Starting a new comic book company in this day and age is a dicey proposition. One way of getting your company off on the right foot is to publish a comic with characters or concepts that readers already know. This can be done one of two ways. One is to license a popular movie, TV show or novel. But the rights to these properties can be expensive and the rewards minimal. Another way is to scour the public domain for rights-free properties to adapt.
Radical Comics chose the latter for its first two offerings, Caliber and Hercules. Both offer fresh takes on age-old concepts, but the end result is mixed at best.
Caliber updates the legend of King Arthur, taking it from 6th Century England and transporting it to the 19th Century Wild West. Instead of an ancient wizard, we now have a Native American Shaman. Instead of the glory of Camelot, we now have a pioneer town in the Pacific Northwest. And instead of a mystical sword that can cut through anything, we have a mystical gun that never misses.
On paper, this update sounds intriguing, “can’t miss” even. However, Caliber‘s execution misfires badly.
The first issue of the five-issue series acts as many first issues do in these days of deconstructed storytelling. It is basically a prologue to the rest of the series. It is one big, needlessly padded info dump. And it is a clumsily written one, at that.
The dialogue is clumsy, the characterization is clumsy and the storytelling is clumsy. Events that need better explanation are glossed over and scenes that could be handled in one panel receive four.
Characters are not properly introduced. The Morgan le Fey character appears out of nowhere, sleeps with the Merlin character (a Native American Shaman named Jean Michel), and then their relationship is sort of explained in an excessively wordy, post-coital panel. When characters are well defined in the story, they are made to act illogically just to move the plot along.
The writing isn’t helped by the artwork. It appears that Garrie Gastonny’s pencils were digitally colored to give the illusion of painted artwork. The effect they are going for is a dark and mysterious mood, but the result is a murky and confusing mess. The characters are stilted and wooden and have a sameness about them. Being that this is a western and most of the characters are wearing very similar clothing, this adds to the confusion.
Hercules, however, succeeds where Caliber failed. Its first issue serves mostly as an introduction to the characters and their status quo, but does this task well and in an entertaining manner. And it takes Steve Moore and Admira Wijaya less pages to do it, to boot.
Caliber’s writer Sam Sarkar should take notes from Moore’s writing on this issue, because this is a textbook case of storytelling at its finest. He knows when to let the artwork tell the story. He knows how to present exposition in an entertaining manner. And he knows how to introduce a large cast in such a way that they all have easily identifiable character traits.
He is helped on art. All the characters have a defined, individual look. You can tell who’s who even when you can’t see their face. The reason for this might have to do with the fact that some, if not all, of the characters in the series were designed by comic legend Jim Steranko. They apply the same coloring technique here as they did in Caliber, but to much better effect.
Radical publisher Barry Levine states in an essay in the back of both books that he wants to publish stories that are not just good, but great. Well, he’s halfway there. Caliber is a muddled mess that turns the reader away, but Hercules is an exciting, if somewhat gruesome, tale which makes you really want to pick up the next issue.