Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Artist: Kagan McLeod
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: April 22, 2015
Since the beginning of oral storytelling, adventure and exploration have engaged storytellers and readers alike. Humanity has thrived on accounts of traveling to lands distant and unknown, charting strange terrains and learning about undiscovered cultures. Through these journeys, we not only discover the foreign worlds outside our periphery, but we also discover ourselves: what connects us to other peoples and species on a deeper, ethereal level, and what unites us as conscious beings nestled deep in the agar of life itself.
Or, in the case of Kaptara, not so much.
Described by series creator Chip Zdarsky as “gay Saga” (a reference to Image’s acclaimed sci-fi epic by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan), Kaptara #1 introduces us to the doomed crew of the Kanga, a star-faring vessel sucked into a deep space anomaly only to crash on the planet the titular planet. A strange world with weird, semi-medieval elements and futurisms seemingly at home in a lost Final Fantasy map, Kaptara is a world full of wondrous fauna, mysterious flora and a kingdom ruled by a queen with no ear for sarcasm. And as we quickly learn, our focus this debut issue isn’t so much centered around seeing what sites this new kingdom has to offer, but rather around what protagonist Keith Kanga can gain simply from being a stranger in a strange land.
Kaptara exists as a sort of anti-Flash Gordon, the famous ‘30s pulp hero who ventured to distant worlds armed with a sword and very short shorts. Where Flash represented our societal desire to explore the unknown and seek out adventure in the 20th Century, Keith is the adventurer of the 21st Century—someone with an interest in new worlds, sure, but only in terms of what it means for him personally. Keith is not the kind of man seemingly interested in pushing our overall culture forward, especially not when there’s unknown pleasures to be had or shade to be thrown. Through this lens, he offers a satirical reflection on our own cultural tendency to ask questions based on “what can this do for me?” Keith may have greatness thrust upon him here, but he doesn’t quite rise to the occasion.
With that in mind, Kaptara owes much to the sarcastic voice offered by Zdarsky. Known in comics for his outlandish humor in Sex Criminals and Howard the Duck, Zdarsky utilizes a voice steeped more in cynicism than whimsical gags. This book still provokes laughter, but it’s more serious than it isn’t; Zdarsky writes Keith as the eternal outlier to a group of people ostensibly more suited for space travel and exploratory missions, and where others offer discernible skills and knowledge, Keith offers put downs and witticisms.
The drawback to this approach is that it leaves various elements of the issue underdeveloped. We certainly get a grasp of relevant themes central to the series, but it leaves those characters around Keith as mere caricatures as the spotlight never drifts far from his confusion or narcissism. That said, this storytelling does fit in with the overall “what about me?” theme of the issue. There’s a lot of ground to be covered, but it’ll be some time before see a payoff (hopefully just a month).
The true hero of this book is Kagan McLeod, however. His first major comics work since 2011’s Infinite Kung Fu, Kaptara shows how refined McLeod’s work has become. The artist brings the characters to life so vibrantly, emoting along a wide spectrum with distinct personalities readily apparent in their actions and body language alone. While the world building in this issue is very specific to plot-driven moments, McLeod still draws a beautiful planet unrecognizable from our own, washed in a neon color palette seemingly pulled straight out of the ‘80s. The design work and background flourishes McLeod adds (such as the barbarian Manton’s funny little helm) match well with Zdarsky’s tone, combining to create quite a visceral experience.
Kaptara is a funny and smart debut, one that’s strikingly layered in execution (with various flourishes more visible upon a second reading). Zdarsky and McLeod work well to create a mix of striking action and wry humor, and Kaptara represents a unique opportunity of growth for both creators to continue pushing past expectations.