By Chelsea Goerzen(art and story) Kristine Kim(editing)
Reviewed by Michael Mazzacane
“Sunset Phoenix” is the right kind of strange brew. It’s a murder mystery, with a deadline plot. It’s a faction heavy gangster setting … but with magic. There’s about 5 aesthetic and generic traditions “Phoenix” is playing in from the beginning and it all, surprisingly, holds together and creates an engaging strip in the process. I was not sold on this strip when it started. Sure, the plot description caught my eye “an immortal criminal kingpin is dead, and you’re holding the murder weapon.” An “immortal” kingpin is “dead” is the right kind of oxymoronic cadence that just makes me go interesting. It starts in a less playful space as our protagonist, Valentine Yu, is being held with a magical knife to her throat. Goerzen’s sigil magic design isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, not technically bad but also not especially interesting. There’s just this distinct lack of tension in everything, despite the high drama imagery. Goerzen is drawing Velentine cool as a cucumber. And then the tables turn and it becomes the tense interrogation the first half of the scene was trying to be, and it becomes readily apparent why the threatening man was so lacking in that regard. That subtle shift in tonality was the hook that started to make me pay attention to this strip.
The scenario takes another sudden, explosive, turn and we’re soon introduced to Valentine assistant and some pitch perfect black comedy. The ever put upon assistant chides themselves for talking to their boss when said boss is only a set of legs and can’t hear them. You got to remember to wait until the vocal cords are finished regenerating or else what’s the point. That kind of sarcastic humor is sprinkled throughout this stirp, and it lands more often than not.
Eventually the plot described in the synopsis is afoot and the whole thing turns from just a magical gangster series into a murder mystery with geopolitical implications, on a deadline. As far as plots go, Goerzen has done a good jon in these 6 episodes of servicing it without pushing character work to the side. This is a pulpy piece, with a dash of camp, but their figure work makes these characters indearing and interesting. The first three or four strips won me over in terms of being interested in these characters and now im ready to see wherever the plot takes them. As a series of episodes these feel like complete narrative units with the odd cliffhanger, the kind of serialized episodic storytelling you hope for in these things.
Chelsea Goerzen’s art is the entire reason to read this strip. Yes the character work and narrative are all well done, but the level of design and technical craft in this strip is heads and shoulders above most of the stuff on Webtoon. It isn’t overally designed, even if the sigil magic is kind of bland, but they do a fantastic job with the color rendering. Everything feels vibrant but it’s not over exposed. In order to draw the readers eye to the figure work backgrounds have a habit of blurring out into these impressionist paintings that help to serve as useful mood indicators as well as spatial ones. The environment work isn’t all impressionistic, establishing panels have a high degree of rendering and realisim to them – in particular the water shots in the second strip.
How Goerzen put its altogether, while not revelatory demonstrates an understanding of how to make engaging vertical strips that most of these Webtoons lack. Just subtling shifting panels off axis of one another to cause the eye to zig zag down the strip and so on add a good deal of energy to the act of reading.
“Sunset Phoenix” is a queer political gangster story. Sure, the magic is kind of boring to look at but everything else about it is worth recommending.