Habitable insouciance

I haven’t seen a great deal of James Stokoe’s work, but what I have seen has been right up my street. He contributed to Prophet, one of the most psychedelic recent SF comics, and he drew the cover for the first issue of Protector, a promising new series from Image which looks likely to find a similar readership. He has an intricate, hand-made style, with a lot of fine cross-hatching, but it’s also quite free and expressive; his figures are cartoonish, but not schematic. Sobek, a beautifully produced one-shot published by ShortBox, showcases his inks and colours in a self-scripted fantasy short.

It’s hard to say anything about such a short story without automatically dropping spoilers, but let’s keep it vague, and say that ‘be careful what you wish for’ might be taken as a theme. The setting is a vividly realised reinterpretation of ancient Egypt, in which the gods of mythology are gigantic physical beings, leading an apparently leisured existence on the banks of the Nile, served by armies of cultists. The eponymous crocodile god is a laconic, casual, chilled-out dude, prone to taking naps whenever he feels like it. In many ways this is quite a plausible account of the behaviour of this symbol of virility (he ‘who eats while he also mates’), a male so alpha that self-assertion is redundant.

Stokoe is an expert visual storyteller, whose page layouts are as graphically attractive as they are dynamic. Almost every page is dominated by an arresting background image, bled out to the trim, with other parts of the action in floating panels. Sometimes the bleed is scene-setting, sometimes it’s the most dramatic part of the action. Either way, it is always absolutely, unambiguously clear what is happening, and where. It can be difficult to combine such clarity and zest with a detailed, decorative style of drawing: some of Stokoe’s art reminds me of Bryan Talbot’s, whose best known work (Luther Arkwright, in particular) can have quite a static feel, but every panel and every page in Sobek is fluid and motile.

Almost as striking as the storytelling in this short comic is the world-building. Stokoe has a developed, three-dimensional sense of landscape, his characters always situated in and moving through it, rather than simply being drawn over the background it provides. As his concretely spatial scenes are also realised with the fine detail work I’ve mentioned already, there is a richness to his setting, which affords the reader’s imaginative presence. The world of Sobek seems an inhabitable one, for all its fantastical elements. It’s full of decorative and social details that don’t seem to care whether anyone is reading them or not.

The narrative is a humorous, and frankly pretty flippant one. The gods of ancient Egypt are given behaviours and personalities that seem plausible for powerful individuals of any stripe: they’re vain and ridiculous, and they lack empathy for those less powerful than themselves. The plot is a simple stinger with an insouciant moral, intended more as a joke than a lesson. This is not a moving or a poetic comic then, which has become something of a trademark for ShortBox, but it’s extremely entertaining, and it makes me even more keen than I already was to see James Stokoe handle the inks for a major work of speculative fiction.

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