Review: Kevin Cannon’s Far Arden

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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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