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A few years ago, I reviewed Kevin Cannon’s big ol’ graphic novel Far Arden (right here, in fact). I loved it for so long and it went so far off the rails at the end that I was actually quite sad. I haven’t re-read it yet, but if I did, I’d probably like it more, because I’d be more prepared for what’s coming. With that in mind, I liked Crater XV quite a bit more, because I kept expecting things to go sideways. Anticipation is key!
Crater XV comes to us from the fine folk at Top Shelf and costs a measly $19.95 for almost 500 pages of content. It was originally available digitally, but you know me – none of that crap for this old-timer! Here, it’s in a nice block, one you can read and then use to kill bugs or small rodents with. It’s multi-purpose! It’s somewhat of a sequel to Far Arden, although you don’t need to have read the first book to get what’s going on in this one. Cannon gives us enough information about the events of the first book, and the plot of this one doesn’t have anything to do with Far Arden, except that the events have affected the main character, Army Shanks, quite a bit.
If you missed Far Arden, I’ll give you a short overview of the situation: Cannon sets both books on Devon Island, in the far Arctic north of Canada, and gives us a main character, Army Shanks, who’s known as an “arctic pirate.” Army is a prototypical tough guy, full of spit and vinegar, a dazzling and extremely tough fighter, and quite taciturn. At the beginning of this book, he’s withdrawn from the world, and he soon makes up his mind to go to Antarctica, which means, to the other sailors at his favorite bar, that he’s given up, because old salts like them either get killed in battle or head off to Antarctica to die. Before he can leave, though, he rescues a fifteen-year-old girl, Wendy Byrd, from some dock thugs, and he feels responsible for her. Then the Canadian Navy comes looking for him because they need his help, and that’s when Army intersects with the main plot.
Cannon’s plotting is marvelous in this comic. An oil tanker from Siberia shows up in Canadian waters and the captain claims they’re planning a private space launch, which means the Canadians can’t search the vessel thanks to a treaty that several Arctic nations signed. One of the Canadians, Barty, a bureaucrat in the Devon Island government, thinks the Russians are up to no good, as they’ve stopped right over an untapped Canadian oil field. He goes about trying to prove it, and that’s when he “recruits” Army, an old acquaintance of his. Meanwhile, Wendy is trying to raise funds to fly to Europa – yes, the moon of Jupiter – and when she gets separated from Army (when the Navy comes looking for him), she ends up at a moon base, where two Canadian astronauts are practicing for a moon launch. (A lot of this book is fantasy, of course, but space programs do use Arctic locations to train astronauts, because the conditions are as close to the moon and Mars there as they are anywhere on Earth.) Meanwhile, Barty’s boss has his own agenda and his own secrets, while one of the astronauts at the base is also harboring a dark secret. Army sees the wife of the Russian captain and is convinced that she’s an old friend of his from the orphanage where he grew up, even though she doesn’t remember it. All of these plot threads are woven into a grand narrative – who’s lying to whom, who’s double-crossing whom, what is everyone really up to, and how will it all shake out? It’s fun to find out.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but Cannon, I think, does a better job balancing the humor of the comic with the darkness that exists in the plot. Perhaps this is simply a more inspirational story, but he certainly doesn’t shy away from some of the more unpleasant aspects of Army’s life, as we visit the orphanage where he grew up and find out about how difficult his life was during his time there. It helps explain how Army acts in the present and why he’s so desperate to believe that Molniya – the Russian woman – is his long-lost friend and why he falls so deeply in love with her. The book is funny in many places, but Cannon doesn’t shy away from violence. Unlike Far Arden, though, the violence feels more in tune with the book’s tone, and Cannon never lets it get away from him. This is an adventure story, so while some harsh things happen, it’s never so overwhelming it ruins the book.
Cannon’s art is always fun to look at, and that’s true here, too. He gives us a wonderfully weird world of the Arctic, full of interesting characters. His cartooning style means that he can draw Barty, for instance, with a Charlie Brown-type head and it doesn’t look silly, but he can also take a lot of time with some of the other faces, giving them a little more depth. He’s very detailed, so that the world really comes to life, but he’s also able to be abstract and let us fill in some blanks. His lithe and fluid figures mean that he’s very good with motion, as his people almost slither across the page, bending and twisting in impossible ways that nevertheless make perfect sense in this universe. He also does an interesting thing occasionally, and that’s block the entirety of the drawing with panel borders – he doesn’t center the action completely, so that there’s an arm or leg off-panel, or occasionally a sound effect begins on the page, disappears when it reaches a panel border, and then reappears as part of an arc that got cut off. It makes the book feel bigger than it actually is, as if Cannon simply can’t contain things in the small panels. Of course, there’s also his fun sound effects, as he simply writes what’s happening – like “Slice Preparation” as a sailor raises his sword or “Pick Up Clipboard” when a character does just that. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. There’s even a “Wilhelm Scream” at one point, which is a nice touch.
Crater XV is better than its predecessor, not only because it’s not as tonally bizarre as Far Arden, but also because it feels like Cannon gets more into his main character and makes him far more interesting. Maybe I have to sit down and re-read both of these in sequence, but as it stands on its own, Crater XV is a good comic AND you don’t need to read Far Arden to like it. Give it a look!