Kevin Cannon, Far Arden (Top Shelf, 2009). $19.95, hardcover.
By Jared Gardner
Kevin Cannon took the whole idea of 24-hour comics and expanded it into the goal of producing a chapter of a graphic novel each month for a year. The result, published last month by Top Shelf, is Far Arden, a breathless and brilliant romp through old timey serial adventure that is alternatively funny, silly, spell-binding and even, most surprisingly of all, moving. The story is far too complex and absurd to attempt to paraphrase properly, but suffice it to say it involves the search for a mythical arctic land called Far Arden, which has been the obsession of a group of students and explorers for years. Our hero, Shanks, is a violent and romantic loner, who has had his share of adventure and romance when we first meet him, scruffy and cynical (albeit, of course, with a heart of gold). Everyone he comes into contact with is instantly in love with him, ready to follow him to the end of the earth, or, if need be, suck out his brains in the Death MRI to get to his inner essence. Shanks, however, doesn’t know what he wants—save for that he would like it to be an honorable thing. In fact Shanks quickly makes a series of promises to a series of characters, most of whom are introduced seemingly at random by Cannon in his stream-of-consciousness approach to the novel, and all of which drag him deeper and deeper into narrative brambles that cannot possibly have a happy ending.
And it doesn’t! Don’t let the joyous slapstick of the book fool you: the end is fairly gut-wrenching in a way that feels entirely true to the story Cannon has woven on the run. That he was able to pull it all together at all at this pace and across this scale (almost 400-pages) is impressive in itself. That he was able to write a book that actually made me laugh out loud at many of his witty “sound effects” (“Angry Orphan Punch,” “Human-Sized Bit,” “Run Away”) and absurd, improvised plot twists, while still ending up misty at the end is something on a different order (I could almost see Cannon’s sound effect caption for me in the novel’s final pages: “Fighting Back Tears and Giggles at Same Time”).
Cannon’s art is often sketchy, rubbery, and (especially in the early going) as raw as the fish Shanks is carrying around for much of the book. But there is nothing casual about his attention to composition and pacing. And when he needs to, he can turn up the visual charm and gloss. As a visual story teller Cannon is a young natural from whom great things are coming, and indeed have already come. Cannon worked with Zander (“no-relation”) Cannon illustrating the brilliant Stuff of Life and writing season two of Top Ten. But for me, I would be happy reading little else than an endless series of Army Shanks adventures for the next twenty years. Fingers crossed that there is at least one sequel in store for my favorite new mid-air-groin-grinding, arctic-adventuring, scrimshaw-carving, orphan-making hunk of a guy.