Digital versus Physical Media: A Rival Schools Story

Recently, I was introduced to the digital comics platform Comixology by a co-worker of mine.  As a man who is used to good ole’ paper and print media, the idea of buying a comic book and reading it on my iPad was a bit jarring at first.  All of the warm fuzzies of getting a new issue or an old gem from the comic book store were gone, replaced with the cold indifference of an online transaction.  Where was the smell of the ink, the satisfying noise when a page is turned, the familiar heft of a single issue as I removed it from a generic brown paper bag?

Then again, the frustrating ads and underwhelming preview filler were gone, along with the inconvenience of a limited print run being sold out at stores.  Come to think of it, I didn’t even have to leave my house and search the darkest nerd dungeons for the rare comics I hoped to find (in this case, the lackluster Castlevania series).  Maybe this shift to digital media won’t be so bad.  All of the comics I missed during their first publication will hit a cloud server, just waiting to be purchased and adored.  What could possibly go wrong?

RivalSchools1

RivalSchools2Way back in 2002, the folks at Dreamwave Publishing earned the rights to produce comics based on several different Capcom franchises (Mega Man, for instance).  Unfortunately, when Dreamwave lost several of its writers because of pay disputes in 2004, many of the licensing rights were sold off to other companies, most notably to Udon Comics.  After successfully overseeing the Street Fighter series (don’t worry, it’s coming soon), Udon seemed like the perfect match for the cult classic fighting game, Rival Schools.  The story and art were handled by Corey “Rey” Lewis, who had previously worked with Udon on the bonus “mini” comics in the Darkstalkers series.

RivalSchools3The general plot of the comic is mostly unchanged from the video games: in the Japanese city of Aoharu, there have been several attacks on and disappearances of students and staff from local high schools.  Some of the more gifted attendants of these schools have decided to investigate these conflicts, and each of these characters has their own motivation for doing so.  While the perspective of the comic does shift between different characters, much of the focus is on the students from Taiyo High School, particularly Batsu Ichimonji.  This bare-knuckle brawler has transferred to Taiyo High to investigate the kidnapping of his mother, who was the lunch lady at said school.  Once arriving at Taiyo, Batsu joins up with the other members of his team from the video game, and the trio decides to investigate the ominous Justice High School which seems to be involved with all of the attacks.  Rey does a great job of expanding the story from the original material, with plenty of additional exposition and detail to flesh out the characters and their interactions.

RivalSchools4The artwork is a bit of a departure from the video game, but not to the detriment of the comics.  Corey Lewis brings his unique look to Rival Schools, which is a nice blend of American comics and Japanese manga styles, with a dash of graffiti art for the action scenes.  All of the characters retain their original designs, but their facial expressions and details in movement are distinctly “Rey” in their execution.  The specific use of line work stands out for each emotion, with sharp edges in the face and body to express intense feelings/actions and softer edges for a muted tone.  The background art is rather minimalist in most scenes, but there are little details that enhance each panel instead of just serving as window dressing.  Most unique to this comic are the battle scenes between characters.  Instead of opting for the usual “BAP” or “POW” of most comic series, Rey infuses the actual moves and button executions from the video game to convey attacks.  While it sounds a bit ham-fisted in description, this style suits the fighting quite well, and the distinct lettering that Rey uses complements the overall style of the comics.  The entire series is presented in black-and-white, which further ties the work to the various Japanese manga from which this story seems influenced.

When the Rival Schools comics first hit shelves back in April 2006, I scooped up the first issue and devoured it whole.  I had played plenty of Rival Schools back in college, and its sequel Project Justice stands as one of my favorite games of all time.  In June of the same year, the second issue made its debut and included most of the other characters from the game outside of Taiyo High.  I was so eager to read the rest of this four-issue series, I couldn’t wait for the other installments.  But after several months of waiting, it seemed like this beloved series wasn’t going to be finished.  Years went by, and nothing was heard from Udon on the future publication of Rival Schools.  I had pretty much given up on being able to complete my collection, and moved on to other comics.

RivalSchools5As I was re-reading the first two issues for this article, I decided to give my search another try, just to see if Udon ever commented on the lack of closure.  It seems that back in 2009, Udon decided to post the entire series online as a free-to-read webcomic.  I was so excited, I was finally going to enjoy the previously unreleased third and fourth issues of Rival Schools!  I promptly followed the link….and encountered a 404 error.  I tried accessing the comics directly from Udon’s website, and found no evidence of a release on their Rival Schools page.  After reaching out to Udon through Twitter, I found out the sad truth: the third and fourth issues of Rival Schools are currently unavailable.  The entire series was removed from Udon’s website, potentially never to return.

So as I sit here with my unfinished Rival Schools series, I am once again conflicted with the rise of digital media.  There are plenty of advantages to this trend.  I can carry around an entire library of comics on a single device, there are plenty of rare comics that I finally have the chance to read, and the sheer convenience of an issues being just a click away.  But there are situations like this one, where a series that was exclusively digital has been lost to the swirling vortex of the internet.  At least if there was a print version I could embark on a quest to find a copy.  As it stands, I am at the whims of Udon and Capcom, waiting for the chance to read a comic book.  How odd that the “digital versus physical media” situation that is currently affecting video games can make the leap to comics as well.

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