When a boorish male panda is found beaten to death the day after his much-touted arrival at a mysterious, isolated wildlife sanctuary, suspicion immediately falls on the new neighbors he went out of his way to offend. But as the lab-coated keepers investigate and the animals gossip amongst themselves, it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to this murder than petty vengeance—and more to the sanctuary than wildlife protection.
The artistic style of this sci-fi-tinged, conspiracy-laced murder mystery is very reminiscent of kid-oriented animated hits like The Lion King or Madagascar, but the dialogue and story quickly prove themselves to be cut from a darker, edgier cloth. There’s a disorienting yet satisfying contrast between the cute appearance of the animals, their quirky keepers, and the story’s snarky love triangles, disturbing science, and dangerous secrets. If mated gorillas joking about species preservation as best achieved by making out 24/7 doesn’t clue you in on the tone, the first exploding squirrel security test will—and it just gets darker and twistier from there. Interestingly, the book steers clear of anything particularly graphic, instead relying on subtle, cartoony, and/or off-panel violence, and the language is no stronger than an occasional “damn.” Sure, a sympathetically upset gorilla grabs a researcher by the face and flings her into the trees yards away, but the reader doesn’t see her land or realize she died as a result until another character mentions it later. It’s a clever tactic and fits the book’s overall theme: don’t be fooled by appearances.
This hardcover volume is comprised of seven chapters that were originally published digitally as individual installments. Strangely, each credits colorist Jordan Fong, despite the fact that there is no color artwork in the book, other than a touch of color on the front and back covers. It’s possible that this refers to the interior art’s heavy gradations, but the pages look more like black-and-white scans of color originals wherein different colors have resolved to near identical shades of grey, leaving some panels a bit dark and lacking in helpful contrast. However, I was unable to find any evidence online that the comic has ever been released with color art, so for the moment that point remains a mystery.
Although an Amazon.com reviewer, posting as author/artist Coughlin, comments that the book should be appropriate for ages 7+, I think that teens might be a more accurate target given its mature humor and dark themes. While volume one unravels the web of deception behind the rude panda’s demise, it also provides the underpinnings for more widespread repercussions, the details of which are only hinted before the final page. Readers interested in learning where it all goes from here will have to wait for volume two.
Sanctuary, vol. #1: Fresh Meat
by Stephen Coughlin
Art by Jordan Fong, Jef Bambas