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Comic book readers have something that most other forms of literature do not have: the idea of continuity. The serial format of the medium has created a long standing set of histories that most writers of the larger companies must contend with. One cannot write a book in the DC universe without eventually mentioning Superman (or Batman, or the Justice League, etc.) so that the reader is made aware of the world in which the story resides. The only way out of this is for a writer or artist to create a book that exists outside the set continuity, one totally original in setting, time period, and place.

This isn’t something that can easily be done at the big companies, but smaller companies are usually more willing to give a creator free reign in their writing, and to an even greater degree when a creator has concocted his own company for his creation, which seems to be a trend these days. Such is the case with Mark Smylie’s fantasy Artesia from Archaia Studios Press, the current publishing home of the book since leaving Sirius Entertainment.

The world that Smylie has created is a dark one; the highlands of Dara-Dess are locked in struggle with surrounding principalities for control of the Northern territories. Leading the army in place of King Branimir of Huelt is his captain and concubine, Artesia, High Priestess of Yhera. A fierce warrior and respected leader, the stories of Artesia’s link to the spirit world and her ability to destroy her enemy have garnered her a reputation that far outshines her king. For this reason, Bran has turned against his lover, inviting clergy of other gods into his territory and working in secret to eliminate Artesia.

Artesia and her loyal guard are now faced with the advent of war within their homeland, as well as threats and rumors pouring in from the south of unrest in the distant empires. Artesia must now rely on the loyalty of her officers and the supernatural powers that infuse her with the ability to talk to gods, in order to survive the tides of bloody conflict that are to come.

Let me first say that this is, artistically, gorgeous. The artwork by Smylie is excellent. The detail perhaps is what best embodies his work, as every piece of armor and molding feels realistic, worn, and textured. Smylie has done his homework when it comes to the character designs, since the armor is actually drawn as if it were large plates of heavy leathers and metals bolted together, and not just a poor man’s excuse for drawn armor, which is what most comics that delve into the fantasy realms end up delivering.

In addition, Smylie appears to mix several styles and time periods together when it comes to designing his characters; there are obvious European influences in the style of dress and armor, but also some vaguely Eastern and Mid-East nuances at play, which helps to create the atmosphere of a completely fictional world. Artesia and some of her officers all appear to be from the Mid-East, with coffee colored skin and curled hair. That makes part of the reason that Artesia, whether clothed for battle or lacking in the clothed department, appears fiercely beautiful, almost handsome, as drawn by Smylie. Also of interest are some of the celestial entities he designs: the gorgonae, and many forms of Yhera are visually interesting and possessed of an otherworldly nature that separates them from the rest of the characters, which the scripts defty calls for.

His art style, which is rather unique, does suffer from a bit of tendency toward facial sameness. Each character has almost the same rigid and flat nose, male or female, but Artesia, the only real protagonist of the piece, is usually identifiable. The beautiful coloring on this book also helps to define this fantasy realm. Smylie’s palette is subdued and pale, usually employing shading of colors to highlight different scenes: wispy grays and whites and blues for scenes involving the supernatural, and pale citrine for scenes of war.

All of the very good artwork aside, I’ve found textbooks on particle physics that were more reader friendly than Artesia. Smylie falls into the trap that many fantasy writers, from comics and books, fall into and that is overwriting the world they’re creating. Smylie clearly spent a large amount of time in building the world his character inhabits, but he’s let the “world” overpower his story.

He throws names at the reader almost constantly, whether naming locations that the reader cannot possibly know (Uthmark, the Academy at Therapoli, Empire Thessid-Gola, etc.) or when referencing the very extensive, very dense cosmology he has created with a pantheon of gods that numbers twenty-six, each god or goddess possessed of a very specific realm of duties and sacraments. There are three aspects of Yhera, several forms of the Gorgonae, various familial relationships between the different gods. All the while, these differences and histories are not given to the reader in the story, but in a section in the back of the collection that lists all the cosmological figures. It’s nice that the creator included this little tidbit for the reader, but these are the kind of things that should be made apparent in the story. Instead, Smylie just drops names and references left and right to his fictional pantheon, offering the reader no real hint as to what the meaning behind such a name drop could be. He does similar things with the history of the world, making mention of “the Dragon Kings,” “Worm Kings,” and “Lion Emperor,” but giving the reader the barest idea what these titles imply historically or presently to the characters in the work.

It’s abundantly clear that Smylie spent plenty of time concocting his fantasy realm, but he’s like a dungeon master or game designer who, after coming up with a very intricate story setting, forgot to include the story. The only character that we get even the barest glimpse of is Artesia. The rest of the characters are faces in the crowd that blend together and mean little to the overall story. We never get a hint of any character’s personality or any depth beyond the topical “soldier” or “king” or “concubine” designations. The gods of the book are visually distinctive, but it’s near impossible to understand them without the section in the back, and even then it’s an uphill battle.

I was so very disappointed in this graphic novel, not just for the lack of story and almost boring pace, but I’d come into reading it expecting a semi-historical tale more akin to Age of Bronze than Lord of the Rings. For $24.95, I expect more than invented history and cosmology barely strung together by bad plotting. The artwork remains beautiful. I just wish the writing matched it.


Robert Sparling

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