Granted, it’s early days yet, but at three issues in I’m already prepared to say that writer Johnnie Christmas and artist Jack T. Cole’s ambitious sci-fi/comedy epic Tartarus is my favorite thing coming out from Image Comics at the moment, and perhaps my favorite thing coming out of the mainstream in general. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s got everything you want : compelling characters, breakneck action, smart scripting, a solid premise — and, oh yeah, absolutely gorgeous art.
Cole first came across my radar screen via Boom! Studios’ The Unsound, where his stunning visuals elevated a rather derivative horror script from Cullen Bunn and turned the insane asylum of the book’s setting into a Dante-esque phantasmagoria of despair and delight, revenge and revelation, but to say he’s kicked it into another gear here is to sell his visionary work short — his design work and figure drawings belie a little bit of a Moebius influence at the margins, sure, but this is about as close to a wholly original-looking comic as you’re likely to find from a (relatively) major publisher, and with Cole serving as his own colorist, he intuitively selects the best hues to accentuate the inherent strengths in his material, of which there are many. Make no mistake, though, this is not just “eye candy” illustration : his fundamentals in terms of composition and perspective are really sound, as well, making for an experience that’s both “far-out” and grounded in equal measure.
I don’t mean to sideline the writer entirely, though, so let me correct that imbalance before we go any further. Christmas paces a script like nobody’s business, and while the set-up is simple enough — imperial military cadet Tillie and her woman-crazy BFF Klinzu lead a small band of rebels/fugitives who make a break for it after Tilde is framed for crimes against the established order when said order discovers her to be the daughter of a notorious warlord who led an uprising on the outpost colonial world of, you guessed it, Tartarus — he understands how to do things that have certainly been done before in new and interesting ways, and he’s an expert at crafting scenes that give his collaborator plenty to sink his metaphorical teeth into. Plus, he’s got a great sense of humor and effectively utilizes his far-future setting to comment in wry fashion on a host of contemporary issues ranging from income inequality to online dating. He can overplay his hand toward the obvious sometimes, sure, but by and large he gets the balance between high-octane adventure yarn and critique of modern excess exactly right.
Any weak spots to speak of, then? I’ve gotta be absolutely honest — so far, not yet. There’s an ongoing backup strip called Life by Stephanie Cooke and Megan Huang that’s to date failed to make much of an impression it terms of what it’s trying to achieve, but even there Huang’s visuals are vibrant and absorbing, and who knows? The story might coalesce into something interesting at some point. And even if it doesn’t, it’s not like two subpar pages at the end done by other creators are indicative of any slack in Christmas and Cole’s act.
Now, a quick suggestion if I may be so bold : this title has such a distinctive “Eurocomics” sensibility to it that I sincerely hope Image will consider collecting it in oversized, “album”-style hardbacks rather than their traditional cheaply-made TPBs. Not only would it be a real treat to see Cole’s art presented at a generous size, the format would fit the entire aesthetic that he and Christmas are going for (and achieving) to the proverbial “T.” So yeah, Eric Stephenson, if you happen to be reading —
For those of you who are definitely reading, though, I implore you : don’t sleep on this one. We all know the finances of these creator-owned titles produced under Image’s “buy now, get paid later” business model are tight, and it would be a shame to see this series die a premature death due to simply being economically non-viable. Besides, why deprive yourself of the chance to follow a potential classic-in-the-making as it’s happening? It’ll cost you all of twelve bucks to get caught up on this book — and those will be twelve dollars that are very well-spent indeed.
Review wrist check – how about the look of my Longines “Legend Diver” riding a Colareb “Spoleto” strap in green? Three days in a row on the wrist and I’m not tired of this combination yet.
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