Writer: Sam Sarker
Artist: Garrie Gastonny (of Imaginary Friends Studios)
Colorists: Imaginary Friends Studios
Publisher: Radical Comics
Updating a legend is a difficult task – creating a proper tone for the story you want to tell is hard enough, but finding a balanced perspective on a centuries-old tale, one that takes into account a modern look at the legend with the qualities that made it important in the first place, is something that only the best writers manage to accomplish. Most fall into one-note portrayals defined by their fawning reverence or dismissive satire. This is exactly the precarious situation that Caliber finds itself in.
An update of the classic Arthurian legend in the American West, Caliber is a deeply ambitious work. Not only is it faced with the frustration of finding common ground between two incredibly different kinds of mythology, but writer Sam Sarkar also charges himself with the duty of realism when he attempts to ground the book in the post-reservation age of the Old West; much of the book is about the collision of interest that occurs when different tribes are shuffled off to the same plot of land together, and about their attempts to deal with American authority. While this might be a turnoff to some readers, it feels like Sarkar’s recognition that all myths were ultimately political in some fashion, even if that facet of their meaning naturally erodes when they become bigger than their era. This division between myth and political reality, however, is still a lot to take on, and although the issue allows a great deal of space for the kind of exposition necessary to set all of this up, it still feels as though it’s filling up space to get to the point everyone’s waiting for – as the book ends, our King Arthur avatar, Arthur Pendergon (and it’s that kind of cleverness in naming that shows how easily translatable some of the myth is) is a young man with a recently slain father who hasn’t yet received the enchanted revolver that stands in for the Excalibur sword here. In fact, the issue is primarily centered on two major strands of plot: Merlin cypher Jean Michel’s thwarted attempts to find a bearer for the gun, and the increasing tensions between corrupt landowners and soldiers and the displaced Native American tribes. For a five issue series, there’s still an incredible amount of ground to cover, and it leads me to wonder how far into the legend Sarkar will go with his tale.
The easy one-to-one correspondence of a lot of the material here feels somewhat obvious if you’ve got any kind of background in the Arthurian myth (and if you’re growing up in an English-speaking country, it’s hard not to), but much of the book, particularly its evocation of Native American mysticism and large-scope moments like the ill-fated attempt to use the Caliber revolver by Arthur’s father, works on the kind of elemental level that justifies the tactic. There’s a deep reverence and scrupulous attention to atmosphere in the book that, depending on your perception, will win you over or distance you through its earnestness, much of which is seen through Garrie Gastonny’s art, which is lovingly painted and meticulously crafted. It certainly fits the tone of the book, but its painstaking nature feels overbearing at times – eyes are constantly shadowed by hatbrims; foreboding, eerie clouds or violently red sunsets are attached to exactly the scenes one would expect; fiery, supernatural rituals are commonplace. Ultimately, none of these are poor aesthetic choices, but there’s such a thing as too much perfection, and the book does indulge in too much gravitas – sometimes it’s the subtle but precise details that make a scene crescendo, particularly if they’re surprising or dissonant.
With so much of the tale left to unfold, I’m still left wondering why Sarkar chose the Old West as a context for the Arthurian legend, aside from the nerd-debate cool of enchanted revolvers and mysticism on the frontier (and don’t get me wrong, all of that is supremely cool). If the original Arthur legend strove for an ideal model of English royalty, a model informed by religious piety, national fidelity, and just leadership, what remains intact when it’s transplanted to an American frontier climate that lends itself more to stark, sometimes violent individuality and personal freedom? The Arthur tale was about uniting Britain, while this book sets up a corrupt West marked by the oppression and systematic destruction of Native American culture, and it’s curious to see where Sarkar will go with his Arthur – will he save the tribes from the corruption of the law and the landowners and create a unified, peaceful frontier? Doesn’t this concept of unity conflict with the reasons Americans began to settle in the West in the first place? The most promising thing about this book is the possibility that Sarkar will find a way to make the Arthur figure relevant amidst the complexity of American history, and for a book with a dollar price tag, it’s worth seeing if he’ll accomplish this.