Review: 'Sabertooth Swordsman' and the Mayhem of the Malevolent Mastodon MathematicianA comic review article by: Taylor Lilley
Sabertooth Swordsman should be one of this year's biggest sellers. Parents seeking surprises for kids (kids over 11, admittedly, as there is violence and psychedelic locust ingesting), lovers and loved ones of comic fans, jaded comics lovers who question whether the medium has anything left to offer them… Sabertooth Swordsman will delight, surprise, and reinvigorate, respectively. Why? Because it's fun. Adventure, weird creatures, and simple character dynamics, rendered in a hyper-detailed style that wears its density lightly. This comic doesn't care if you take it seriously, it cares that you turn the final page with a grin on your face.
Creators Gentry and Conley have acknowledged a degree of reactivity against capes'n tights comics in this fun-focus. Looking at this year's superhero continuities, you can see what they're reacting against. In 2013, Batman gloatingly paralysed mercenaries in a grief-driven rampage; Captain America's decade of suffering in the hellish Dimension Z ended with his ward and lover dead; X-O Manowar is, as we speak, reframing the Palestine Question with cosmic armour and a time-travel twist; and Invincible had to go back on the secret agency payroll he'd previously left for ethical reasons, such was the surfeit of blood on his hands. Can you make fun comics out of barbarity, tragedy, and corruption? Can you make muffins from blood, tears, and mould?
You may argue that Sabertooth Swordsman's story is no less barbari-tragi-corrupt than any of the spandex clan. After all, our inciting incident is the abduction of his love, Joleen (Joleen, Joleen, Jol-ee-ee-eeene!). Kidnapped by our Final Boss's thugs, she's thrown in a truck before he's thrown a wicked beating. How wicked? Observe:
He then climbs a (weirdly multi-phallic) mountain, is transformed without his consent into a Sabertooth/human hybrid, and has to slay numerous gross enemies on the way to rescuing Joleen, including, ultimately… well no, that mustn't be spoiled. But it's a heart-wrenching finish. So what's the diff, how is this fun and superheroes not-fun? Sabertooth Swordsman inhabits a land of flying carpets and near indestructible super-goats, where crazy cat ladies deliver power-ups one bag of cat-poop at a time, and the Final Boss is a Malevolent Mastodon Mathematician. Hell, the entire reason he goes to the aforementioned mountain (Sasquatch Mountain, to be precise) is because the wide-eyed, bling-fingered Cloud God drops him a flyer advertising "Fabulous Power" for the taking.
This is not a superhero book, with attendant pretensions to some degree of realism. It's the Mahabharata guest starring Ren & Stimpy, Narasimha via Super, the divine product of classic adventure and Super Mario.
Fusion comics? Fringe fusion comics? Fun comics.
Just as they eschew labelling, Gentry and Conley forgo structural complexity. We're looking at 8-bit thinking realised in ultra-high def, a linear storyline proceeding in regular increments marked by boss battles and bathetic cut scenes, working the contrast between squelchy carnage and a downbeat disdain for Swordsman's heroism. It's this juxtaposition that makes the hyper-detailed excesses endurable. Driven by sharply angled layouts and unpredictable bleed, fight scenes are packed with blood, tendrils, claws, whatever visceral detail Conley feels works, choreographed by massed motion lines. A neat, recurring technique of Conley's is to wrap onomatopoeia into whatever substance emits or accompanies the sound, be it blood, flesh, or gas. This optimises the density of visual information, rewards attentive reading, and feels organic, somehow, like the gore is participating in the gross-out. After these flights of grotesquery, however, we're reassuringly grounded, as Swordsman's beneficiaries ask "Are you some sort of Savage?" or dismiss him as a "snaggle-toothed moron". That Sabertooth reacts with dejection rather than outrage is another pomp preventative.
Gentry's script feels like the last piece of the puzzle, in a good way. The pair admit to near constant revisions throughout the creative process, resulting in a refreshing lightness of narration and dialogue. Pragmatically, this is the smart move for a black and white comic whose selling point is detail that borders on hysteria, but crucially it lets the art do the talking, which prevents Conley's aesthetic coming off as gilding the lily. Herein lies the primary flaw in comparisons of Aaron Conley with James Stokoe and Geoff Darrow, fellow doyens of density. Conley tells more story per page than either, particularly Darrow, who parcels story in wrinkled nanoseconds of action. The secondary flaw with that comparison is that Conley is not as consistent as either.
Whether this is intentional is hard to fathom, as part of Sabertooth's appeal lies in the contrasts between comedic tropes like goggle eyes or sad faces, and the heightened snarls of the more muscular action choreography. Conley's visual grammar is consistent throughout, panel counts and pacing serving mood, retaining more than enough variety in the "camera angles" and progressions to keep it visually interesting beyond the intricacy. The inconsistency is more in the character designs, and the occasional loss of clarity due to overcrowding. Both are somewhat understandable, as the heightened acting of the characters is bound to cause distortion, while overcrowding is a risk when crafting hyper-detail in monochrome. These instances are relatively few, but particularly apparent in the contrast between the John K-style humans, and Sabertooth's more naturalistic head. On initially flipping through the book, these disparities are more jarring than during a full read. More on that in a minute.
There are a couple of larger flaws. Bechdel test? Fail. However, and this will seem like small potatoes to some, when our hero finds Joleen in the chambers of the Malevolent Mastodon Mathematician, arms chained above her head, there's one particularly authentic detail. Joleen's pits are hairy. This may not sound like much, but in comparison to superhero comics, where Invincible is considered progressive for giving Atom Eve curves, where Amanda Waller got liposuction for the New 52, where Black Widow's boobs and butt are more apparent than her value in the overmatched cosmic fisticuffs she's regularly thrown into, a little armpit hair is the artistic equivalent of Real Talk.
In terms of character depth, these aren't characters you live with, and carry with you afterward. Sabertooth is a regular guy who likes juice boxes and his girl, the Mastodon is an intellectual divorced from reality by a devotion to rational inquiry, and the citizenry are generally apathetic in the face of an oppressive regime. But they all have moments of rectitude, such that although we know the story will be resolved by Sabertooth's flaming scimitar, we're never entirely sure that the God he serves is altruistic, or that there wasn't another way.
Of course, Sabertooth Swordsman's greatest obstacle is marketing. You either smile at the thought of a sword-wielding Sabertooth with a flaming fez, or you don't. You're either open to a 120+ page OGN by relative unknowns, or you're not. And there are other binary sub-sections, people who refuse to engage with black and white comics (really, they're out there!), or those who make decisions based on cursory page flips (which won't do Sabertooth any favours). But all of these details are distraction. What should really matter to potential readers is what awaits them atop Sasquatch Mountain. Consider this your flyer, ticket to a fabulously fun read, if you can only make the climb.