Broken Saints Review

The brainchild of Canadian Brooke Burgess, a former employee for a games publisher, Broken Saints was created to be the future of comics, taking them beyond the printed medium into what the creators call “cinematic literature”. With hand-drawn and computer manipulated animation, each chapter in this ambitiously long project was released on-line every few months from January 2001 to July 2003, gathering a substantial following along the way. After receiving a grant and a contract for wider distribution, many of the early chapters of the series were reworked for DVD release to match the technology and look that had been developed by later episodes.

The story is based around four characters, based at four different corners of the world, four broken saints searching for a meaning in their life brings them together. Raimi Matthews is a computer expert in Coast City, USA, a software engineer for Biocom he has been working for the government on a global telecommunication tracking system project. Ground down and under-appreciated by his company, he is disillusioned with his work and decides one day to hack into the main computer system to try and find out the larger picture of what it is he has been involved in. Although he thinks he is probing the computer, the computer is probing him and he finds himself transformed. Hiding out in Kuwait near the Iraq/Saudi border, Oran is going through a similar epiphany. A former international Muslim terrorist, Oran is haunted by ghosts of the victims of his religious fervour, seeking to reconcile his actions with his beliefs, he finds a way forward. In Japan, a Shinto priest and mystic, Kamimura, is also searching for forbidden knowledge, and while communing with the mind of Goku, one of his disciples, he touches on something very dangerous. On a South Pacific island, a young woman Shandala is in a coma. Found as a child on the beach by the village chief, she has been searching and praying for answers to her unknown past. The arrival of a mystery man awakens her from her sleep, transformed, and promises to reveal the mystery of her origin. Each of them has had a vision of the Apocalypse, which seems to be connected to Biocom’s global satellite project, and they are each compelled to make their way across the globe to the Northwest Pacific city where the company is based.

Broken Saints adheres to the comic book theme by relying entirely on captions and the occasional word balloons to tell the whole story. The mostly static images flow and fade, blending one into the other, the camera zooming in and out and panning, with some minimal computer animation and special effects (notably flames) and morphing, seemingly all brought together using Macromedia Flash. The whole flow of the story however is consequently dictated by the necessity of giving people enough time to read the speech bubbles on the screen, and when a scene is particularly dialogue or caption heavy (which is quite often in this elaborate, wordy and quote-happy series), it is broken down into sections that flash up onto the screen, with minimal backgrounds or animation. It does try to be inventive and make the words animated through different fonts and sizes and some clever animation – but the pace is nonetheless restricted by giving the reviewer enough time to read them.

The creators have tried to address this problem in this new edition by giving the viewer the choice of two soundtracks. One is Dolby Digital 2.0 “Classic”, which is just the score and sound effects, with all dialogue appearing as speech bubbles. The other soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1 is a newly recorded soundtrack with voice actors playing the parts. The problem however is that the speech bubbles and captions still appear on the screen, so it’s like watching an English language film with the subtitles on and it doesn’t work, since you end up being distracted and reading ahead. Worse however, the reading pace of the on-screen words dictates the pace of the spoken dialogue and restricts the performance of the voice actors. It is consequently rather slowly paced and monotone and, over ten and a half hours can become quite tedious. The creators claim it’s a conscious decision to create a hypnotic, open environment that gives the viewer time to meditate on the questions raised in the story, but I honestly don’t think they had much choice.

It must be said however that, when it actually gets there, Broken Saints is quite successful in what it sets out to achieve, showing that comics can evolve into something new, sitting somewhere between printed comic books and animation. Andrew West’s artwork is reasonably good and varied, though a little too fond of homage, appropriating other artists’ styles to suit certain sequences – the majority of the series has the painted art feel (if not the artistic ability) of Matt Wagner’s ‘Mage’ series, matching its ‘Grendel’-like dark, adult tone, but other sections use the stark lighting of Frank Miller’s ‘Sin City’ designs, the Chinese calligraphic drawings of Scott Morse’s ‘Soulwind’ and Hiroaki Samura’s sketchy artwork on the manga series ‘Blade of the Immortal’ among others. If it lacks any real personality of its own, it does at least look well rendered on the screen with strong colour schemes and effective use of animation tools, impressively and imaginatively designed by Ian Kirby. And while there is evidently some difficulty in keeping the viewer interested over such a long storyline with restrictions on pacing dictated by the medium, the creators try hard to keep things varied and interesting, through these variations in animation styles, intercutting images with on-screen captions.

