What do you need for a good story? Well, a lot of things, obviously, but having good ideas is definitely one of them. However, do you know what to do with your idea? You might think “My story is going to so have so many ideas! It’ll be complex, intricate, and–”
Hold your horses, haus.
I have, unfortunately, seen good ideas hindered by a lack of direction, the writer/artist thinking about how many layers they can add to their cake without thinking about how too much icing will make the foundation collapse. The Roommate From Hell by Micah Amundsen is a prime example.
The Roommate From Hell is about Mary Garland, an upbeat, nerdy college student living with her new roommate Hugh Jeong. Hugh is a pretty strange guy. He works all night at a casino and keeps the door to the apartment locked up tight, even if he can’t get back in. Mary soon finds out that Hugh is, in fact, possessed by a demon named Orev, and further surprised to learn that it is an amiable relationship. As Mary and Hugh’s friendship grows, their lives become intertwined, Hugh learning about Mary’s background as a closeted Christian lesbian, and Mary the world of demon possession, one that is as dangerous as it is fascinating.
The webcomic is drawn in black and white, and displays clear manga influences (big eyes, fluid movement, etc). It could honestly be mistaken for a Shonen Jump manga if not for the softer, looser anatomy and facial features of the Western style. It’s not terribly interesting though, at least in the first chapter. Many of the pages are done adequately, clearly expressing the scenes, but nothing that sticks out memorably. The only exception is a splash page near the end demonstrating Hugh’s demonic side. Orev’s design is both flashy and subtle at the same time, appearing to be a ballish creature similar to the Boos from the Mario franchise. They emanate waves and splashes of shadow that capture the eye. However, the overall mundaneness of Chapter One also exposes the flaws in the art, mainly the flatness of backgrounds and sketchy, inconsistent character designs.
Chapter Two is a huge improvement. Micah Amundsen finalizes the look of their characters and adds thicker inks and shading that flesh out the art style. The page layouts also get an upgrade. Amundsen adds in an action scene that demands for more dynamic layouts to capture the excitement and intensity, resulting in the best work of the series so far. Unfortunately, this action scene is where the webcomic runs into problems with its narrative direction. More on that later though.
The only real flaw to the art is the scene transitions. They are not particularly clear. I had many moments while reading where a transition occurred, and I felt bewildered due to the abruptness. I distinctly remember transitioning from Chapter One to Chapter Two and having no idea the transition had occurred until 5 or 6 pages in. This happens because, for one, none of the chapters have title pages; but, more importantly, Amundsen does not give the reader enough anticipation for a scene transition. A good transition occurs when the writer/artist inserts some kind of clue that the scene is about to change. This can be done a number of ways: ending the previous scene on a question then delivering the answer on the next, focusing on an object in the last panel before switching to the next with the same or similarly shaped object, etc. Whatever technique is used, the point is to communicate clearly a scene transition is about to happen. The Roommate From Hell has a real problem with this. There is an attempt at a proper scene transition by way of a meta-commentary on how a pair of dice is used for one. However, given there was no anticipation for the sudden appearance of the dice, it falls flat.
Now, going back to the story, let me make it clear that The Roommate From Hell is a unique idea. As a horror fan, I am used to demon possession stories that are, well, horrifying. Bodies twist unnaturally, vomit is projected like a water hose, and on one occasion self-sodomy with a crucifix. Here though, it’s a light-hearted slice-of-life tale. In the story’s world, demon possession is complex. There is the traditional forced possession and now the host is unable to control themselves, but there are also possessions that are amiable relationships between the demon and its host. The most obvious example is Hugh Jeong and his demon, Orev. The two get along just fine, watching out for and giving one another advice. As a bonus, Orev is able to grant Hugh powers such as super strength, agility, the ability to jump high, and spells activated by hand signs (wink wink Naruto fans). The flip-side to these superpowers is that Orev must take full control of Hugh in order to use them. That means he replaces Hugh’s consciousness with his own and operates his body. Now, Hugh seems to be fine with this, but at the same time it is a weird power play in an otherwise gentile partnership. If it means anything, Hugh does have the ability to take back control of his body whenever he wants.
