectoids who dwell in underground hives and mostly keep to themselves. Beneath the city live the Baxxid, a race of great snakelike creatures with massive bony heads, segmented clawlike limbs, and a flair for abstract reasoning. And here, there, and everywhere, are the yinglets.
The yinglets themselves deserve some special consideration before we continue. While yinglets have a variety of shapes and sizes, the average yinglet is a small mammal (about waist-high to an adult man when fully grown) that could perhaps best be described as a mixture of a meerkat and a roadrunner. (Indeed, the author affectionately refers to them as “ratbirds.”) They have long, narrow snouts with a large pointed tooth protruding from the upper jaw, large eyes and ears, bodies and tails that are lithe and flexible, and long, skinny arms and legs that end with prehensile clawed paws. They primarily feed on shellfish and other crustaceans, and in terms of general personality are a mixture of hyperactive, giddily enthusiastic, and not that bright. Socially they are arranged into a loose tribal structure centered around “enclaves,” but with a few unique twists. As the species seems to have a gender ratio of one female for every 5 to 7 males, the females are kept secluded in the safety of the enclave while the males have adapted to…”accomodate” one another. (Imagine a version of The Handmaid’s Tale where the women have slightly more autonomy and all the fundamentalist Christian men are banging each other, and you’ll be in the ballpark.) Finally, while za yinglets have taken za English language as zheir own, za arrangement of zheir teezh makes it impossible for zhem to pronounce za syllable “th”, so zhey all have to speak somezhing like zhis.
Our guides to za…ahem, “the”…world of The Out-of-Placers are two humans, Kassen Akoll and Elim Dorelga. Brothers-in-arms, they fled the collapse of their northern homeland to make new lives for themselves in Valsalia. Taken in by House Ivenmoth, Valsalia’s largest trade house (and de facto government), they are the low men on the totem pole, cleaning out the bug pens and ferrying travelers to and from Indrel territory. However, Kass, an ambitious young man wanting to do good for Elim and their fellow refugees, has been angling to advance himself by looking for “exotics” to recruit for House Ivenmoth. To this end, Kass has signed up his friend Isher, a shy, sweet girl who silently bemoans the fact that she is eight feet tall, weighs four hundred pounds, and essentially has the lower body of a tyrannosaur. As the comic opens, Kass has found another potential in Yannit, an Indrel drone who abandoned her hive in order to live with humans. While there is perhaps a touch of condescension and noblisse oblige to Kass’s actions, it does seem to come from a good place, and he does care about the well-being of both Isher and Yannit.
At this point, The Out-of-Placers might seem to be a fairly typical fantasy webcomic. However, the story takes a sharp swerve after the first dozen pages. After returning from their daily Indrel run with Yannit in tow, Kass and Elim chance upon a yinglet scavenger hawking his wares in the Valsalian market. As a charitable gesture, Kass buys an odd greenish rock encrusted with barnacles off the yinglet. Later that evening, in the barracks Kass and the other refugees call home, Kass brings out the trinket, only to have it burst in his hand and release a liquid that burns into his hand and face. As his horrified friends look on, his body begins to contort and change. In a matter of minutes, the human Kassen Akoll is no more, and in his place…is a yinglet. A young, healthy, female yinglet.
Suffice to say, Kass handles the news in a less than heroic fashion.
In internet-speak, The Out-of-Placers is what is known as a transformation comic. Transformation is something a niche genre that has percolated across science fiction and fantasy fandoms, among many other. Like any niche interest, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and there certainly is a strong fetishistic element to a lot of the writing and artwork about transformation out there. That being said, it is to Sal Valia’s credit that he has written The Out-of-Placers for a more general audience. Rather that transforming the entire cast all willy-nilly, the only major transformation (to date) is Kassen’s, and the comic has been set up as a long-term exploration of its effects on him. The transformation itself is actually a fairly quick affair, just a few panels capturing parts of Kass midway between humanity and yinglethood. While sex is discussed a fair amount, the comic is hardly what I would call a sexualized work. Indeed, the most explicit comic to date is centered around a scholarly discussion of yinglet mating habits that, through gratuitous offscreen fruit abuse, happens to be one of the funniest pages of the whole comic. (Commissions and such are a different story, but most of them stay on the right side of good taste. As for fan art, well, you roll the dice and you take your chances.)
As well as writing the comic for an audience that may not be deep in the transformation scene, Sal Valia has made the wise decision to pitch the story as a comedy. The comic is entitled “The Out-of-Placers” as all of the major characters are displaced or alienated in some way, whether from their homeland, their bodies, their species, the norms of their society, or their gender. Naturally, the “fish out of water” theme is a rich vein to tap for comedy, and Sal Valia uses it to great effect. In the early pages of the comic, the big laughs come from Yannit, with her bubbly, geekish enthusiasm for humanity contrasting with her alien nature. Isher provides more of a bittersweet experience, with her desire to become something she can never really be. The yinglets as a whole are great vehicles for both physical and verbal comedy, never quite getting things right yet being very enthusiastic about everything all the same. And of course there is Kass, alienated from his nation, species, and gender, trying to fumble his way through his new life. However, while his struggles are played for laughs, they are not treated frivolously.
