By Mark Smylie
Archaia Studios Press
When you think of innovative independent comics, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t fantasy—unless you’ve read the Artesia series. It’s hard to imagine a title more worthy of the indie appellation, however, than Mark Smylie’s magnum opus. Smylie now publishes the book himself, through his own recently founded Archaia Studios Press, which he founded after he left Sirius Entertainment, Artesia’s former home. More importantly, however, he writes, draws, paints, and inks the book, which tells the (very slowly) unfolding tale of the eponymous fantasy heroine. And now, thanks to Archaia’s gorgeous hardcover edition of the first two books in the series, it’s easy to get caught up with the formerly hard-to-find back story of this intriguing indie series.
Don’t be fooled by the fantasy categorization: Artesia has less in common with Tolkien’s ethereal Arwen Undomiel than with earthy, semi-historical queens Medb and Boudica. Like Irish Medb, she’s clever and crafty, and, like British Boudicca, she’s a fierce general fighting against an invading empire. In short, she’s a badass. And who doesn’t like a female action hero?
The problem with most female action leads, however, is that they end up reading like Alien’s Ripley, who was famously intended to be male until Sigourney Weaver got the part. While Ripley was a groundbreaking female role in an excellent movie, that was also a two-hour movie made 30 years ago. We’ve seen since that while ass-kicking women whose only difference from ass-kicking men is some extra jiggle can be fun popcorn fare, they’ve been done to death, and they often fall flat when a little more story is required. Witness the dismal failure of the Alien franchise after the second film. Artesia, however, offers a substantially more layered female action lead than we often see or read (but still with plenty of ass-kicking, thankfully).
In fact, Artesia’s got so many damned layers, it takes a bit of work to get up to speed. She’s the daughter of a witch burned for heresy, a spirit-seer and de facto priestess of a Greeky/Celty triple goddess, a former concubine and voracious lover, and, at the start of the books, the brilliant captain of a small army. Oh, and after her king betrays her early in the first volume and she cuts off his head and impales it on a stick to be a mystic watchman (yes, it’s that kind of book), she might just be a queen of what amounts to a tiny city-state. Listed like that, this may sound like a recipe for a Mary-Sue mess, but Smylie does an impressive job of keeping all these elements in play without descending into hero-worship of his heroine. Smylie’s great accomplishment is taking all these elements and making Artesia an appealing, exciting, sexy, yet somehow vulnerable character.
As if all these layers weren’t enough, the books also have a fiendishly involved and absorbing plot, as well, as an ancient empire invades Artesia’s medieval-, Mediterranean-, Greek- and Celtic-flavored world. Artesia struggles to forge a defending coalition out of dozens of bickering city-states and at least a couple mutually exclusive religious groups. Artesia unapologetically fights, plots, and screws her way through a hell of a lot of plot and politics. You’ll need to refer to the maps often and maybe even reread the books a couple times to really sort out who’s doing what to who and why–the politics are that involved. This isn’t one of those books that you can absorb in an hour or two. And that’s probably a good thing, since Smylie has produced just three graphic novels and half the makings of a fourth since the series started in 1998.
What’s taking Smylie so long? Clearly starting his own publishing house (which publishes the highly successful Mouse Guard, for example) hasn’t helped any, but you have to suspect that even without that time-sink, Artesia would be a slow book to produce. The art, which looks great, also looks almost ridiculously labor-intensive. Each page and panel shows off Smylie’s impressive range of skills, from enormous, incredibly detailed and fluid battle spreads, to stunning panoramas, to atmospheric horror and sex scenes. His style is a unique mix of pencils, color pencils, inks and watercolors, with watercolors largely replacing colored pencils fairly early on. The resulting look is hard to describe but looks more like illustrations than typical comic book art. In fact, it reminds me a bit of Charles Vess’ color illustration work, with some touches of fetishy Guido Crepax thrown in for spice. Buyer beware: the violence is pervasive and gorey, and the sex is pervasive, if not quite explicit. You see more of each as the series goes on.
One complaint I’ve heard several times in connection with Smylie’s art is that it can be tough to tell who’s who; that, for all his attention to detail when it comes to weapons, banners, armor, gore, and ghosts, his characters’ faces can be too similar for the casual reader to easily tell apart. I can see the point; while you’ll gradually realize that his characters are fairly nuanced as you get used to his work, his art is also very stylized. Getting used to his style is a little bit like getting used to reading manga in that sense. Even so, at times the characters are so stylized as to feel a bit flat and expressionless. And even dedicated readers may occasionally have to think for a bit to figure out which female character in certain scenes is Artesia, let alone who the characters who aren’t her are.
I think the issue has less to do with Smylie’s art, however, and more to do with the bewildering number of characters in Artesia’s twisty plot, all of whom share a finite number of pages. Smylie’s clearly influenced by the recent massive sprawling fantasy epics with dozens of characters, like George R. R. Martin’s The Song of Fire and Ice, which Smylie cites in his bibliography. But that series runs several thousand pages already to support so many characters, and Artesia is probably closer to 500 pages after ten years. Since Smylie seems disinclined to produce more pages more quickly, he might do better to put more focus on fewer characters, though that’s tricky in a book of Artesia’s epic proportions.
Whether it’s the art or the dense plot, the book can daunting for casual readers, who might end up skimming the secondary plotlines and focusing instead on the big battles (of which there are plenty). This is a shame, as there’s a lot of really good story here for those willing to dig into it. In fact, the graphic novels are packed with extras like vast glossaries and who’s whos and histories, all in teeny tiny type. One of the great strengths of Artesia is the richness of Smylie’s vast world. There’s already plenty to discover just in these first two volumes, which is projected to run 21 volumes if Smylie can finish them–or 7 at the very least. There’s no doubt that Smylie has more than enough material for the complete run, as well as plenty of dedicated fans who seem willing to stick out the long waits between issues.
These first two volumes are among the best-bound, most beautiful books I own. They’re printed on beautiful paper, with library-quality binding, and the pages lay flat, which is incredibly important given the large number of spread pages in the book. A third volume, Artesia Afire, has been published, but not yet given the gorgeous Archaia Studios Press hardcover treatment. Amazon lists Afire’s hardcover publication date as April 25. Definitely wait for that edition, if you’re going to buy the series, which, if you’re at all interested in the fantasy genre, I recommend you consider. Artesia is well worth your comic dollar, if you’re patient enough to also invest some time getting to know the world.