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Spy Seal Volume One: The Corten-Steel Phoenix
posted March 7, 2018


imageCreator: Rich Tommaso
Publishing Information: Image, softcover, 96 pages, full-color, January 2018, $12.99.
Ordering Numbers: 9781534304796 (ISBN13); 1534304797 (ISBN10); NOV170686 (Previews)

I wanted to write a quick word or two in favor of Rich Tommaso's dive into spy stories by way of funny animal comics and the clear-line approach of Hergé and his successors. It's an inspired series of choices. Tommaso's best comics are about feel and design-as-fate; his not-best tend to overpower their genre origins with over-complex plotting combined with a kind of elbow-to-the-ribs deconstruction. I love the look of Rich's last decade's worth of comics, and their feel, but even reading them all in multiple formats as I've done I couldn't tell you from memory much about any of their stories.

That's not a problem with Spy Seal, the story of a young spy's first major adventure in some sort of mid-century secret service after falling backwards into a life of intrigue. Tommaso engages with layers of genre so worn, and a visual approach so specific, that dissecting a narrative may not make the top ten of readers' things to do. Instead, our attention shifts to the a barrage of clever set pieces, the story's alway-amiable pacing, and a sumptuous visual feel. Using animal characters forces Tommaso into conveying their personalities and their connections with the rest of the cast via staging and the depiction of physical relationships one to another. This is a great place to start when you're working with vignettes that depend on broad visual comedy, and a great place from which to depart when you have animal characters that aren't even close to the same size, or that possess some shorthand version of an animal-world skill (most memorably flying).

My conception of Tommaso is that he's ambitious in terms of working a variety of approaches that he thinks will bring an audience to him in the way that he'd like to see them come over to his side of things. It may be that his best strategy for an audience that matches his skill comes from an approach that flatters the cartoonist and relieves those readers of the burden of consuming the artwork like a game to be won. These comics are as fun to read as they are to stare at, and I hope that delicate balance holds in future volumes.