December 15, 2011

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Single Minded: Sanctuary 1-4

Sanctuary Issues 1-4
Written by Stephen Coughlin
Illustrated by Stephen Coughlin
SLG

A group of seemingly innocent (if a bit sarcastic) talking animals live in a unique sanctuary where a set of scientists appear to be studying rare creatures.  But things quickly turn ugly as a new arrival is found brutally murdered.  Who committed the deed?  Why are secrets being kept from both the animals and the scientists?  Where do the spiders fit in to all this?  And just who runs this place, anyway?  It's quickly very easy to see that this place is anything but...Sanctuary.

I have to admit that my initial reaction to Sanctuary as I read the first few pages was not very positive.  It really starts out as a standard talking animal book, and I'm just not a big fan of those.  I was especially worried when the characters started acting like stereotypes of the kinds of talking animals we've seen so much of in both movies and comics.  However, when we get to the final page, with its reveal of the murdered panda (shown on the cover, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything), I immediately stood up and took notice.  By the time we get through issue two, where the mystery deepens, the characters take on additional complexities, and its clear that this is going to be a dark story with horror elements that go into the darkest places possible, I was happy that I had started reading the series.

I think the giraffe sequence in issue two is what I really got me.  As she describes falls and mortally wounding a smaller animal, the exacting description of the experience, lacking completely in compassion, is eerie and terrifying.  Once I read that set piece, I knew this was a series I was going to like.

Issue three gives us a bit more on the Sanctuary itself and shows clearly that all is not as it seems.  There's trouble brewing among the humans, while the Tiger and his cub try to solve the mystery of the dead panda.  Just as it seems like an answer is to be found, it's time for the Spiders to make their play.  In an incredibly creepy sequence, especially if you have any fear of spiders whatsoever, there's a desperate fight that takes us to issue four.  With no pun intended, by the time a reader is caught in the web of the plot.

We just got issue four, and I could not wait to read it. It picks up from the cliffhanger of issue three and deals with the aftermath of the battle between the Tiger and the Spiders.  There's plotting and scheming going on all over, with careful references and allusions that take the reader on further twists and turns.  By the end of the issue, I have no idea what's going to happen next.  (As if to underscore that point, we end with two scenes involving cliffs, which I thought was a nice visual touch by Coughlin.)

I'm a big fan of mystery stories with a touch of horror, and Sanctuary fits that bill perfectly.  After a rough opening, Coughlin winds the reader through many twists and turns, possible leads (or dead-ends), and opens up new questions just about every time he gives out a clue.  Like any good mystery story, the reader is left guessing, time and time again.  There are so many hints left out there for the reader, this story could go in any number of directions and still make sense based on what we've seen so far, which I think is incredibly cool.

My biggest concern on this one, however, is that while the overall story is really cool, the issues themselves don't read all that well on their own.  While issue one feels like a complete story within a story, the following issue cuts off abruptly.  Issue three is a good place to break, with the Tiger's fateful decision, but the end line for issue four doesn't hold up as well on its own as it should.  I really like Sanctuary and I'm definitely going to keep reading, but anyone coming into the series should be aware that this might read better as a group rather than from issue to issue.

I haven't spoken much about Coughlin's art as of yet, other than some of the staging comments above.  His linework reminds me a lot of the type of thing you might find in a book aimed at a young adult, with character designs that are not far removed from a modern Cartoon Network offering.  Everyone has very expressive features, including the animals, and there is a lot of movement going on in every page.  It definitely clashes with the story itself, as these slightly exaggerated characters move around in comic fashion yet deal with very deadly subjects and themes.  Surprisingly, I actually like how that plays out on the page.  Coughlin seems to get it just right, with the exception of the bulk of the first issue.

Sanctuary is like walking into a children's movie and finding Hitchcock actually directed it.  I'm a big fan after reading the first four issues, and I think you will be, too.  It's got a few flaws reading issue by issue, but not enough to keep you away from it.  You can find it on Slave Labor Graphics' website in a variety of formats, depending on your preference.  Check it out--the first issue is even free.