Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Far Arden by Kevin Cannon review

Far Arden is a pretty interesting comic even before you read the first page. Written, drawn and lettered by Kevin Cannon, Far Arden is the result of an extension of the 24-hour comic challenge. A friend of his challenged Cannon to attempt “The 288 Hour Graphic Novel Challenge”. The idea is that you would do a 24-hour comic one a month for a whole year. At the end of the twelve months you would have 288 page graphic novel; the whole thing only having taken 288 hours to make 288 pages of story. Cannon was able to maintain the page of one 24-hour challenge per month for four months. Afterwards he continued at the pace of 24 pages per month but he worked on Far Arden in the evenings and on weekends. It's crazy to think that he managed to write a comic that is nearly 400 pages long while continuing to work on other comics projects.  To top things off, Cannon wrote a short comic about the creation of Far Arden in which he explains things much better than I just did. Read about it here:  “The 288 Hour Graphic Novel Challenge”.

The 24-hour challenge has a specific set of rules and Cannon admits to having broken one of them: he came in with ideas for a story. His honestly is appreciated but I think he’s being hard on himself. The idea for his story was rather undeveloped:
 “A crusty sea dog named Army Shanks searches for a mythical tropical island in the middle of the Canadian High Arctic.”

That’s essentially the main story: Army trying to find the mythical island of Far Arden. But it’s also about so much more. Part of the book is a man’s struggle to live up to expectation. It’s about an orphaned boy trying to understand his origins and avenge the death of his father. It’s about a born explorer living in a world that has been completely mapped out and trying to find purpose for his life. It’s about a woman having an adventure and just enjoying herself in the High Arctic, about a misguided young man learning to do what’s right. It’s about so many different things with a single constant throughout, it’s all interrelated with Far Arden as its centre.

The art is as interesting as the story because of the conditions in which Far Arden was created. The art is very fluid. Characters don’t really have elbows or knees. When they punch or kick or gesticulate wildly their limbs form long U-shapes. They look very rubbery. Even splashes of water are drawn to look like they’re made out of clay or some sort of plasticine. The book regularly looks rushed in the first 100 pages or so but I don’t mind for three reasons: 1)He drew each page in approximately one hour per page; 2) The art remains clear; and 3) The rushed art contributes to the sense of energy which is something that the comic strives on. The art tends to be clearer when panels focus on characters’ upper torso and face. I simply enjoy the overly expressive and freestyle storytelling taking place on every single page of Far Arden. It’s quite masterful how Cannon can achieve so much using simple lines.

The writing is also very impressive. Cannon manages to juggle several subplots all at once happening in many different geographical areas. All of the characters are linked in one way or another and the story weaves in and out of so many different subplots that the reader feels trapped in a whirlpool of a story but it’s all told with such clarity that is makes for a very enjoyable read. Cannon is also surprisingly adept at conveying strong emotions and getting big laughs from one page to the next. Far Arden is a very, very funny read but it’s also have its fair share of heart wrenching moments.

Even though it’s a funny read the humour doesn’t get old because the comic isn’t just a comedy. Otherwise, 400 pages of action-centric onomatopoeia sound effects and ridiculous gags would get tiresome before reaching the halfway point. Far Arden is a mixture of nautical adventure, comedy and tragedy. By mixing the story in such a way, Cannon kept me interesting in the comic. It never lets up, not even for a moment, the whole story constantly moving forward. It just happens to also be a very funny comic.

I would like to talk about the ending but it’s the kind of book where I can’t do so without spoiling it and I really wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone because it’s that important to the work as a whole. The ending could be a deal breaking for some of the readers but I think that’s what makes the book work. Cannon has the story move at such a quick pace from the very first chapter that it’s surprising that well past 300 pages the whole thing is still moving at full speed. The story doesn’t quietly slow down to a happy finish, it rolls along at incredible speed and stops sharply, shocking the reader. A quick epilogue then brings the whole thing to a bitter sweet end. The reason it feels so unexpected is because most of the book, up to that point, was either ridiculously enjoyable humour or a fun sea adventure but because of the frenetic pace of the story, it’s easy to forget there was a good helping of dark subplots, evil (or at the very least, misguided) characters and their actions served as a precursor to the powerful ending. It doesn’t come out of left field but because Cannon balance the tone of the book so carefully the darker elements can be missed upon first reading.

If you’re still unconvinced that Far Arden is a uniquely enjoyable read, you can sample a few pages on Kevin Cannon’s website. In fact, you can read the whole thing online. I haven’t post any picture in this review for that reason, they’re all available on his website and you can see them in all their glory there. I’ve recently reread Far Arden because I found out Cannon wrote a sequel: Crater XV. I knew I had forgotten a lot about it and I wanted to refresh my memory before reading the follow up comic. I also remember really enjoying it and so I knew I would have a good time revisiting the work. I did and I’m really, really looking forward to reading Crater XV.

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