As a flagship for a new medium it’s a pity then that there is not more originality or true artistry in the actual storyline itself, which has great ambitions, but is no ‘Watchmen’ or ‘Dark Knight Returns’. True, not much is, but Broken Saints certainly has aspirations to be just as epic, liberally littering episodes with deep and meaningful quotes from the likes of Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Bertrand Russell, JRR Tolkien, Philip K Dick, the Bible and the Koran. Many of these references give a clue to the pretentions of the storyline – as well as where it draws much of its “inspiration”. The apocalyptic vision of Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ is obviously prominent, but the tone is more influenced by the likes of cool cult sci-fi fanboy TV and movies such as X-Files, Twin Peaks, The Prisoner, Fight Club and The Matrix all of which are excessively referenced in knowing homages. Unfortunately, much of Broken Saints is also weighed down by the same kind of portentous and obvious religious iconography, mysticism and spiritualism that sunk The Matrix sequels, with little light relief or variation in pace or characterisation from the overbearing solemnity of its own deep self-importance. Each of the characters are “broken saints”, capable of good or evil (as are we all, the story evidently tells us), whose quest for wisdom and arcane knowledge through various rituals and ceremonies brings each of them all together. Eventually. You have to get through almost four hours of material before the fractured pieces of the series start cohering into anything at all meaningful. And while the climax certainly lives up to all the apocalyptic foreshadowing, nothing could really live up to almost ten hours of very slow build-up. A little more humility and restraint on the part of the creators wouldn’t have gone amiss here. Cutting this back to a regular feature length (do we really need to keep the creator credits at the end of every single one of the 24 episodes?) might also have reduced the excesses in the spiritual mumbo-jumbo, New Age pantheism and often pretentious prose, making an interesting experiment more palatable and accessible to a wider audience.

Broken Saints is released in the UK by 20th Century Fox. It’s presented in a 4 disc box set. The disc is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2 and Region 4. The menus take forever to load on each of the discs.

Broken Saints was produced principally in a ratio of 1.66:1. Unfortunately it’s not anamophically enhanced for the DVD release. This seems a strange decision, particularly since so much effort has been applied elsewhere to make this an almost perfect package. The artwork was revisited and reworked, colours were re-graded and polished for DVD, the set has every extra feature you could imagine, yet the image is presented non-anamorphically. It is however the only criticism you could level against the image quality, which is simply flawless in all other respects, the remastered image looking absolutely stunning, with clarity, detail and striking use of colours. The digital image is resolutely stable, without a flicker of any kind, and any movement blurring or interlacing of images would be intentional and more to do with the medium and the tools used, rather than any transfer issue.

The issues regarding the choice of soundtracks between the Dolby Digital 2.0 Classic and the Dolby Digital 5.1 with Voice-Over Narration, is detailed in the body of the review, but in technical terms there are no problems whatsoever, each presenting the music score and effects with clarity and dynamism, the 5.1 mix additionally demonstrating strong, clear dialogues and narrative voices.

There are a huge range of subtitles, and even though the series makes use of English captions as part of the film, English hard of hearing captions are included for sound effects. Subtitles are also provided throughout in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German for everything from the commentaries to the extra features. With the subtitles in a white font of appropriate size, this is a reference example of how to subtitle a DVD.

Unlike the previous DVD release of the series, which had one commentary track per disc, this edition contains a commentary for the whole 24 chapters. Inevitably, and particularly considering the amount of other extra features on the set providing every possible pick of information on the history of the project, it’s more a case of overkill. Commentary duties are helmed by Brooke Burgess as a solo commentator, bringing on board other members of the crew as the episodes demand additional input, but they quickly become superfluous. When Burgess has gone through the background facts on the history of the project and the various incarnations it has gone through, he resorts to narrating and elaborating in great detail about the on-screen events and their significance, explaining what each of the characters are going through in patronising detail. It’s even less compelling when the crew are all together, since as they are less inclined to put into words how the work was done, they end up goofing around and making jokes. I certainly didn’t listen to this beyond Disc 1 – life is too short for pointless commentary tracks - but anything I found interesting here is covered elsewhere in the much more accessible featurettes, comparisons and making of’s scattered throughout the extra features on the various discs.