Mary Garland is shockingly okay with having a demon-possessed roommate despite the fact she is Christian. In fact, she thinks it’s cool and wants to learn more about it. She is so nice to Hugh that she makes sure to hide her crucifix near him in case it bothers Orev. This might seem an unusual reaction, but it makes a lot more sense after learning Mary’s a lesbian. She is open to her friends about her sexuality, but not her deeply conservative family. Nothing has been confirmed yet, however my theory is that Mary went through an existential crisis, wrestling with her sexual and spiritual identity, and eventually leading to a moral philosophy of not judge someone or something until she fully understands them. Also, Mary is a huge geek and delivers a lot of humor related to role-playing games. I found this charming and pleased to see someone with geeky interests that isn’t an overwhelmingly annoying cliche.
Hugh is similar to Mary in many ways, but also has enough uniqueness so he doesn’t come off as just a clone. At first glance, Hugh seems like a weird, anti-social person incapable of having a life outside his job. However, as Mary gets to know him more, layers are added to Hugh. For one, he loves horror movies (I wonder how much he evaluates The Exorcist on its “realism”), while most of the time shy is very bold and willing to fight for people close to him. Hugh is also gay, and feels self-conscious about asking men out despite how encouraging Orev is. It’s ironic given that his romantic interest, Luke (Mary’s cousin), finds him so cute and enduring. If I had to summarize his character, Hugh is an extroverted introvert.
Mary and Hugh’s relationship is refreshing and unique. They have incredible chemistry as two gay best friends, able to get along with both their similarities and differences. It sets a very upbeat tone for the series. I should also go ahead and mention that LGBT representation is strong in this comic. So far, it’s only 3 confirmed gay characters (Mary, Hugh, and Mary’s cousin Luke), but I’m going to assume that just about most of the cast is LGBT until further notice. So, if you’re craving for this representation, The Roommate From Hell will give you a good fix.
One other little thing I absolutely love about The Roommate From Hell is the impeccable comedic writing, most importantly with timing. A lot of bad comedy writing has nothing to do with the type of joke (unless it’s bigoted jokes, which are always bad) but the delivery, whether it’s corny or edgy. Amundsen’s humor leans heavily to the former, and I found myself chuckling each and every time because they knew when to deliver the joke on time. Like with scene transitions, the key is anticipation, and while Amundsen still needs to work on the latter, they got in nailed former the former.
Now, time to talk about the biggest flaw to The Roommate From Hell, the thing that keeps this unique story from reaching its potential. There is no solid direction for the narrative, and by that I mean it tries to be waaaaaaay too many story types at once. Chapter One is a basic enough slice-of-life story between two friends with light supernatural elements. Suddenly, Chapter Two starts and it’s an action-adventure story complete with an intense fight scene in the first half, followed by a second half that introduces a complex mythology of history, factions, rules, and multiple characters. It’s such a drastic shift, it’s like reading Superfudge and suddenly passages from Lord of the Rings pop up in the middle.
There are of course stories that combine seemingly opposing genres into a cohesive narrative. In fact, comics are full of stories like this. Watchmen combines superheroes with murder mystery and drama; Preacher combines westerns with horror, satire, and just about a million other things. Anyway, the approach is possible, but in both of these examples, they establish and maintain a tone from the very beginning. Even as new layers are added, consistency is maintained so that it all feels natural and organic. The Roommate From Hell already had this organic combination of two genres (slice-of-life and horror/supernatural) nailed down in Chapter One. Chapter Two is not organic at all. It stumbles in with its flashy, fast-paced action scenes and feels forced, like the author is just putting it in there without much sense.
