by Sam Sarkar (script) and Garrie Gastonny (art)
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
The enduring popularity of the Arthurian legend needs little explanation. At its heart is a classic tale of good guys (Arthur and his knights of the round table) versus the forces of evil (led by Mordred). Throw in a handful of beasties, a wizard and a love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot and you’ve got the recipe for a great story.
Thomas Malory was one of the first to capitalise on the popularity of King Arthur and the recent innovation of the printing press with Morte D’Arthur but the stories had been around for long before he collected them in that imposing volume. Since Malory, the stories have undergone numerous different interpretations. In the nineteenth century, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King gave Arthur more humanity by making him an idealistic but flawed hero. The Pre-Raphaelite artists plundered the Arthurian legend for their paintings.
The thirst for Arthuriana had not abated by the twentieth century and countless books were printed, recycling the old stories for new audiences. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King made the tales accessible for a younger audience and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon retold the legends with a feminist slant. Cinema-goers have been treated to the legends of Arthur in animation (Disney’s The Sword in the Stone), comedy (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), drama (John Boorman’s Excalibur) and pieces of shit (2004’s King Arthur).
The most successful reinterpretations of the Arthurian legend seem to be those which stick most closely to the tried and tested formula of knights in shining armour, damsels in distress and the round table at Camelot. Needless to say, I did not have high hopes for Caliber, a graphic novel which takes the legend to the American old west, replacing knights with gunslingers and wizards with American Indian shamans. It was hard for me to approach this one with an open mind. Being the patriotic type, I was extremely dubious of the premise – after all, how can this most British of heroes be relocated across the pond? Quite easily, it seems.
The first thing that one notices about Caliber is the beautiful artwork. Garrie Gastonny’s drawings seem to leap off the pages, each panel carrying so much depth and richness that reading the book is akin to watching a brilliantly directed movie. Much of the story takes place in the town of Telacoma and it is clear that a great deal of work has gone into creating a setting whose architecture is an intriguing combination of old west and Victorian neo-gothic. Action is conveyed with a wonderful sense of the kinetic: long hair and duster coats billow in the wind, characters gallop on horseback between beautiful locations and the frenetic gunplay is equally heavily stylised. The downside of such complex illustrations is that some frames are so crammed with incident, one can occasionally lose track of what is going on. This is a rare occurrence and for the most part, the reader will be swept along by the breathless pace and exuberance of the story.
There are some fans of graphic novels who will tell you that computer enhancement of comic art is cheating but Imaginary Friends Studios have done an amazing job on the colours and after-effects of Gastonny’s drawings. The murky hues and sepia tones perfectly capture the feel of the mythic Old West whilst the digitally added rain, fog and lightning help to make the illustrations all the more dramatic and awe-inspiring.
Like the rest of the book, the characters are wonderfully drawn, but what makes Caliber work as a graphic novel is the thought and care that has gone into reimagining the established archetypes into characters that are familiar yet fresh. Arthur is a youthful, rugged hero whose brooding good looks match his introspective personality. His passionate belief in the law leads him into conflict with the corrupt rulers of Telacoma. As is befitting a Western, there are no swords to be seen. Excalibur is replaced by an imposing looking hand cannon, supposedly forged from the same steel as the legendary sword. Only Arthur is capable of wielding the weapon, something he does a great deal of in the exhilarating final pages of the book. The Merlin character is an American Indian shaman called Whitefeather whose magic is far more subtle than previous incarnations of the sorcerer. His spells are rooted in the American Indians’ belief in the power of the natural world and are dependent on lengthy ceremonies and rituals. The character of Lady Guinevere is re-imagined as Gwen, a flame-haired dancing-gal in the local saloon. Though scantily clad for a significant portion of the narrative, Gwen’s character is plucky and resourceful. My personal favourite character in the book is Lance Lake, the cursed gunslinger who fills the position of the Sir Lancelot. Those with keen eyes will notice that Lance Lake bears more than a passing resemblance to the actor Colin Farrell. Haunted by the ghosts of those he has killed, Lake would seem to be a sombre figure were it not for his wonderfully dry wit which helps to lighten proceedings when things get a little too serious.
Caliber: First Canon of Justice is clearly intended to be the first part of a series and the story itself is used largely to introduce the main protagonists. The book ends as Arthur is appointed sheriff and thinking back to the source material, this would be the point at which young Arthur is crowned king of Britain, meaning there are still huge amounts of the Arthurian legend left to be (re)told in preceding volumes. I can’t wait to see how Sarkar and Gastonny tackle such adventures as the quest for the holy grail, the affair of Guinevere and Lancelot and the battle between Arthur and his bastard son Mordred. This is an essential purchase for fans of Westerns, the Arthurian legend and those who love a good graphic novel. My only hope is that we won’t be kept waiting too long for further instalments.
Hereward L.M. Proops