Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Web Comic Review - Mindmistress

Introduction:  I came across Mindmistress, by Al Schroeder, about a month ago, and am now a confirmed fan.

Premise:  Lorelei Lyons is rich, beautiful -- and mentally retarded, with an IQ around 66.  She's the daughter of Ezekiel ("Lightning") Lyons, a dynamic and rather ruthless multi-billionaire; and Dr. Prudence Lyons, a brilliant neuro-biologist.

Prudence Lyons was trying to develop a handheld MRI scanner.  Instead, her invention increased the ability of neural impulses to leap synapses, vastly augmenting the intelligence of any human or animal.  Unfortunately, after two weeks of augmentation, it inflicted fatal brain tumors upon the subject.

Dr. Lyons died before she could solve the problems with the Lyons-Burns effect.  She bequeathed a prototype of the augmentation device to her daughter Lorelei, built into a locket, with a videotape explaining to her that she should use it only in dire need, and then would have around two weeks (with her now-augmented intelligence) to figure out how to avoid dying of brain tumors.

Lorelei (sensibly) chose not to use it.  But then she was caught in a bus accident, with little idea how to get help for a dying boy -- so she used the locket, and Mindmistress was born!

With an intelligence far beyond even the highest unaugmented human supergenius, she was able to figure out how to reverse the process, and discovered that if she did not remain in her smarter form for more than a week or two at a time, the reverse transformation would also reverse any brain damage.  The first (as far as she knew then) "neohuman," she embarked upon a career of discovery, invention and (occasionally, reluctantly) fighting crime!

Comments:  My synopsis of the premise really doesn't do this wonderful webcomic justice.  Think of a really good Silver Age science fiction comic book, but with a modern understanding of society and technology.  The concepts are incredible and awe-inspiring, with the main theme being Mindmistress' attempts to develop advanced technology and explore the mysteries of the Multiverse while avoiding inadvertently destroying human civilization in the process.  Characterization is strongly drawn and numerous subplots deftly balanced by Mr. Schroeder.  There is a strong effort made to preserve consistency of setting, and the plots are exciting and much less predictable than in most superhero books.

This is the more amazing because the whole series is inspired by Greek classical mythology, a mythology with which I am very familiar.  Mindmistress herself is like Athena, while her other friends and enemies are mostly based upon other Greek mythological gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines or monsters.  Many of the stories are strongly derived from specific Greek myths.  You would think that it would be obvious to me how everything would turn out, in detail.

But it's not.  The reason why, I think, is that Mr. Schroeder does not blindly copy the Greek myths; he adapts them intelligently and imaginatively to the modern world and to the characters he has created.  Mindmistress is like Athena, but she is not Athena, and the same goes for everyone else in the strip.  With different motivations and personalities, and different rationales for the wonders presented, one cannot count on any myth ending exactly like its inspiration.

Another good point of the series is Schroeder's strong grasp of real-world science and technology.  While the series as a whole is of course more science fantasy than hard science fiction, at every turn the author strives to base his devices on real-world science or at least real-world scientific speculation.  And when he brings a wonderful device into a story, he makes a serious effort to try to consider the implications of the postulated technology upon real physics (for instance, he knows that one can't, unbraced, pick up a heavy object by the end, no matter how strong is the would-be lifter).

Finally, his characters are real, distinct and often likeable people.  Mindmistress herself, while strongly principled, is no plaster saint -- she's arrogant and often obnoxious about her intellectual superiority.  Her father, Ezekiel (the Zeus-analog) genuinely loves Lorelei, even while he auditions for the David Xanatos Magnificent Bastard contest.  Their actions and situations are driven by their personalities, rather than being too obviously the pawns of plot-considerations.  The reader cares what happens to these people, which is ultimately the best thing that one can say about any kind of story.

There is only one flaw.  The artwork, especially in the first few stories, is a bit poor.  Schroeder is attempting a very realistic style, which when muffed can look very bad, with malproportioned heads and mistakes in shading.  The style improves and settles down as the series progresses, however, and one should not prevent the learning curve from letting one enjoy what is a truly excellent and highly imaginative science-fiction superhero series.

Al Schroeder also does another superhero comic, Flickerflame, loosely based upon the myth of Loki and Norse mythology in general, also set in a modern world.  This is also a well-written and imaginative webcomic, which I also do not hesitate to recommend.

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