Kevin Cannon is one half of Big Time Attic, the art studio that’s worked with writer Jim Ottaviani on some of his best science-fueled comics, T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, Stuff of Life and, my personal favorite, Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards.
If the production of those books can be considered analogous to the work of a rock band, then Cannon’s Far Arden (Top Shelf) is his solo side project. Sure, he might have been a perfect drummer, keeping the beat while half obscured by his bass drum in the background, while Ottaviani and fellow artist Zander Cannon dominated the stage, but it turns out Kevin Cannon can write, sing and play guitar just as well as his bandmates. And man, can he shred.
The story of Far Arden is a wild one, but there’s a structure to the wildness, so all of the seemingly random happenstances and coincidences, the betrayals, reversals and unlikely alliances, the big reveals and zany plot points ultimately make a sort of sense. Parts of Far Arden might seem completely, hilariously insane, but never just for insanity’s sake—Cannon’s gags all serve his story.
And what a story it is!
Our protagonist is Captain Armitage “Army” Shanks, a sea dog and bar brawler who lives and adventures in the seas of the icy Canadian north. There’s a touch of E.C. Segar’s Popeye to Army, as he’s the sort of character who addresses most problems by punching them—whether that problem is defending an orphan from a polar bear or securing a fish from the frozen water for dinner.
We meet Army, and the majority of the large supporting cast, in a bar called The Somber Moose. From there, he and his sideburned pal Hafley steal back a ship Shanks built as part of their quest to find the legendary island of Far Arden, an earthly paradise rumored to exist in the frigid polar seas…and rumored to have been discovered by Shanks’ mentor, the leader of his school’s Scrimshaw Club, who set sail for it and never returned.
The other members of the scrimshaw club are also after Far Arden, and since they employ or otherwise embroil plenty of others with their own agendas, conflicts abound. There’s a local politician, Shanks’ ex Fortuna and her new husband, a shady circus owner, circus strong man Anger The Man-Beast, a mad neuroscientist (inventor of the Death MRI), a couple of college undergrads, a pair of environmental officers on a quest to stop global warming and save the polar bear from extinction, the Royal Canadian Arctic Navy, and an orphan who wears an empty can of beans as a hat when we first meet him.
There’s a deep vein of silliness throughout the story, evidenced immediately by the fact that the pipe Shanks smokes not only hovers in front of his mouth without ever actually touching it, but hovers about a foot away from it, as well as Cannon’s charming use of “sound effects.” These simply, prosaically state the action occurring (The sound of a punch is “PUNCH,” while the sound of two guys consuming alcohol is “CONSUME, CONSUME” and so on).
But despite the silliness, and as seemingly shallow as some of the characters may appear, Cannon wrings remarkable depth out of them, and few end up being as narrowly defined as “a bad guy” or “the villain.” Characters repeatedly join forces with one another, have a falling out, split up and find themselves in new arrangements, and by the time it’s all over, almost all of them are at least a little likable—it’s hard to root for some of them to triumph over any of the others, as one doesn’t necessarily want to see bad things happen to good characters, you know?
The artwork, like the script, is wild, but within a deceptively rigid structure, perhaps in part due to the way the book was created (in 24-page chapters, one month per chapter). Cannon is an inker, and his backgrounds and settings are often quite full of ink, but still look simple rather than fussed over.
His characters are all often doodle-basic, but highly differentiated and highly emotive, which goes a long way to making them seem deep (deeper then you might thing a tiny little figure consist of a few lines and with two dot eyes might be).
The action is especially outrageous, with Shanks’ arms and legs extending in boneless, long arcs. When he throws a punch, it’s as if rather than swinging his arm, his arms stretches until his fist hits his opponent’s face (or muzzle, should he be fighting a polar bear).
But as crazy as the art within the panels might get, the pages themselves are always laid out in strict, clear, easy-to-read grids of perfect squares and the occasional rectangle, the well-paced chapters propelling the reader into the next one. The book is 400-pages long, but I dare you to be able to take a break once you start it.
Far Arden is a sort of a lightning-paced, graphic novel-format, Canadian Popeye strip, with a touch of the arcade logic of Scott Pilgrim and a lot self-aware cartoon logic at work, and a romantic, even melancholic streak deep beneath it’s rough and tumble, rowdy adventure narrative. It’s definitely one of the funniest—and most fun—books I’ve read this year, and one of those books that I end up being more impressed with while in the course of reviewing then I was as soon as I put it down (For example, at a certain point do those jokey sound effects stop being jokes, and start being a new way to tell a comics story?).
You can read the whole thing online here if you like, but I’d advise getting it in book form; it’s something you’re going to want to go back and reread passages of as soon as you’re done, and to enthusiastically lend to friends.