Disc 1 Extra Features
The extra features are, to say the least, comprehensive – some might say excessively over-the-top, self-promoting and narcissistic. I’m surprised that they missed the opportunity to do commentary tracks for the extra features also. Made during the reworking of the series for its new DVD release, the Production Featurette (18:57) is however one of the most interesting features on the set, showing briefly and concisely without excessive technical detail, how the images were created and animated. These facts out of the way however, the feature descends into nerdish goofing around with the camera. There is a Prophesy Trailer (3:15) for the DVD release, which makes the series look very impressive, but inevitably goes completely over-the-top with the overbearing religious imagery, portentous music and mystic wailing. The Voice-over and Audio Featurette (23:57) is an overlong meeting with some of the 42 voice-actors chosen for the series, showing them during some of the recording sessions. There’s another Classic Trailer (1:45) made for the original non-reworked version of the series; a Broken Saints Game Trailer (2:36) which stays close to look and feel of the series; another Features Trailer (2:56), which looks exactly like the ‘Prophesy Trailer’; and a promo trailer for the Broken Saints Soundtracks (1:36). A lengthy A.J. Panel discussion (49:33) appears to be recorded for a live webcast at the Art Institute of Vancouver. A couple of hidden extras on this disc in which the shy and retiring (not) Brooke Burgess Sings (0:26) and Tobias Tinker Plays (3:47) an excerpt from the score on piano. There are also full Credits for Production (2:49) with photos of the creators and their biographies, Voices (4:04) for the voice actors photographed alongside their characters, Background (2:40) proving a text history and “philosophy” behind the project as well as character and creator biographies, and Licensing (2:02) containing full music credits.

Disc 2 Extra Features
The extra features on the second disc are another mixed bunch – some of them very interesting, others a complete waste of time. There’s a mock-up of the Biocom Website for the fictional company at the centre of events in the story, which is mostly text-based. If you’ve listened to all the commentaries and features, the prospect of Brooke Burgess delivering a presentation on the aims of the project in the Walker Lecture (34:13) might not sound too appealing, but it’s actually an excellent summary of what the creators sent out to achieve, pitched to students at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis in 2002. Burgess also gives some information on his own background, including the going native experience in the South Pacific that inspired a lot of his thoughts on spirituality. Since the claim is that they initially did it for the love of the story and as a way to take comics to a new medium with no recompense but on-line donations, it does beg the question why they are now hoping to sell the project as a computer game and even a live-action adaptation. A couple of hidden extras include Chapter Previews, which are 6 promo trailers for new episodes. There is also Demo Footage (3:46) in video game animation style with captions. The most pointless and self-indulgent feature I have ever seen on a DVD is also included here – a BS Apartment Tour (9:40), where Burgess takes the viewer on a home-video guide around his own apartment. The Press Buzz section however, with clips from US TV and Radio shows, as well as a Press Slideshow, contains some nice bite-sized interview clips and information on the project.

Disc 3 Extra Features
The BS Tarot Tree presents card readings for each of the Broken Saints, aligning them with the characters they meet on their journey and the spiritual significance of those meetings. Sheesh! The DVD-ROM Features are also on disc 3. These include Flash shockwave files for the original first 12 chapters, 11 MP3 tracks from Tobias Tinker’s soundtrack and some very nice PC wallpaper images. The ‘Fan’ Section features various Flash animated and live action tributes by fans inspired by Broken Saints. For fans only.

Disc 4 Extra Features
The BS Documentary (8:47) is another backslapping piece, but it is brief and gives a good overview of the project and the creator roles in a good EPK fashion. A Sundance Featurette (23:51) charts the progress of the BS team on their journey to, from and hanging around the Sundance Festival, where they would win an Online Award. Also rounded up here are various other loose ends and bits and pieces including, the elements that are put together for the DVD menu, a photo gallery, sketched character designs, a webcast message from Tobias Tinker, another performance by the composer, the opening for the old version of the series, an interview with Burgess promoting the BS DVD at a booth in the San Diego Comicon 2005 and a complete 15 minute first chapter of the series using the original artwork. A couple of short hidden extras show the BS crew fooling around for webcast features.

There’s no denying the ambition, the effort and the skill that the small creative team put into the creation of the ten and a half hours of animation that make up the entire Broken Saints series. You also have to give them credit for some brave choices of characters, which include a sympathetic Islamic Fundamentalist terrorist, and for their stance on political warmongering, big business corruption and their control of the populace through fear and consumption. You also have to admire the thought and love that went into creating the best possible presentation of the series on DVD. The attempt to take comic art though to the next evolutionary stage is also ambitious but the results are flawed, the series ending up falling somewhere between printed comics, animation and computer games graphics without the benefit of the best qualities of any of those formats. There’s no reason however why there shouldn’t be a place for comics work done in this style for the computer medium – the 2002 Korean Flash animation feature My Beautiful Girl, Mari shows much more modestly what can be done – and in places, particularly in its powerful final chapters, Broken Saints does lives up to its ambitions. The ten hour build-up to this however is just not justified. In the end, despite its grand ambitions, Broken Saints has far too many Tarantino-style fanboy homages to cult TV series, movies and comics and just not enough true artistry or originality of its own.

6 out of 10
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9 out of 10


out of 10

Last updated: 01/06/2018 16:50:40

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