Maybe it's the old sixties survivor in me, but if you're gonna name your fledgling comic book company Radical Comics, it behooves you to make sure your books are truly something different: a challenge to the new mainstream. But, judging from the two premiere titles recently released by the new comics line, the brand-fresh company isn't as challengingly out-there as its name implies. A western retelling of the Excalibur myth? A hard-nosed reworking of the Hercules legend? Not what I'd exactly call avant-garde.
That noted, on the basis of their first issues, I'd say that Caliber and Hercules are promising boyish entertainments. Radical cannily debuted both books in spring with a one-dollar price tag on the first issues (now that's radical!), and they're handsome looking booklets. Both comics have painted art, and, to my eyes, Garrie Gastonny's work on Caliber has an edge in dark moodiness.
Narrated by the series' Native American Merlin, named Jean Michel, the five-part Caliber revolves around a pistol called the Lawmaker that one man is destined to wield. As the story opens in the old Pacific Northwest, Jean Michel is still seeking out the one to hold onto the gun, though canny readers will instantly recognize the lad born into the role as soon as they catch his name (Arthur Pendergon). Arthur's father, an army captain, is charged with keeping the peace between settlers, railroad workers and the Klamath tribe, but since avaricious railroad interests are surreptitiously working to foment conflict between all sides, we know he's doomed to fail.
Since the premiere issue is primarily devoted to set-up, our main interest lies in trying to anticipate how scripter Sam Sarkar will ring his changes on the Arthurian legend. When a sexy Klamath maiden shows up to seduce Jean Merlin ("Would you desire me as much if I were tame?" she asks him), for instance, we instantly recognize her as the story's Morgan Le Fay – and wonder how that will play out as the story progresses. When a glowing female figure appears outside of Arthur's cabin at the end of issue one, we can't help thinking, "Is this the Lady of the Lake? If so, where's the lake?"
Steve Moore & Admira Wijaya's Hercules proves much more straightforward in its treatment of its legendary subject. An engagingly mean-spirited telling of its hero's battles in the Thracian Wars, it opens with a doomed attempt to secure an alliance between Hercules' men and the grungy members of a "miserable peasant" tribe called the Odrysae. Openly scornful of the Greek army ("I hear Hercules is like most of the Greeks. Fond of young boys."), the barbarians spark a brawl that ends in the slaughtering of everyone in the Odrysae palace. Clearly, Moore's version of the story owes much to the unapologetic macho bastard approach of Frank Miller's 300.
Moore's script proves more verbose than Sarkar's, but since a good amount of the dialog is devoted to nasty put-downs ("If you're getting into a strange bed," narrator Iolaus tells a young soldier as they pass the Odrysaen whores, "check it for knives first. And check the girl for maggots."), it all reads more quickly than you'd expect – even if you have difficulty keeping all the Greek names (Amphianaus, Autolyeus, et al) straight. Once our not-much-larger-than-life hero ("You were expecting someone bigger?" Herc says as he approaches the apparent king of the Odrysaens) struts on panel, bedecked in his lion skin, the focus naturally shifts to him.
It's all smoothly rendered: Moore, who cut his teeth scripting British comics, is an old hand at this type of material, while artist Wijaya really picks up in the action sequences. I can see both books finding an audience – and, perhaps the lucrative movie production deal, eh? But I still continue to chafe at that inapt company name.
How about Working Within The System Comics?