Trying to sum up Kevin Cannon’s Far Arden in brief is a challenge on the order of the one that the characters face in their epic attempt to locate the titular fabled island. Cannon’s graphic novel is an adventure, a comedy, a mystery, and a tragedy. It’s the story of a crusty sea-dog named Army Shanks, an orphan named Alistair, two college students, and the femme fatale Shanks once loved. There are fox pelts, a polar bear, a ship named the Areopagitica, a circus, fears of global warming, a college on the Boothia peninsula, and a deadly MRI machine. There’s a politician, plainclothes Royal Canadian Arctic Navy officers, a circus strongman, a mad scientist, and a polar bear. Uniting these disparate elements is the search for Far Arden, said to be “an unending expanse of fruit trees, exotic flowers, and waterfalls” somewhere in the north Atlantic, the route to which is buried somewhere within Shanks’s memories or hidden on the Areopagitica, or both.
Far Arden had a somewhat unconventional beginning inspired by the well-known 24-hour-comic challenge: create 24 pages of a comic in a 24-hour period. In 2006, Kevin Cannon received a bigger challenge from a fellow cartoonist: create a graphic novel through twelve 24-hour comics—a 288-hour graphic novel, as it were. The result, which ultimately surpassed the original page and time parameters, was this book, originally posted in installments on Cannon’s web site and now collected in a single volume by Top Shelf.
The book’s earliest chapters often read as though Cannon made his story up as he went. The first chapter is characterized by the energy (probably caffeine-fueled) that many 24-hour comics possess, in which characters and settings are introduced willy-nilly, only to gain meaning as the creator figures out what to do with them. When Shanks lays out his plan at the end of the chapter, it’s almost as if Cannon is writing it down for his own benefit: “I’m going to do a lot of things. I’m going to avenge [Alistair’s] father’s death, find the Areopagitica, save Hafley, possibly rekindle a rocky love affair with Fortuna (but probably not), and fulfill my promise to find Far Arden, and meet up with my friend and mentor, Simon Arctavius.”
Cannon has said that after first four months of creating the chapters in 24-hour blocks, he decided to relax his pace; he wrote and drew at a rate where “each page [was] pretty much done in an hour, but not necessarily in these 24-hour chunks anymore.” The decision seems to have been right not just for his health but artistically as well. The quality of the artwork subtly improves: While his minimal style is consistent throughout, the lines and composition grow cleaner and more confident. Cannon’s narrative focus also improves, the characters gain depth and dimension, and the tone shifts from comic absurdity to melodrama, and the story ends with a surprisingly poignancy. Shanks accomplishes most of his goals, but not necessarily in the way he intended. There are unexpected casualties along the way, and even the promise of Far Arden itself isn’t quite what everyone thought it was. What begins as a slightly silly lark becomes an engaging, even haunting story about desire and loss.
Karin L. Kross is a writer based in Austin, Texas, and a former comics columnist for bookslut.com.