SABERTOOTH SWORDSMAN AND THE MAYHEM OF THE MALEVOLENT MASTODON MATHEMATICIAN is, well, you really should be able to tell by the title. Written by Damon Gentry and drawn by Aaron Conley, SABERTOOTH SWORDSMAN actually began as a radically different short strip (which is free to read online) before being reworked into a short digital-first Dark Horse serial, and then bound. SABERTOOTH tells the story of a man who visits Sasquatch Mountain and is transformed by the cloud god into a bad ass, sword-wielding sabertooth tiger. The new and improved Sabertooth Swordsman uses his powers to track down the evil Mastodon Mathematician who has taken Joleen—Sabertooth Swordsman’s wife—hostage and is using her for mathematical/biological/magical experiments
The plot itself is pretty simple–Sabertooth Swordsman wants to find his wife so he goes and tries to find his wife—but Sabertooth gets into a little bit of trouble along the way, including eating hallucinogenic meat, almost becoming someone’s dinner, and a bar fight, so there’s a lot of stuff here, narratively, to entertain the reader. But the real hook isn’t really the plot; it’s the world, the characters, all the weirdness—and that’s before word one about the aces Aaron Conley art.
Gentry’s writing is stark and pretty stripped down—all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies are expressed through setting, character, dialogue—and there’s never any self-satisfied attempts to be overly clever. The writing is pretty solid here, with a firm grasp of character and drama, without losing an ounce of its humor. There’s not a lot of complexity the narrative, but it doesn’t need it. It’s funny, accessible, unique; all the characters are provided just enough focus to be worth reading about; the drama is rooted firmly in well-drawn action sequences. There are more than a couple genuinely funny jokes, both in the background and the foreground, which is always noteworthy because of how difficult it is to pull off humor in any medium where the audience controls timing.
But the humor of the book is really dependent on artist Aaron Conley to nail it, which, fortunately, he does. Conley’s got a great sense of facial expression, which goes a long way to driving home and punching up really small moments. His ability to say with slight alterations to Sabertooth Swordsman’s eyes or eyebrows is great. And I was really struck by the aesthetic that Conley was able to produce.
His linework reminds me of a dozen artists at once, with the flowing, casual, wavy inks reminding me of Craig Thompson, and the rendering reminding me of a mix between R. Crumb and Geof Darrow. Typography was incorporated in a way that’s very reminiscent of SCOTT PILGRIM, and a lot of the page layouts during fight sequences were clearly influenced by shonen manga like DRAGON BALL, NARUTO, or ONE PIECE. At one point, Conley produces a monster with little facial details that reminded me of some of Michael DeForge’s creature designs for ADVENTURE TIME. This is all a testament to Conley, being able to conjure up elements of so many different artists and styles and still be able to create an aesthetic and a texture that’s unique and manages to stand out.
And that’s all Conley’s panel work. His use of the “collage” (the single image created by the whole of the page) is really nice, with some panel transitions and page layouts that are incorporated into jokes like Akira Toriyama circa-DR. SLUMP used to do so well. There’s some next-level transitional stuff in here that puts a lot of better known artists to shame, and adds depth to moments that, in the wrong hands, could’ve easily fallen flat.
And staying on that art tip, the book features some sick, what it calls “Alternate Universe,” pin-ups by Mike Allred, Brandon Graham, Dilraj Mann, and a couple others. They’re all really fantastic, with each artist bringing their unique look to the characters, and they complement the larger narrative well, if subtlety.
SABERTOOTH SWORDSMAN is a fun book, a genuinely funny book, and an incredibly good-looking book. Even the front cover, which is masterfully colored by Dave Stewart, is striking and bold, with one of the best logos in recent years. The whole thing coalesces into a dope reading experience, one that I think is only achievable in the comics medium.
Comics Alliance writer Chris Sims (whom I am a big fan of), on the other hand, has a pull-quote on the back about SABERTOOTH SWORDSMAN being a comic which does a great job of approximating the experiencing a video game, but I think that actually sort of demeans the quality of the book. Sure, there are a lot of sight-gags and some typography that recall video games, and the epic quest of the story, and the RPG/level up/boss fight narrative architecture is there, but the quality of SABERTOOTH SWORDSMAN lies within the uniqueness of its writing and linework. The singular qualities that Gentry and Conley bring to play are the high points of a reading experience that could in no way be improved by giving the audience control of the characters. It’s the unique voice and authoritative tone in which it speaks that make SABERTOOTH SWORDSMAN stand head-and-shoulders above other books on the shelf.
So I agree with what I believe Sims is trying to say—SABERTOOTH SWORDSMAN is clearly influenced by video games and incorporates those influences better than some other unnamed works—but I agree with the actual letter of his statement, which kind of reads like he’s saying video games are a better medium (something I don’t think he believes).
In addition to the comic expertise he brings to This Is Infamous, Shea Hennum has worked in two comics stores (One of the oldest in the country--Lone Star Comics--and the biggest chain in North Texas--Collected) and has contributed to the Comics Alternative blog and podcast, as well as Comical Musings and Bleeding Cool. He reads a disgusting amount of comics and writes fiction, which can be found at a number of places online and in print.
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