A lot of this dissonance has to do with how long each chapter is. Chapter One is 70 pages long; Chapter Two is 79! That is a huge distance between chapters, especially if they have vastly different tones to them. Chapter One is straight up slice-of-life: mundane domestic scenes coupled with wacky comedy. Chapter Two comes along and, BAM, 2/3rds of it is dedicated to an epic fight scene, followed by a huge info dump including how demon possession works, and the fact there is an organization designed for possessed people and their demons to help each other out. It takes up so much time to get through all this, there is barely enough time for a return to the slice-of-life segment near the end. By then, I was left wondering if this was even still the same story.
With each chapter being so substantially long, it had me becoming too familiar with the tone and pace of one to be prepared to switch to the next. Not only that, but I think the addition of action got in the way of all the bits of the story the author clearly wants us to get invested in. Amundsen clearly has put a lot of thought into the characters and the world, but those elements are explored best in the slice-of-life segments. The action scene from Chapter 2 was, if anything, an unnecessary distraction. It thinned out character development and world-building to the point the moment either happened, it felt underdeveloped.
The sheer length of each chapter is as much a problem as the lack of direction. I can’t describe it other than they drag on. I have positively reviewed webcomics with even longer chapters than this, such as Katherine Lang’s Soul To Call, but that particular comic had a solid direction and flashy colored art to retain attention. Each chapter of The Roommate From Hell could have been written in 40-50 pages if Amundsen delivered story beats in snappier ways. It doesn’t help how new characters keep being introduced and are rarely seen again other than convenient plot devices for things to happen to Mary and Hugh. Something about that feels cheap, especially for a story where personal relationships are the strongest storytelling aspect.
Chapter 3 is so much better and saves the series. It introduces a new character, Luke Delaney. Unlike previous chapters where new characters don’t get flashed out, Delaney most certainly does as you learn about his background as a frustrated fashion journalist turned political polemic. This factoid best demonstrates Luke’s defining character trait, which is that he is a nervous wreck. A big reason for that is Luke is also possessed, not by a demon but an angel. This angel, Samur, constantly argues with him about seemingly any topic from politics to Samur’s awkward Twitter feed. When Luke develops a romantic relationship with Hugh, Samur flips out. He is a virulent anti-demon bigot, so obsessed in his hatred that he even tries to sabotage the two men’s relationship. To Orev’s credit, he advises both Luke and Hugh to give Samur time, that his ignorance comes from inexperience and he has yet to understand the difference between good and bad demons. Still, Samur is the most unlikeable character in the webcomic by far. Imagine him like your uncle who is perfectly nice until Muslims get mentioned.
Speaking of which, I should quickly mention there is a Muslim woman character named Qadira, and her demon’s name is Zev. I can’t tell you much else about her, or the other minor characters that pop up in the book so far. I can’t even recall their names except for a cosplayer named Adriel Crowley who is almost as punchable as Samur. I have yet to see any of them fleshed out as much as Luke, and I hope that happens soon.
Despite how much fun Chapter 3 is, the enjoyment becomes deflated at the end as, yet again, a new story type gets introduced. In this case, a murder mystery plot involving a series of exorcisms. Apparently, demons and angels cannot exist outside of their hosts or else they phase out like white blood cells. The biggest frustration I have with The Roommate From Hell is that the slice-of-life segments are the most well-thought out segments, and every time the webcomic decides to do something else, it derails the narrative entirely.
At this point, the parts of the webcomic’s narrative I find weak are too important to the story as a whole to be dropped now. I have a feeling that this is Amundsen’s first webcomic (if I am wrong, do correct me). Despite my very critical review, I hope they continue to make this comic, learn both their strengths and weaknesses, and continue on. Overall, The Roommate From Hell is a unique idea with very uneven execution. It has interesting characters and great humor, some truly stunning dramatic moments, but constantly flips back and forth between different narrative approaches that prevent it from achieving its full potential. The art isn’t spectacular, but it gets the job done. Also, it is very commendable for its LGBT representation and ethnically diverse cast. If you are looking for a fun progressive title and don’t mind it having a shaky story, I recommend it. If you are a lot more particular though, you may want to search elsewhere.