05 July 2006

REVIEW: Artesia Besieged #1

I started going through some #1s I've read recently last night, intending to write up another round of Quickee reviews, but it turned into a lovefest for the previously hyped Artesia as I was sucked back into the Known World and didn't want to leave!

As I noted a few weeks back, I picked up Artesia: Besieged #1 on a lark, having enjoyed several of the other titles Archaia Studio Press has recently released -- The Lone and Level Sands, Robotika and Mouse Guard -- and was totally captivated by it, so much so that I bought the first two TPBs, Artesia and Artesia Afield, over the following two weeks and quickly devoured both of them. Mark Smylie has constructed an impressive medieval world that deftly mixes high fantasy with sword and sorcery, and created one of the most compelling lead characters I've ever encountered in Artesia, a former concubine who becomes a respected war captain, feared priestess and, eventually, self-proclaimed Queen.

In this first installment of the Fourth Book of Dooms, aptly sub-titled "The Calm Before", Smylie does an excellent job of setting the stage for new readers without explaining every single detail of what's come before, instead offering just enough information to make it clear that there's a much larger world beyond the pages of this issue while placing the spotlight squarely on Artesia and her place in that world. Whether musing about the path that has found her leading an unstable army into war, strategizing plans for engaging in said war, or indulging in "distractions of the flesh", she is as three-dimensional a fictional character as has ever been presented in the genre, with or without pictures. The story itself sets a couple of intriguing subplots in motion, and ends with a twist that works thanks as much to its context as to Artesia's reaction to it.

As for the pictures, Smylie's painted artwork is some of the most beautiful I've ever come across in comics -- distinctive, atmospheric, and subtly detailed; the eye lingers on individual panels to soak in every nuance, while each page flows smoothly, carrying the story ever forward. The overall presentation is impressively artistic without sacrificing its narrative duties, and the overall tone is so refreshingly mature that he's able to pull off scenes of full-frontal nudity (male and female) and suprisingly graphic sexual situations without seeming gratuitous or exploitative. Set in the midst of a bloody war, the previous volumes have shown that Smylie doesn't shy away from graphic violence, either, fully earning its Mature Readers label.

It's no surprise that this series has spawned a well-received role playing game as anyone familiar with RPGs will immediately see the rich potential in the setting, as I daresay it rivals both Dungeons & Dragons' Forgotten Realms and Tolkien's Middle Earth. Fans of the fantasy genre will be well-served by this series, but even those who can appreciate character-driven stories featuring compelling characters, regardless of genre, will find themselves entranced by Artesia and, like myself, seeking out the previous three volumes of her story.

Artesia Besieged #1 (Archaia Studios Press, June 2006, $3.95); By Mark Smylie.

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