REVIEW by Alice Vernon

NWR Issue r17

The Sorrowful Putto of Prague - Webcomic

by James Stafford

Webcomics have gained a great deal of popularity in recent years, partly because of their accessibility. New stories can be made immediately available, usually free of charge, to an international readership. Welsh writer James Stafford’s The Sorrowful Putto of Prague is a thoroughly international webcomic with ties to Wales, Czech Republic, Romania and the Philippines. It is an excellent example of the freedom this medium can give.

Despite its worldwide cast of creators, The Sorrowful Putto of Prague takes place in the city of its title. Stafford’s protagonist is Xavier of the Sorrowful Snows: a cherub not unlike the ones you see perched above an algae-covered pond. And while Xavier is very much alive – albeit in a supernatural way – Stafford still captures a sense of the weather-beaten stone statue we readily associate with his image. He has been watching over Prague for more than 400 years, witnessing the momentous and the mundane, sometimes actively participating but more often remaining invisible to its residents and tourists.

In The Sorrowful Putto of Prague, James Stafford gives a voice to urban myth. The webcomic is split into rather short chapters – each around six pages long – that give episodic glimpses into some of Xavier’s experiences as Prague’s guardian. It doesn’t so much have a plot as it gathers flashes of story; the webcomic reads rather like anecdotes told in a dingy pub corner. They are not told chronologically, either. The introductory chapter, ‘The Gratitude of My City’, takes place in 2000, whereas the following chapter, ‘The Head of St. Adalbert’, is a story from 1979. My issue with this, however, was that the comic uses a crinkled, old-looking page design which works for the stories set in the early- or mid-twentieth century, but it seemed rather jarring for a story set in the year 2000. Nevertheless, I liked being able to piece together Xavier’s character through these leaps in time.

The chapters themselves, while brief, were very enjoyable. They reminded me of some of Neil Gaiman’s short stories. Stafford deftly shifts his tone between each story; we see Xavier experiencing everything from celestial adventures to small, everyday occurrences in Prague. ‘The Mournful Music of Miss Svelta’, for example, shows Xavier’s keen interest, no matter how relatively fleeting, in the lives of Prague’s residents. The plot twist in ‘The Hanging Man of Mala Strana’, however, complicates Xavier’s cherubic appearance. Stafford weaves dark humour throughout The Sorrowful Putto of Prague, which is at its best in Xavier’s lament of Prague’s taxi system in ‘The Perils of Travelling in a Hired Horseless Carriage’, but no chapter is without a recurring sense of loneliness. Indeed, Xavier spends most of his time either drinking or smoking a cigarette, which creates an amusing scene with an underlying gloominess.

The chapters of The Sorrowful Putto of Prague are drawn by a selection of artists: AJ Bernando, Raluca Moldovan, Lenka Šimečková, and Josel Nicolas. At first I found the switch between artists a little disorientating, but gradually I came to appreciate the different interpretations. Going back to my earlier point about each chapter reading like an anecdote, the variation between the artists gives the webcomic a sense that Xavier tells his stories to different people. Like a collection of tales about the Loch Ness Monster, the selection of artists putting their own style into Xavier’s appearance heightens the sense of him being a mythological figure. Furthermore, it is interesting to see how each artist works with Stafford’s stories. Bernando’s style is reminiscent of a noir drama – there are lots of deep shadows and fluid, overlapping transitions between panels. His use of colour in ‘The Mournful Music of Miss Svelta’ however, adds a wonderful degree of warmth to an otherwise sad story. On the other hand, Josel Nicolas’ fun, cartoon-like aesthetic adds the perfect amount of humour to ‘The Perils of Travelling in a Hired Horseless Carriage’.

Another thing worth mentioning about The Sorrowful Putto of Prague is the accompanying soundtrack. A link at the top of the webcomic will take you to a media player which includes a selection of instrumental pieces to listen while you read. Among these is ‘Evensong’ by Roger O’Donnell, an English keyboardist who worked with The Cure, to go with the chapter ‘Disintegratio’. The music has a slow, melancholic air to it that mixes classical instruments with electric guitar, and perfectly encapsulates the timelessness of Xavier watching over his city. It’s a nice touch; it really makes for a more absorbing reading experience. Moreover, the soundtrack shows just how interactive and innovative the webcomic format can be.

The Sorrowful Putto of Prague has recently been given a physical publication in the Czech Republic, and it has also caught the attention of Graeme Virtue for The Guardian and actor Samuel L. Jackson. I think it’s a quick, fun read and would be a very good place to start if you haven’t read a webcomic before.


previous review: Guests of Time: Poetry from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History
next review: Welsh Folk Tales


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