Review: Kevin Cannon’s Far Arden

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On the stiff, lightly plaited, coral-red rear cover of Top Shelf’s Far Arden, Carl Hays of Booklist describes writer/author Kevin Cannon as “one of the comics world’s most energetic storytellers.” That, in so many words, sums up Far Arden, a kind of glorious pulp throwback so enthusiastically exuberant it may have just punched, wrestled, thrown, roared, and mid-air-groin-grindered (to use its own words) its very own sub-genre into existence. Call it “kin-aesthetics.” Put simply, Cannon’s story moves. It’s The Call of the Wild meets Groo the Wanderer, a punched-up cartoon parable that riffs on Mel Brooks, Al Gore, Ian Fleming, and James Hilton, somehow balancing one diegetic improbability atop another, like a Cirque performer stacking chairs single-wide before climbing up them, floor to cathedral-high ceiling.

Even the design conspires to upend you. Printed just below the ISBN on the copyright page, Far Arden declares itself ‘nautical fiction’ first, ‘graphic novel’ second. The black hand-lettered map in the book’s endpapers (colored a striking steel blue) comprises “A Reader’s Guide to the Islands of the Canadian High Arctic.” Those islands are the real deal. Prince Patrick I angles to the northwest of crablike Melville Island, while Devon Island floats like a legless camel above Lancaster Sound and the Gulf of Boothia. This might have happened, teases the naturalistic map, like the very best in adventure fiction.

Cannon’s winding and frequently wound-up yawn concerns one Army Shanks, a scruffy spectacled loner who wears a ribbed cap whether accoutered in wool sweater and pants or full-on tux. Like a marine mystic, his pipe levitates a few inches from his mouth. He’s a “professional skeptic,” a taciturn savant searching for Far Arden, a kind of Shangri-La analogue tucked away somewhere in the far-flung Canadian High Arctic. A “shank,” of course, can be an appendage by which one thing attaches to another, and in the space of a few chapters, we learn that Shanks is indeed being tailed by all sorts of hanger-ons–an entire troupe of motley ne’er-do-wells.

But when we first encounter him, he’s using a pen knife to scratch the outline of a mermaid into a table located in a bar called the Somber Moose, a sort of gloomy nowhere-place near an abandoned whaling station on the northwest peninsula of Devon Island. A bucktoothed man in suspenders named Hafley snaps into frame, double-handing a couple of beers and declaring the arrival of a ship named the Areopagitica. A name that outlandish has to mean something, and it turns out it’s both the title of a political reform speech delivered by a fifth-century B.C. Athenian orator, as well as an anti-censorship pamphlet produced by British author and polemicist John Milton. Like the titular land of Far Arden itself–just a letter short of “ardent,” meaning “enthusiastic, passionate”–the Areopagitica seems so named to signify the sort of reform and freedom Shanks is ultimately after.

Thus Shanks’ quest unfolds, over hill and icy dale, from lifeboats to schooners, traveling circuses to ice palaces to liberal arts colleges. Before it’s over, we’ve encountered kidnappers, poachers, perverts, polar bears, man-beasts, orphans, conspiratorial undergrads, environmental cops, prophets, cryptologists, femme fatales, mad scientists, and corrupt officers of the Royal Canadian Arctic Navy. It sounds mad and often is, as Cannon pounces gleefully on dramatic cliches before twisting them around in ways you’re not expecting. Blame the peripatetic plotting in part on the story’s inception, originally a challenge to write the tale in blocks, 24 hours per chapter. Cannon only made it through the first four, but that deceleration resulted in something extraordinary–a melange of initially abstruse ideas that somehow resolve picture-perfectly, every ‘i’ smartly dotted and ‘t’ satisfyingly crossed.

It’s also beautifully streamlined, a book you can admire for its astonishing economy. When you’re writing on the clock, you don’t have room for embellishment. Far Arden comes out to 382 pages, but you’ll roll through the whole thing in a couple of hours thanks to Cannon’s pitch-perfect panel work. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to linger over. While the characters often dwindle to stylish squiggles, the backgrounds are often elaborately crosshatched, irregular texturing woven across swathes of white space like the cuts made by an adze in a makeshift canoe. It’s also the sort of comic where line-actions get assists from all-caps lettering, from basics like “squint” and “handshake” to slapstick stuff like “fist catch” and “punch preparation.” And I just have to add that Far Arden may contain the cleverest use of inter-panel word ballooning I’ve yet encountered. Did Cannon do it first? I don’t know, and frankly don’t care. It’s absolutely hilarious.

Cannon lives in Minnesota. I know a little about the state. I lived there for a couple years myself. When the winter’s doing its bone-cracking best to crystallize your neural synapses, it feels otherworldly, desolate, like something flung off the edge of the map. Cast your eyes north in a deep freeze and you can practically see the arctic circle. Far Arden is like breathing that atmosphere laced with caffeine and laughing gas, a romping shaggy-dog story with a not-so-shaggy twist ending, the best practically pocket-sized adventure fiction I’ve read in years.

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