Location, location, location.
The maxim holds a surprising amount of truth; for property as much as for fiction.
And for good reason.
So much of creative literature depends so veritably on setting that it might be difficult to argue that location isn’t at the crux of much (if not all) of storytelling. Provided, that is, it is used effectively. Environments—imagined or otherwise—play a pivotal role in establishing a story structure and tone, but can—in expert hands—become almost characters in and of themselves.
Consider, for example, the weight of Daredevil’s mythos absent the bitter atmosphere of Hell’s Kitchen, or Darwyn Cooke’s masterful New Frontier minus the post-WWII and Cold War sensibility, or Frank Miller’s Sin City sans, well, Sin City. While there are a myriad of examples, it should come as no surprise to reflect that while the message may be in the medium, the message is certainly borne of the setting.
Along that same vein, the characterization of an environment or locale—at the peak of their effectiveness (and usefulness)—can serve as an operative foil for an actual character; a means to understand them or a lens through which readers can interpret the motivations or feelings of a character without heavy-handed, eye-rolling, exposition. Again consider for a moment how transparent Rick Deckard might appear without the dystopian sprawl and neo-noir decay in the future Los Angeles of Blade Runner or how undeserved the warranted sympathy might be for Vertigo’s acrophobic Scottie Ferguson without the dizzying rooftops and bell-towers of shadowy San Francisco.
To this effect then, location is the unspoken word on the page; the idea behind the idea and an invisible, encompassing thread that binds together any artfully-minded story—particularly in a medium as visually-dependent and visceral as comics and graphic literature.
Thus if setting is the key to the proverbial creative castle, Victor Santos’ action-adventure, web-turned-print, and Harvey Award-nominated comic, Polar: Came from the Cold successfully demonstrates that a thoughtful integration of location can perhaps even net the kingdom.
What started as a relatively straightforward online comic strip to exemplify Valencian writer-artist Victor Santos’ creative-output and an opportunity to experiment with graphic composition and artistic sensibility, Polar—as the first dozen pages so clearly suggest—quickly demonstrated that it was more than just a pastime for Santos, who—aside from contributing to a score of European comics and graphic literature–is no stranger to American comics, helming the final three volumes of Glass and Oeming’s Mice Templar as well as collaborating with Brian Azzarello with Vertigo’s Filthy Rich.
Described as his most personal work Santos’ Polar centres on one enigmatic, indomitable, and aging assassin dubbed Black Kaiser. Somewhere on the visual spectrum between Snake Plissken and John Hartigan, Kaiser is as much of a mystery as he is a legend. So much so that Came from the Cold opens with an assassination attempt on Kaiser courtesy of his former employers (a shadowy organization mentioned as Damocles) and served up against the black-and-white canvas of a snowy and mountainous valley.
What should strike readers almost immediately—and indeed what no description can accurately relate—is the commanding artistic presence that Santos evokes from the page right from the onset. There is stylistic mastery bound to the page that while managing to evoke the classic line work and negative space Frank Miller, still manages to be wholly independent and wildly fresh. Brilliant inking and stylistic colouring aside, this experience comes from two fronts: composition and the clever integration of the environment.
A prime example of this two-pronged approach is the opening hit on Kaiser and the ensuing fallout which plays out in sublime action over the course of some 45 pages—often without so much as an utterance on the page. This extended sequence manages to maintain the pulse of the action and progress of the plot thanks in large part to Santos’ prowess with delivering visual information with acuity, finesse and rhythmic ease. Indeed each page is reflection of a sensitive and conscientious approach to relay information with the balance of a firm tempo and panel work that all but cries out with its tempered punches of orange, that less is almost always certainly more.
This punctuated attempt at strategic storytelling is probably made all the more feverish through the provocative use of visual leniency borrowed from the white, snowy void that surrounds Kaiser and his malicious pursuers. The desolation and quiet sprawl of valley magnanimously juxtaposes the carnage that ensues, all the while only highlighting the frigid effectiveness with which Black Kaiser dismantles the operation sent to close him out and his pursuit of answers and revenge.
It’s telling work.
And certainly indicative of the uncanny ability and skill of an artist to bend a visual wonderland—all too malleable in the right hands—and transform it an integral part of not only the sequence, but the thematic and graphic elements the orbit the volume entire.
While the overall plot of Polar—notably heavily dependent on spy and action thriller tropes—may not necessarily make waves with some readers for novelty, given the comic book medium’s at times tedious propensity towards grit and neo-noir, it’s certainly no reason to shy away from Polar: Came from the Cold.
There’s more than meets the eye in Santos’ first volume; something that sits too well visually and thematically to be ignored or passed over; something that warrants inspection, and like the aptly-named Black Kaiser demands veneration, silent or otherwise; something sinister splattered against in the deceptive simplicity of its surroundings.
And it’s certainly chilling…
…in every sense of the word.
While Polar: Came from the Cold treads familiar narrative ground it's artistic and visual sensibility make it a worthy addition to the spy and noir genres.