Army Shanks is perhaps the toughest arctic pirate you’ve ever met, though it’s unlikely you’ve ever met anyone like him. He is “as cold and unforgiving as the arctic itself” and excels at punching. Shanks is on a mission to find the fabled island of Far Arden, a tropical paradise located in the Canadian High Arctic. His adventures are populated with orphans, circus folk, college students, polar bears, and the Royal Canadian Arctic Navy. The only way to Far Arden is using a map Shanks hid on his former ship, The Areopagitica. By the end of the first chapter, he’s outlined a list of goals for the book, which include avenging a death, rekindling a rocky love affair (maybe), and fulfilling his promise to find the island.
Far Arden is an odd experiment. It began as part of the 24 Hour Comics Day event. The goal of the event is to draw a 24-page comic book in as many hours. A friend challenged Kevin Cannon to do a 288-page graphic novel over the course of a year – undergoing a marathon of comic creation once a month. The first four chapters followed this format but, due to health concerns, Cannon switched to doing a chapter a month. The final product is a 380 page book that begins as a hectic, scattered comedy and becomes a poignant tale that may alternately leave you reaching for the tissues or eager to throw something sharp and weighty at the author.
I’ll admit, I had some trouble with Far Arden when I first picked it up. The opening chapter throws characters and plot points at the reader without stopping to catch its breath. Shanks’ list of goals at the end of this chapter seems to exist as much for Cannon as for the reader. Given that the book started as a 24HCD project, this style of writing may be expected. However, what seems like frantic storytelling evolves into an elaborate tale of action, comedy, and an exploration of Shanks’ and companions’ hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Far Arden’s random cast of characters each play a part in Shanks’ story, developing into realistic individuals…well, as realistic as it gets in a world where people are raised by polar bears, circus acts include lectures on the dangers of global warming, and evil scientists build DeathMRIs.
Cannon draws inspiration from the long winters of his childhood, arctic explorers’ biographies, and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. There’s a sense of awe of nature with his depictions of violent waves, frigid landscapes, craggy mountains, and an open sky revealing the northern lights and endless stars. Fans of arctic exploration will find several references throughout, including a particularly telling quote from Lawrence Oates. I was most impressed by Cannon’s ability to take a story that depends on goofy humor and seemingly haphazard plot-twists and gradually develop it into a tale with emotional impact.
The art of Far Arden consists of simple cartoon-style black and white panels; I often felt like I was flipping through Cannon’s sketch pad. As the story progresses, characters are drawn with greater consistency and the art becomes more refined, while still stylized. This isn’t to say that the rawness of the first few chapters takes away from the story. In fact, given the fast-paced action, the crazy plot-twists, and the sense of humor, Cannon’s drawing-style matches his storytelling very well. Fans of his other works, such as T-Minus: The Race to the Moon and The Stuff of Life, may come to Far Arden expecting something different. However, given the history behind this book and the kind of story being told, I think many readers will enjoy a looser, more active technique.
I appreciated the way Cannon plays with the medium. His word bubbles occasionally wander into other frames, changing their meaning or serving as a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the format’s limitations. If you’re a fan of the old Batman TV show’s sound effects (bamf! zap! pow!), you’ll feel right at home with Cannon’s creative use of sound symbolism. Shanks gets into his fair share of fights, which include such awesome sounds as “face punch” and “headlock,” but the book is sprinkled with mimetic words and phrases like “conceal,” “grumble,” and “succulent bite.” There’s also a quick nod to The Stuff of Life by an environmental cop – “even a teenager with a genetics-themed graphic novel could have figured this code out.”
It goes without saying that Far Arden comes with its fair share of violence, albeit of a cartoonish sort. Shanks and his companions are sailors, so readers should expect a sailor’s vocabulary. There’s a small amount of nudity and the occasional death by polar bear, though some may be far more disturbed by the concept of a DeathMRI. Though it’s not a particularly grisly in its depictions, there are a few moments that may disturb sensitive readers.