Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: The Deep: Here Be Dragons!

With its much-anticipated sequel looming on the horizon, I had the pleasure of catching up on the beloved graphic novel The Deep: Here be Dragons, thanks to our good friends at Gestalt Comics (based right here in Western Australia). Written by the award-winning Tom Taylor with stunning and expressive art by James Brouwer, it is a light-hearted all-ages romp beneath the ocean’s depths.

To plumb the depths even further, join me after the jump!

The Deep centres around the Nektons, a family of deep sea explorers with a requisite taste for adventure. Consisting of a husband, wife, son and daughter, the style and dynamic most brings to mind Pixar’s The Incredibles, although The Deep still manages to be its own unique beast and certainly does not feel derivative in any sort of distracting way. 

In fact the art style is the real highlight for me. Brouwer has a wonderful command of gesture and expression, bringing these four very distinct characters to vivid life. There's so much energy to his work and he seems to delight in exploiting every reaction and over-reaction. The family is instantly likeable, and intensely passionate about their work and it’s quite effective to see the way in which their vibrancy contrasts against their inky underwater world.

I like characters that care about things. I like characters with clearly defined goals. For me, the Nektons have the kind of commitment to their research that Indiana Jones has for archeology. You fully believe that they will do anything to find it and everything to preserve it. They have a respect for their environment and its creatures but it’s a credit to writer Tom Taylor that it never feels preachy or forced. They also have a deep respect and love for each other which is felt without having to be said. The banter and rivalry between the two siblings, Ant and Fontaine, feels very natural.

This particular story is about how patriarch William’s obsession with an old map leads to a hunt for a legendary sea serpent. This results in a series of short encounters and discoveries that raise as many questions as they answer. The introduction of well-realised secondary characters, such as the over-the-top TV reporter and the mysterious old sea dog, hint at a larger world and a sense of established history. Not everyone has their big action scene - I couldn’t help but notice that mum and dad spend a lot of time sitting in the dry safety of the sub while their children repeatedly face deadly perils outside - but we at least get a strong sense of the way in which the family unit works.

The heroic moment towards the end is sign-posted early (it’s one of the few bits of foreshadowing in the entire book) but it is still surprisingly effective (and beautifully drawn). I think even hardened cynics will smile at that one.

If you, like many before you, have bemoaned the current state of comics and how little is out there which can be enjoyed by adults, but is still accessible to children, then I’m happy to report that The Deep fills that void. It is all-ages in the purest sense, which is to say that it is not specifically aimed at children but should easily appeal to them and engage them, and yet it is still a solid enough story to please most optimistic adults. I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase it for child/teenager and I consider it a welcome alternative to the often condescending, or crassly commercial fare that is often targeted at younger readers. I think that, above all, The Deep has integrity, a quality that I always expect to find in Gestalt’s work.

But do I have any reservations? Let’s dive a tiny bit deeper...

Even a cursory glance at Tom Taylor’s long list of credentials show that he’s a force to be reckoned with and has enjoyed huge success. But there’s a nagging part of me that feels like perhaps this was a little too easy for a writer of Tom's experience. Like, he’s done just enough to make a really, really good book, but not pushed himself hard enough into unexplored territory to make a truly great book. It’s enjoyable from cover to cover, but never quite grips me into needing to know what happens next, and the stakes are never quite high enough to make me gasp.

That may seem a little harsh, but I wanted to feel that burning passion of a story that was stuck in his head and just had to be shared. Instead I felt like it was more of a calm, “Yep, I know how to do this, I’ve got this, and here it is.” It’s ridiculous for me to try to mind-read Tom, but that’s the best way I can describe the feeling that I had when reading this book. Is it full of charm, humour and adventure? Absolutely is it. But there’s still room to be even more charming, more humorous, and more adventurous in my opinion.

I’m reminded of an interview I read with a prolific writer of mainstream animated television. He pointed out that the most successful, and frequently employed/sought after writers were not those with the wild, crazy ideas that took lots of risks. They weren’t the ones who wanted to shake things up or change the world. The successful writers were those who were consistent, dependable, and could deliver that broad, crowd-pleasing story again and again and again. I have no doubt that Tom Taylor has nailed that part. He crafts a solid story with instantly likeable characters and hits all the appropriate beats, in the right order. But now I really want to see what happens when Tom Taylor cuts loose. Really loose. I look forward to reading that adventure.

That said, let’s not forget that this is the first book, primarily tasked with setting up the characters and their world, and Tom has created an incredibly robust foundation on which to build upon in further stories. And it's certainly a crowd-pleaser. The more I think back to my reading experience, the more fondness I feel for the project as a whole. You can't help but like The Deep. It's the sort of book that radiates good will.

Now the hard part is done, I look forward to seeing the team truly unleash these characters and explore their relationships and adventures on a grander scale. Everything has to start somewhere and this is a really good start. And I'm sure the sequel will be even better! I would definitely recommend this book , especially if you have someone younger you can share it with.

You can pick it up directly from the Gestalt Comics site, or Amazon, or ask your local retailer. And you can find out more detailed information about the story and characters at Exploring the Deep.

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