By Kevin Cannon
It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. It’s a phrase that kept running through my head while I was reading Kevin Cannon’s new graphic novel, Far Arden. Perhaps because the book, which takes as its subject the “crusty old sea dog” and Arctic pirate Army Shanks and a host of other characters—including two semi-obnoxious college students, a jilted lover, an angry orphan, and mad scientist—on their quest for the paradise island of Far Arden, vaguely follows that setup. Starting off madcap, slapdash, and more than a little ridiculous, somehow, over the course of roughly 375 pages, it transforms into a sad, thoughtful, even stirring book. And while the transition may leave readers the slightest bit confused (not to spoil too much, but you might very well have a “Wait, she actually died?!” moment, as I did), it also avoids feeling forced and inconsistent. For some readers, like myself, it may even feel welcome.
The change in pace and tone may partly be accounted for by the way in which the book came about. The story is essentially the product of a 288-hour comic challenge, which is a multiplied version of the 24-hour comic challenge, which calls for a creator to create 24 pages of comics in 24 hours. For Cannon, who was prompted by a friend, the challenge was to create a graphic novel out of twelve 24-hour comics. But after the first four months he slowed his pace a little, he has said, a change that likely allowed the story to ease up in its frenzy and expand in its breadth.
Which isn’t to say that the first part of the novel disappoints. It is absurd but self-aware, and it plays up the absurdity successfully. It does, however, posit Far Arden as a certain kind of book—one that you breeze through, reading mainly for the plot and adventure—so when things start to get a little heavy, about mid-way through, you can’t tell if Cannon will actually turn his adventure comedy into a tragedy. He does.
As such I found myself wondering, once finished, what the moral of the story is. The strongest contender: that paradise simply doesn’t exist. If you haven’t read the book, that may seem like an obvious notion, something we all realize when we pass from childhood to adulthood, but when you finish reading, you’ll feel the weight of that revelation all over again, just like growing up.
More than leaving readers sad, though, it leaves them thoughtful. The last five pages—probably the most powerful few in the book—really hit this idea home. After everything he’s been through, all he’s suffered, Shanks performs a series of simple, solitary actions, including returning home. In the last panel, which takes up the entire last page, he sits outside, smoking his pipe, with his dog, and while he doesn’t look happy, he doesn’t look entirely distraught either.
Part of the effectiveness of these pages is their general simplicity. Cannon’s drawing style is fairly simple and spare throughout, which complements the sometime insanity of the plot nicely, but it reaches a mature, composed peak at the very end. In these final pages, too, the lack of dialogue renders his chronic overuse of descriptors (action words like “sniff,” “bored sigh,” and “drag” abound in this book, to at least one reader’s incredible frustration) more acceptable. When we leave Army Shanks, he is thinking about everything he’s been through, perhaps searching for some meaning. I believe we are meant to do the same.