SABERTOOTH SWORDSMAN is a video-game-like web comic and now graphic novel about a wimp with a kidnapped wife who is granted tiger-form and masterful swordsmanship by the Cloud God. He has to fight, slash, scratch and claw through all kinds of crazy situations to get to the Malevolent Mastodon Mathematician, who is basically the level boss. Also, there’s a plague that’s turning everyone into monsters, and the Mathematician has magic rings that can… heal people? I think?
None of it seems particularly well thought out, but it’s a lot of fun. It has a kind of punkish efficiency, and the story hums along. Mostly the narrative is just a hook for the deranged brilliance of Aaron Conley, who draws the titular tiger hacking his way through Lovecraftian horrors, slobbering goons, and at least one big-breasted Cyclops with desperate verve and furious invention. Sabertooth Swordsman, to both its detriment and credit, is less a book than it is a showcase for one of the most exciting new artists in comics. Conley is a beast with tremendous abilities and outsized ambitions. This comic reads like an Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo — unbelievably impressive, and way, way too much.
It’s tough to balance my opinion here — I think there’s a lot in this book that doesn’t work, but it doesn’t work in that gloriously over-ambitious ultra-talented, obsessively creative way that is often preferable to something that DOES work. Basically, I love this book for not giving a fuck whether I think it works. These are two guys who are going to follow their internal impulses to glory and destruction. Nit-picking it is like critiquing a comet while it goes streaking overhead. The momentum of the thing renders all other points moot — it does what it does.
The above page is a perfect example. What the hell are we looking at in that top panel? I see an eye, and I think some kind of insectoid creature, but you really have to look to make him out. Is the eye connected to the bug? Or is it just part of that weird panel border design thing?
On the other hand, who cares, because that drawing is awesome. I took a sort of perverse satisfaction in deciphering some of these confusing drawings. Figuring out what’s going on in the panel becomes a kind of Where’s Waldo game you can play. That’s the Cloud God lurking behind the insect guy, smiling with bared teeth — I just figuted that out right now, as I’m typing this, and it delighted me. That’s not really how comics are supposed to work, but that’s how this comic works. At least for me.
There is one huge production misstep in this book, and I assume it’s a market driven choice rather than an aesthetic one: this collection should really be in color. The fundamental problem here is that everything looks the same — every tentacle, every tree, every fold of fabric and sound effect and horrifying creature is rendered in Conley’s hyper-detailed wormy-clean linework. Color would have gone a long part of the way towards solving that problem, and it’s a big part of the reason that this review is coming off as a lot more critical than I intended it to be.
Because there’s such pleasure-in-looking with this stuff that the critical mind just shuts down. You’re just so enraptured by the deranged display of Conley’s puppy-eager virtuosity that a highly flawed book reads as a towering success. You can see all the influences, Moebius and Darrow and Pope and all those guys, but it has an insouciant swoop, a tone of deviant debauchery all its own.
There is such palpable joy in this artwork, a stretching (often beyond the breaking point) of the expressive limitations of comics, a violent reveling in the infinite possibility of the blank page, and what you really want to do is stand up and applaud. Conley can achieve things that very few artists are capable of. His art is animated by thunder and fire. If he ever learns (or simply chooses) to show some restraint, to rein in his astonishing capacities and use them sparingly, in service of storytelling, he will be a force to be reckoned with.
Until then, I’ll just be enjoying these preposterous guitar solos.