By Kevin Cannon
Published by Top Shelf Productions
There is a page at the beginning of a book that lists the ISBN number, a keyword list, and publishing information. This is a page that 99.9% of the time conveys absolutely no useful information to the casual reader. For some reason I inevitably end up reading down through the copyright information and date of publication and I wonder why I’m not just reading the first words of the actual story. But every great once in a while a book like Crater XV will come along and have a list of key words like “1. Nautical Fiction 2. Space Travel 3. Graphic Novels” and I don’t feel so silly reading all of those info pages.
Crater XV opens with a shot of a big bright moon hanging in the sky and the voice of a drunkard reading from a local paper. The article being read is chronicling the alleged wrong doings of a local hero turned recluse. There is a vague reference to some recent family tragedy and but the writer makes it clear that Army Shanks, for that is the local hero turned recluse’s name, is no longer welcome in the community and should “just GO AWAY.” The narrator and his buddy are actually on the way to Mr. Shank’s humble abode, very humble abode, to play a classic prank. The two pranksters place a parcel on Army’s doorstep, set the parcel ablaze, pound on the door and run like mad to the nearest snow bank. They don’t have to go far, did I mention this is the arctic. Army proves too clever for the pranksters however. Instead of stomping on the bag of flaming poo as expected Army plunges his hand into the burning bag and grabs a gob of goo and quickly fashions it into a stinky knife and cleverly, utilizing the arctic chill and general lack of heat, freezes the knife solid. Thus armed he chases the pranksters on to a chunk of floating ice on which the pranksters manage to make their getaway. Well I’m not sure I would necessarily call it a getaway as they are run down by a rouge Siberian tanker a few hours later. Meanwhile, back at the abandoned whaling station that Army has called home for the last year, Shanks comes across the newspaper the pranksters left behind in the their hasty exit. Reading the article Army gets the message that he’s not welcome anymore.
The story takes place on or around Devon Island and maybe or maybe not the moon, don’t want to give too much away here. I don’t know if Devon Island is real or not and I’m a little bit afraid to look it up. It’s Canadian and way up there, so far north that a girl from Newfoundland is described as being southern. Its waters are patrolled by RCAN, the Royal Canadian Arctic Navy, who do their patrolling in three masted sailing ships. Due to its extreme climate and terrain Devon Island has also hosted research stations for the short lived CASA, the Canadian Arctic Space Station, but that was over twenty years ago. Devon Island is administered by the Bureaucracy, a seemingly benign organization that manages the governance of Devon Island, but you have to doubt any entity that would actually call itself the Bureaucracy. At the moment Devon Island is hosting a conference of HAL, the High Arctic League. Representatives of its six member nations have gathered in Devon Island to discuss issues of international importance to the Arctic nations. Issues like the modified Siberian tanker that has showed up in Devon Island’s water and claims to be a launch platform for a rocket to the moon. The Bureaucracy assumes that the Siberian tanker, Lunayev is there to steal oil just off the shore of Devon Island, but due to a codicil of HAL’s charter if the Lunayev is indeed acting as a launch vehicle then none of the member nations of HAL can interfere. What the Bureaucracy needs is someone to infiltrate the Lunayev and get them evidence that the tanker is not about to launch a rocket to the moon but instead is just stealing their oil. Someone who they can claim with a straight face is not working for the Bureaucracy someone who has a history of giving RCAN the raspberry. Enter Army Shanks.
There are a few twists and a revelation or two that set the story on its ear. The book starts out quite funny and I often found myself laughing out loud. As the story progresses the humor gets swapped for a sweet melancholy that builds until the final page and I actually teared up a bit. Not that that means much, George Jones’ He Stopped Loving Her Today still makes me cry. There is a little bit of everything in Crater XV; polar bears, orphans, diminutive doctors, a handlebar moustache, crabby crabbers, an underutilized submersible, rockets, sloops, mutton chops and a monocle. The story is a big sloppy wonderful hairball that Cannon manages to weave into a heartfelt bittersweet ending.
The artwork is a cartoony style that I normally don’t care for but Cannon’s work is simple while still giving the characters a distinctive and consistent look throughout the book. What really brings the book to life though is the transparency of emotion and the clarity of motion that Cannon is able to pack into each panel. The artwork is simple and cartoony but that doesn’t keep a handful of panels form being achingly gorgeous. Top Shelf has put a lot of love into this book. The form factor is small, squarish, thick and surprisingly comfortable to hold. The cover and binding are top notch and the thick paper is a smooth ivory color. The ink is black without a hint of color. The lines are crisp and distinct with no visible feathering.
I can’t find anything that really bugs me about the art or the story. It always feels a little funny giving something a ten out of ten in a review but I can’t find any justification in not giving Crater XV full marks.