Here's a comic that was sent to me in .pdf form, because digital comics are the future, even if I cling to paper! Waaaaah!!!!
Stephen Coughlin was nice enough to send me the first four issues of his six-issue mini-series, Sanctuary, which is published by SLG as part of their "digital comics initiative" (yes, I know that sounds really, really important, but it's what SLG uses on their web site!). I assume they will put out a trade on actual paper once all six issues are available on-line, something that, you know, DC and Marvel ought to do. But this isn't about the vagaries of comic book publishing, it's a review! Each issue of Sanctuary is $0.99 on-line (yes, 99 cents) and is written and drawn by Coughlin, "colored" by Jordan Fong (I use quotation marks because the copies I read were gray-toned, but I don't know if the printed version - if it eventually exists - will be in color or not), and lettered by Jef Bambas.
Coughlin's story is about an animal sanctuary where, initially, all the animals speak to each other and we think, thanks to Coughlin's loose, cartoony style of art, that we're in a comedy. There's quite a bit of humor in the story, especially in the first issue, but then things take a dark turn when a new addition to the sanctuary, a panda, is murdered at the end of that first issue. We had already seen, earlier in the issue, that the people who run the sanctuary have some ... odd ideas about animal control (they've implanted exploding microchips in the animals' heads, so it's kind of like Suicide Squad), but we don't get a sense of the weirdness that's going on until later issues, when the panda's death leads to all kinds of revelations.
We also meet several of the principals, and Coughlin does a nice job giving them distinct personalities so that we can keep track of the large cast (it certainly helps that he usually sticks to only a few examples of each species, so if we see a gorilla, we can probably figure out who it is). There's the gorilla couple, the three giraffes forming a love triangle, the tiger and lion who are like brothers and whose kids discover the body, the curmudgeonly head doctor, his smitten assistant, the guilt-ridden doctor - like I said, there are a lot of characters, but I, for one, was never lost as to who was who.
The series begins to take some odd turns in the second issue. Dr. Renee, the head of the project, is working on a way to speak to animals and understand them, and he asks the male gorilla several questions about the murder, because there are several strange things about the death that he needs clarified. Dr. Renee claims he knows who killed the panda, but he still has questions about the event. Meanwhile, Michael, a subordinate doctor, is beginning to grow a conscience, and he tells the gorillas that there's going to be a change. The tiger takes his son, Ezra, to the medical building and explains that the humans were performing all sorts of experiments on the animals, and something has happened to the spiders to make them more dangerous. It's blatant foreshadowing, and in issues #3 and 4 the spiders show up and do some evil things. Finally, Coughlin keeps throwing twists at us, as there's a vast conspiracy, involving both humans and animals, and no! one! is! safe! It's all very exciting.
As plot-driven as this comic is, Coughlin does a really nice job with the characterization. The animals might talk, but they're not all that anthropomorphized, and it's a nice contrast to the humans in the story. Coughlin plays against type in some ways (there's a giraffe who's a bully, which is somewhat odd), but he handles it well. He gives his characters strong voices, so that even when they're expositioning, it still feels natural. When Michael turns against the project, he does it for a very personal reason, but it's more believable that way. Even the panda, who dies at the end of the first issue, is sketched out well - he's kind of a jerk, so we can understand why someone would want to kill him (although that's not the reason why he dies, of course). Ezra and Cleo, the lion cub, have a good relationship - contentious in some ways, but friendly at the core - which works because it feels like two youngsters trying to figure out how to relate to each other. Coughlin plays with our expectations a little bit, but no character ever feels so off that we can't accept what they're doing.
Coughlin's cartoonish style of art is quite good - he does a lot with the characters' faces, so even though they're a bit exaggerated, they're also very expressive. The animals often have human expressions, which is fine, because he's good at making sure they look like animals when they move. His work isn't sketchy by any means - there's quite a lot of good details - but the style helps make it look more kinetic. There's a good sense of movement in the action scenes, which heightens the tension and keeps us on the edge of our seats. Even when Coughlin indulges in some "action-movie" clichés - one character makes a sacrifice to save another - it still feels exciting because Coughlin's art helps overcome the trite plotting. