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Artesia Afire

(Archaia Studios Press; US: Apr 2004)

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Imagine, if you will, the literary genre of high fantasy existing in the middle of a rather crowded meadow—one with deep trench now running through the middle of it. The trench would naturally mark the place where J.R.R. Tolkien struck gold with his Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s, a trench that’s now pretty deep and filled with all sorts of mud and grime.


Despite the depth and ugliness of the trench, there is still many a person working deep inside it, hoping perhaps to find a gold nugget that they can stake their claim to fame on. It’s a difficult process to say the least. Work too quickly, and all you collect are rocks. Work too slowly, and chances are someone will strike it rich on the same seam before you.


Well, one of the folks within this trench is an indie comic book artist called Mark Smylie, who has brought forth a comic book fantasy series based on a female witch named Artesia. The series has received a great deal of acclaim of the sort gold can’t really buy. The artist/author was nominated for a Ross Manning Award for Best Newcomer in 1999, and also nominated for a 2001 Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition. ForeWord Magazine gave Artesia, the first volume in the series, its 2003 Graphic Novel Book of the Year Award.


We’re not sure if the acclaim has gone to Smylie’s head, but he’s now announcing he has high ambitions for his sorceress. In the introduction to Artesia Afire—the item up for review here—he says that this 2003 six-issue miniseries (now collected into a trade paperback) is only the third part of a massive ongoing tome called The Book of Dooms. It will run a mind-boggling 22 volumes when it’s finally completed and, assuming that Smylie continues to publish his work every two or three years, one can do a bit of quick math and figure out the series will probably end in the year 2043.


I hope his readers have a lot of patience. Assuming that they feel rewarded enough to hang around that long.


The problem with Artesia Afire is there’s not enough here to keep many High Fantasy readers interested for an extended period of time. While it’s obvious that Smylie is talented and ambitious, his comics are rather surprisingly derivative. Few readers will likely have fun counting up all the Lord of the Rings references and allusions to Greek and Norse mythology, since most have already traveled over that sort of terrain many, many times.


In all honesty, Smylie lost me as a reader the first time it was mentioned that this story was set in the Middle Kingdom. (Middle Earth anyone?) On a similar note, the author actually also had the audacity to name a character Boromir—just like Tolkien did. And that’s when he wasn’t giving his lands banal names like Attalica, which makes me wonder if Lars Ulrich is the ruler of that kingdom.


Ultimately, if you’re going to set your story in another world, you have become more than just a storyteller. You have to become a linguist, a biologist, a chemist, an anthropologist and a journalist. Better yet, you have to become God in every sense of the word. This is not only hard to pull off, it really does take years and years of trying to get things right. It may have taken the Judeo-Christian Lord seven days to create the earth, but it took Tolkien—a mere mortal—more than a decade to write the Rings trilogy. Most of his time, particularly in the early years, was consumed with developing a world that was familiar yet strange, and create it right down to its tiniest detail. He had to believe in his own world to such an extent that, upon sitting down to write, he was practically living in it.


I don’t get that sense from Smylie, and, if fact, it seems as though he’s making everything up as he goes along. (At one point towards the end of Artesia Afire, his main character even cracks that she’s doing just that). What’s more, the endless essays and glossaries used to fill in the back-story merely bog the reader down, coming across as a laborious pseudo-intellectual exercise. Why not create a stand-alone issue telling this sort of thing in flashback? Robert Jordon does it in his Wheel of Time series of novels, which means a reader can come in and start at book three and logically make sense of what’s going on with a fair amount of ease.


Finally, it became readily apparent over the course of reading this that the sex and violence that has earned it a “mature reader” warning on its cover is little more than a crutch to cover the author’s world building and storytelling weaknesses. At one point, the sex was so over-the-top that it recalled the orgy scenes out of Caligola—the campy ‘70s art-porn film financed by Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione.


While it’s certainly great to see someone with passion and drive to scope a series so far in advance, it’s hard not to feel cynical that this series is an exercise in futility. There’s a reason why some people re-read Lord of the Rings annually. May I propose that it could be to save themselves the trouble of wasting their time and money on unfulfilling knock-offs like this one? As Golem might say, why look over a stone painted yellow when one can savor the precious glitter of true gold?

Zachary Houle is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction, and the recipient of a writing arts grant from the City of Ottawa. He has had journalism published in SPIN magazine, The National Post (Canada), Canadian Business, and more.


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