Friday, May 11, 2018

Uncivilized Books: Tim Sievert's The Clandestinauts

Uncivilized Books has never been afraid to publish unconventional genre comics, especially in the realm of fantasy. Tim Sievert’s book The Clandestinauts combines high fantasy with grit and guts; it’s like seeing how the sausage of a fantasy quest is made. The book’s promotional materials make a number of references to Dungeons and Dragons, and the narrative has the twists and turns of an especially sadistic game master and players expertly and accurately acting on the chaotic and evil natures of their characters. The reader is thrown into the narrative in media res, so the book starts with a battle rather than the boring stuff of how the party was hired, etc. Characterization is doled out in the middle of and after fights, which are exceptionally gory—on the level of Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit series.

The reader is given a roster of characters and a brief description, and there’s the usual group of fighters, wizards, fighter-wizards, a humanoid slug-creature and even a fighting construct. In this world, becoming a warlock means forming a pact with a demon, entailing one’s eventual doom. The narrative itself is quite simple: the titular group is on a quest to steal a chalice from a powerful wizard and bring it back for a huge reward. Of course, nothing is ever quite that easy, as one member dies and is sent to hell right away. One of the members of the party is a bandaged warlock named Ganglion the Grim, and he’s the kind of wild card that has his own agenda.

What makes this book entertaining is the sheer unpredictability of its twists and turns, as well as a modern-day sensibility in terms of its humor. Indeed, the book reads like a gorier version of Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar’s Dungeon series, as there’s a level of self-awareness at play here in the way genre customs are being warped, but never so much that it breaks the fourth wall. Indeed, this world has its own unpleasant logic and rules, which the characters react to and defy as much as they can. Like Dungeon, the art is cartoony in terms of its character design but otherwise naturalistic, in order to truly capture the visceral quality of its violence and putrid environments. It also asks an important question: if a party has characters who are at each other’s throats, then why do they stay together? If they answer is “money”, then what happens when their reward shrivels up? Sievert plays that scenario fairly as the group falls apart at the end. Speaking of which, while there is a conclusion to this story, it feels like Sievert could easily write a number of sequels. There are any number of dangling plot threads that could be picked up again, and in this way it feels like it’s an adventure that’s part of a greater overall campaign. Readers looking for comics that are inspired by D&D’s nastier elements should seek this out, but this book isn’t aimed at a general audience.

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