Monday, June 21, 2010

Review: The Adventures of Ace Hoyle

I have only played poker for money once in my life. This past winter, a friend invited me to a $10-buy-in poker night with a bunch of people I'd never met. It was good fun, and I ended up taking first place, through a mixture of luck, skill, and being a stranger to everyone so that nobody knew my tells. I've never watched more than a round of professional tournament poker, and all my knowledge of betting strategy comes from playing five-card stud with my cousin Chad for our grandmother's Life Savers.

When I think poker, I think Penny Arcade's "The Green Harvest," in which Tycho takes advantage of Gabe's ignorance of the game in order to take his money. When I think poker, I think kings hate threes.

So this is the sort of person who, this past week, found himself reading the tournament poker webcomic The Adventures of Ace Hoyle.

Unlike most of what we cover here, Ace Hoyle is not just a comic. It's also a dish made by thinly slicing fresh raw tuna a site dedicated to poker in general and online poker in particular. The site provides tutorials, tips and tricks, recommended and reputable online casinos, news, and...a webcomic. But you came here to hear about the comic, right? So let's talk about that.

At only 28 pages, Ace Hoyle currently has a small archive; you can get up to speed in five or ten minutes. The cast page and the comic itself are equally good introductions to Ace Hoyle and his co-stars, so it's generally accessible. It's also worth noting that the archive is browsable at two different sizes. If your monitor resolution supports it, I recommend the larger size for readability.

Also, the larger size better showcases the artwork. Artist Tomas Batha works in a high-contrast grayscale with spot color and a slight noir flavor. Early on, he adopts a hatched, pencil-shaded style that you don't often see in webcomics--I've only ever seen that kind of approach in Unwinder's Tall Comics and Megatokyo. Here in Ace Hoyle, it works reasonably well. As the comic progresses, later pages are tighter and cleaner, with more liberal use of spot color. There are a few surreal moments where an action scene plays out in slow-motion freeze-frames, and the overall effect halts the scene's momentum. Still, most action sequences keep it dynamic, as in this (potentially spoiler-laden!) example. The art generally improves, but a part of me likes the high-contrast tones of the early installments--good black-and-white art isn't easy.

On the whole, the art is strong, especially the pin-up pages. Characters have expressive faces and body language, along with distinctive designs. For better or for worse, I might even call them "funky." It's also worth noting that Tomas Batha both spends more time on environmental renderings and shows more proficiency at them than the average webcomic artist.

Like I said: pretty strong.

As detailed as the artwork is, I'll say it from the outset of the story: don't expect the plot to be anything deep. Everything you need to know about the character of Ace Hoyle (at least for this episode) you learn in the first page: he's slick, sharp, and ready to play some poker. He has roughly the character depth of James Bond--again, for better or for worse. In essence, Ace and his comic are here to entertain.

So--do they?

Well, the obvious answer is, "Depends how much you like poker."

If you're a complete poker virgin, this comic obviously isn't for you. It assumes a baseline familiarity with terminology and conventions. That said, it's still fairly accessible,and although I encountered some unfamiliar poker expressions, I could follow the action through context and pacing cues. Honestly, I had more trouble following the side-storyline about Ace's lady friend Dolly Finegold, though I suspect that's partly because we're in mid-storyline, with not everything revealed. As long as you have some interest and experience in poker, you can come first for the comic rather than the card games and still enjoy the action.

The comic is more plot-driven than character-driven: motivations are obvious, and character types are easy to read. Like a James Bond flick, it brings just the bare minimum of substance to hang the style on. Writer Phill Provance has some tongue-in-cheek fun with the archetypes he employs; Dick Spadely is a comically obvious jerk of a villain (plus a sore loser), and hard-drinking twins Boris and Vladimir Pultsin parody the stereotypical Russian of cold-war era fiction. As I noted before, none of it's especially deep, but the dialogue packs sharp banter and witty exchanges--dare I say it?--in spades. Obvious pun aside, the clever back-and-forth wordplay is one of the strong points, and it adds a lot of appeal.

However, the title character is carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders: if entertainment is the goal, he has to bring enough style to hook us, and in this department, Ace can't quite match step with Bond. His last-second entrance at the tournament table plays the trope straight where it really needed a twist to make it fresh. Still, he's smooth and savvy at the card table, and he's not too proud to fold when he's dealt a bad hand. Like Bond, Ace Hoyle toes the Mary-Sue line pretty closely, but he's good enough at what he does to keep things interesting, he's affable, and he's a good sport.

And like Bond, he displays a measure of consequences-be-damned recklessness when he punches out a competitor whose bad behavior steps over the line. Hopefully he'll actually have to deal with the fallout from this decision; it keeps things both interesting and believable. This early in the comic, there's plenty of space in which to develop Ace and flesh him out. In order to make the readers care whether he wins, he'll eventually need some more substance--even if, like James Bond, his style is his substance.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed the first episode so far, though perhaps because I had the patience to read through the archives a second time. Obviously, Ace Hoyle will appeal most to the person who thought Casino Royale had too much spy games and not enough poker, but if you can follow the action at the table and don't demand more of the comic than it promises to deliver, it may be worth your while to check out.

And if you're not up to speed on your poker but curious about the comic? Well, Miss Finegold can help you out.

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