Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another week of The No-Fly Zone—where we prefer quirk over capes and explore the many reaches of comicdom. Here, we leave the shared superhero universes of DC, Marvel, Top Cow, and WildStorm to the guys at Comicscape. At The No-Fly Zone, we touch on just about everything else the medium has to offer. From the smallest black and white independent comics to the big names like Hellblazer, if it doesn’t have superheroes we’re on top of it. But, when we avoid superheroes, it doesn’t mean any and all heroes, as in the case of this week’s column, Caliber: First Canon of Justice, by writer Sam Sarkar and artist Garrie Gastonny. Publisher Radical Comics already received Diamond’s Gem Award for Best New Publisher of the Year. And, no less than John Woo has already expressed interest in directing a cinematic adaptation. Caliber stands as a relatively unique work, being both a Western and a fantasy story—two oft-unexplored genres in comics. More than that, it recasts the beginning of the Arthurian legend in the Pacific Northwest, just after the Civil War, in what could be the first of many stories.
In the town of Telacoma, Oregon, young Arthur Pendergon is the son of an Army captain. Arthur watches as the town’s sheriff and a railroad baron named Leary rule the town with little regard for the law. The two are more interested in ensuring that a railroad running through the town is completed, even if it means starting a war with the remaining Nez Perce Indians living on a nearby reservation. One of the Nez Perce steps into Merlin’s role as Whitefeather—a half-French, half-Indian shaman who holds a sacred weapon called Caliber. The weapon only works for the man who would be the Lawbringer—a chosen one who will bring the rule of justice and law in its purest form to the land. Whitefeather believes it to be Captain Pendergon. But, when the weapon fails to work during the initial clash with the Nez Perce, Whitefeather reclaims it, realizing that Pendergon was not destined to be the Lawbringer. Years later, the grown Arthur returns with his uncle Hector and his cousin Kay to reclaim his father’s old land, since taken by Lear using imminent domain. The railroad has transformed the town into a bustling business center, with Lear firmly in control. He also belongs to a cult of Cossacks that do his bidding. What Cossacks are doing in the Pacific Northwest is anyone’s guess, but just roll with it. Arthur’s childhood friend Gwen works as a prostitute at a saloon. Whitefeather continues his search for the Lawbringer by allowing children to try firing Caliber at a carnival table. At a shooting contest, Kay prevails, only to be killed by a jealous Cossack. Arthur grabs Caliber and kills the man, revealing himself as the Lawbringer to Whitefeather. The two men flee Telacoma as fugitives. Arthur must mount a rebellion against Leary’s forces to free the town and rule it with the force of the true law.
Writer Sam Sarkar pulls from many different versions of the Arthurian legend, creating an entirely new one for American audiences. In an interview in the back of the collected edition, he explains how the American West serves as a rich mythological backdrop for a country much younger than England. As such, Sarkar’s narrative emphasizes the law as a godlike concept, rather than emphasizing ruling in the service of a god—fitting for a country with no state religion, and a fairly clever evolution of the story. The easy route would have been to just rewrite a selection of Arthurian lore with a bunch of renamed characters set in the Old West. And, while Caliber resorts to that sort of novelty on occasion, it more often updates the values and ideas inherent in Arthurian stories for an American audience.
Sarkar also departs from the legends enough to make the story worthy in its own right, and not just a clever retelling in a new setting. Lancelot appears as Lance Lake—a bounty hunter with a compassionate streak who tries to take Arthur back to Leary. Unlike any popular version of the legend—though maybe Sarkar knows of one—Lake is trailed by ghosts that only he can see. They talk continually, sometimes guiding him but mostly discouraging and taunting him. Treating Guinevere as a prostitute rather than the daughter of a Western King Leodegrance—another Army officer, perhaps—is a pretty bold move, as well. It brings Sarkar’s greatest achievement in Caliber to light—to Americanize the story not just in its time and place, but in its spirit. The story exchanges the nobility of Camelot and its attendant glory for a street-level, populist rebellion fronted by outcasts—a fugitive son of an honest Army officer, a half-Indian shaman, a bounty hunter, a prostitute, and a ragtag band that would see the rule of law trump the greed of men. Too often, stories like this fall prey to a simple reconfiguring that does little but restage the original for modern audiences—like Othello set at a prep school, when the writers have done nothing but update the names. The best instances, however, not only retell a beloved story, but comment upon the original and apply its lessons to modern times. Caliber succeeds on those fronts.
It would be a grave disservice to this graphic novel to ignore the fantastic art by Garrie Gastonny, with coloring by Imaginary Friends Studio. Caliber is never less than gorgeous. It’s almost too pretty for its Western setting. Imaginary Friends provided the digital paints, but it looks indistinguishable from the real thing. Working together, Gastonny and Imaginary bring the snow dusted world of the Pacific Northwest to life, showing both world-weariness in its characters and an ethereal grace befitting the fantasy setting. The art is, frankly, almost flawless. It would make the book worth a purchase, even if the writing weren’t as good as it is.
Caliber was published by Radical last year in five issues, but it has been collected as a hardcover graphic novel, available now. Grab it before the movie comes out. Read it and eagerly await the sequels, because this is just the beginning.