Buy This Book: Damon Gentry And Aaron Conley’s ‘Sabertooth Swordsman’
High concept books can be a pretty mixed bag. It's one thing to come up with one of those compelling, bizarre premises that grab the reader's attention, but if the substance isn't there to back it up -- or even if it's done in the wrong tone -- they fall flatter than just about anything else you'll find on the shelves. When they work, though, the results can be pretty amazing, and fortunately, Damon Gentry and Aaron Conley's Sabertooth Swordsman is definitely the kind that hits.
It's a big, sweeping adventure with new, strange twists on a story we've all seen before, and its also one of the most fun comics I've read in a long while.You may have already guessed this part, but the high concept behind Sabertooth Swordsman -- or to use its full title, Sabertooth Swordsman and the Mayhem of the Malevolent Mastodon Mathematician -- involves a sabertooth tiger running around with a sword slicing up bad guys, but that's just big stuff. When you get down to the details, it's more like some half-remembered NES game that you would've gotten at a video store in 1988 because it kind of looked like a Mario game. I had that experience with Karnov, and the confusion I felt has stuck with me to this day. Sabertooth Swordsman reminds me of that more than anything else, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Here's how it works: Our hero is a farmer whose wife, Joleen, has been kidnapped by the henchmen of the aforementioned Mastodon. The farmer tries to stop them, but, as he is a weakling, he gets his face punched in, and his personal princess is carted off to a far-off castle. Fortunately, he's being watched over by the Cloud God, who drops what is essentially a Charles Atlas ad onto him from the heavens, and then transforms him into -- say it with me -- the Sabertooth Swordsman. Armed with new powers and a mission of rescue and/or vengeance, he sets off across this vaguely desert-themed fantasy world, fighting bad guys until he gets to the final boss.
It's the kind of plot that's as familiar as it is bizarre, almost to the point of cliché, but Gentry and Conley really do something great with it. Even the bits that would be boring or eye-roll inducing in other books -- like, say, the entire wife-gets-kidnapped plot -- are working on solid ground here. It's just so weird and fun, and energetic that it all really works.
It's the energy that really does it, I think. Conley's style has this exaggerated, hyper-detailed look to it where the action is less about trying to capture motion from panel to panel and more like blindsiding the reader with it, to the point where it almost feels like you blinked and missed a crucial half second where things were happening.
And that's before you get to the hallucination sequences.
That might sound bad, and in a few spots, it is. The biggest flaw in Conley's art is that it can get downright confusing in spots, and I think most of that is down to the fact that it's all in black and white. The grey tones tend to blend into each other pretty easily when things get crowded, and considering that Swordsman ends up fighting tentacled horrors and running through the undergrowth, it happens enough that it's pretty noticeable. If the whole thing had the coloring job seen on the color (also by Conley), there's no doubt in my mind that it'd be as easy to get through as, say, Officer Downe, where Chris Burnham uses a similarly hyper-detailed style. Here, though, there are fight scenes where you really have to stare at it to make things out, and while it's nice to slow down and appreciate the time that went into making the comic, it does pull you out of the story for a while.
That said, I actually think there are pages where that adds to the comic rather than detracting from it. It's clear by page six that this is a world where even the people who live here aren't entirely sure what exactly is going on, so using an art style that throws the reader off-kilter is pretty appropriate. I'm not sure whether it's the right choice, and how much of it is down to the book not being in color, but it doesn't entirely tank things, either.
There's another consideration in all this, too. Before it hits as a hardcover this November, Dark Horse is serializing Sabertooth Swordsman as a weekly digital comic -- the third "issue" is available right now at Dark Horse's digital storefront for 99 cents an issue. That means that there's a crisp, high-res version of the pages that you can zoom into to get a better look at all the detail as you read, and that's going to help a lot when you get to pages like this:
Then again, while I was hoping the printed version would be a little oversized to make the most of those pages, it looks like it's coming out at the standard size. That probably won't be a problem -- Dark Horse generally does a pretty solid job on that front.
Either way, Conley's art is gorgeous, and he brings exactly the right style of frenetic energy to a script that has... well, a saber-toothed tiger-man being German Suplexed on his way to fight a mastodon that attacks him with a gigantic abacus. He handles everything that Gentry throws at him, and makes the most of every single opportunity in the script.
For his part, Gentry pulls one of my favorite tricks of having the characters in this weird fantasy land just talking to each other like normal people. That, even more than the weird monsters, endless streams of henchmen and constant upgrades -- which are themselves one of the better recurring gags I've seen in a while -- underlines the Mario Bros. connection for me. It's exactly what I imagine those characters would be like on those adventures, and it works perfectly. Plus, it makes me think that there'll probably be an even weirder sequel where the Swordsman goes into a dream-world and bonks someone on the noggin with a turnip. I would not at all be surprised if they were already working on that.
Sabertooth Swordsman is currently running weekly through July 10, and at six bucks to get the whole thing, it's more than worth it. If, however, you prefer the hardcover, that'll be out in November for $17.99, with pinups by the likes of Mike Allred, Brandon Graham, and more. There are a lot of comics out there that try to get the feeling of video games down onto the page, and very, very few of them ever manage to do it this well.