At the time of this writing, there are been only two major story arcs in The Out-of-Placers. The first is a prologue, dealing with Kass’s transformation and its immediate aftermath. This part of the story is a crash course for Kass, as he has to figure out how to speak, walk, and eat again from first principles. At this point, most writers would keep Kass impoverished and make the story an allegory for class or racial discrimination. However, Sal Valia takes the unexpected path of promoting Kass. After being discovered by the Ivenmoth authorities, he is hauled (leashed and in his underwear, no less) before the Trademaster of House Ivenmoth, who appoints him as Ivenmoth’s new ambassador to Valsalia’s own yinglet enclave. While the promotion is a great honor, it is also something of a hollow one. As Kass himself admits, he finally received official status with House Ivenmoth as a “reward” for losing his humanity. Additionally, his promotion comes at a price: alongside his diplomatic duties, Kassen is also conscripted into acting as both the Trademaster’s eyes and ears inside the Valsalian enclave and as a case study for the Trademaster’s pet scholar Ran, an inquisitive young man who understands little in the way of personal boundaries.
The second major arc concerns Kass’s first visit to the Valsalian enclave. While the yinglets have perhaps come across as a species of fools, this arc begins to delve deeper into the mechanics of yinglet society, and we start to see yinglets who are more on the ball. Chief among them is Vizlet, matriarch of the Valsalian enclave. As matriarch, she is entrusted with the protection of the enclave’s history and of its female population. She is also a forward-thinking yinglet, looking to acquire human knowledge to secure her species’ place in the world, and as such she is forever butting heads with her enclave’s patriarchs as well as the conservative leaders from the southern homelands. Needless to say, she runs rings around Kass, who is unceremoniously dunked headfirst into both enclave politics and yinglet femininity with no warning, with the whole situation ending about as well as you would expect.
At this point, it’s difficult to say where precisely the comic will go. Valsalia itself has been set up as a location large and dense enough to support a number of stories, but at this point the most compelling element of the comic is Kass’s transformation. With the basics of Kass’s physical transformation having been discussed, the comic is shifting more towards an exploration of Kass’s mental changes. While Kass has retained all of his memories, in a way his mind has become an undiscovered country, with new reactions, impulses, and drives he barely understands. Even in just two arcs, we can already see the changes in Kass’s personality. As a human he was practical, collected, and upbeat; a leader-among-men in the budding. As a yinglet, Kass is emotive, quicker to anger, and more impulsive. (While the gender issue has not quite been brought into the open yet, it still peeks into the light at the most inopportune moments.) While it hasn’t been discussed in the comic yet, Kass has also become socially isolated; aside from his immediate circle of friends, he has subconsciously cut himself off from most of humanity, while keeping himself apart from yinglet society. Kass spends a great deal of time worrying about how his change has affected him mentally, while also being unaware of subtler changes to his behavior.
Aside from the mental journey, the other great engine driving the story of the comic is what, exactly, happened to Kassen Akoll. The world of The Out-of-Placers is not one where magic exists, so Kass’s transformation is literally inexplicable. As the story has progressed, though, there have been hints and glimpses that all is not as it seems. There are stories of yinglets finding strange artifacts in and around Valsalia that are only spoken of in rumor. During Kass’s visit to the Valsalian enclave, there is a suggestion of a great conspiracy of silence reaching all the way to the high elders of the yinglet homelands, but for now it is impossible to know who knows what and who is using who. As for the question of Kassen regaining his humanity, well, who can say?
Now, I do have a few issues with the comic. From what I have gathered, Sal Valia is something of a hobbyist artist, and while there has been improvement, his backgrounds and human figures do seem a bit rough. (By contrast, his creature design, particularly for the yinglets themselves, is superb.) He also has a habit of occasionally dumping large chunks of worldbuilding through comic pages excerpting sections of “The Valsalian Regional Field Guide.” Explaining elements of alien worlds is the necessary evil of fantastic fiction, but I feel it could be handled more elegantly. Finally, I do wish the character of Elim would be broadened. There is a theme of Kass and Elim switching roles as a result of Kass’s transformation, but too often I feel Elim just comes off as “the straight man” rather than a character in his own right.
Still, all of these are minor quibbles, and I find that Sal Valia’s strengths mostly make up for the preceding issues. For now, I am content to read The Out-of-Placers and follow Kassen Akoll on his bizarre adventure, wondering just what kind of person he – or she – will be at the end.