I’ve a confession to make: I have no idea what’s going on in Dax Tran-Caffee’s Eisner-nominated webcomic, Failing Sky. Now, I admit =this could all be my problem; the webcomic, after all, has its fans. The “About” page, for example, has positive notices from two comic legends, Scott McCloud and Neil Gaiman. Maybe this is a Ulysses situation — you know, in the sense that literary critics find it to be the greatest book in the world, but I can’t force myself through the first 50 pages. The mysterious wandering Jackie character just may be the webcomics version of Leopold Bloom.
But then again, maybe my brain just can’t wrap around the avant garde techniques used in the comic. For example, take a look at the “Chapters” page. Failing Sky is intentionally created out of chronological order. While most of Vol. 1 (out of four) has been published, the rest of the volumes only contain two chapters at most out of several. Most are marked “(not yet funded — ETA unknown),” which I assume means the chapters won’t be written until enough money comes through Patreon.
But the existing chapters are so weird and the characters are so vague that I’m not sure I’d ever be compelled to donate to see those other stories. For the most part, there seems to be some connective thread. Failing Skies begins with a pretty straightforward story: A guy named Peter makes a dress for a character named Qiao. Her boat, which we learn she’d been sharing with characters named Jackie and Khatia, sinks. We then follow the expanded cast of characters in their similarly bohemian adventures, which all seem to end rather abruptly.
But then, we have a chapter in Vol. 4 (which, as of this writing, is being updated) that … has a skateboard-riding girl in a clown nose fighting robots? It’s tonally jarring, like Failing Sky just turned into the silly, stream-of-consciousness anime FLCL (there’s even a giant iron, which makes me think the homage was intentional). It did grab my attention, but mainly because the change was so befuddling.
The most interesting aspect of Failing Sky, though, is its use of the infinite canvas. It completely messes with preconceived notions of how comics work. When coming across a horizontal layout, for example, it’s natural to want to scroll from left to right. Well, sometimes the comic demands that you scroll from the right to the left. The impulse to scroll from left to right is so strong that Tran-Caffee can “trick” you into arriving at a dead end, only to provide an arrow to move you the right way. Other strips start from the bottom, then demand that you scroll up. Navigating Failing Sky is like going through a maze.
That’s not all: Tran-Caffee adds other cute touches here and there (all of which, by the way, makes the comic inoperable on an Apple device). Sometimes there’s an embedded image that links to other comics; other times, the comic tosses up a pop quiz.
Do all these techniques improve Failing Sky? Most of the time, I found them distracting. It didn’t help me to understand the story or the characters any better, which were already vaguely defined. I suppose this is a comic where arguably the novel use of the tools available in the medium, and not the traditional components of storytelling, is the art itself. Like that stream of consciousness chapter at the end of Ulysses, for example. Maybe Failing Sky is art, after all, just not the compelling kind.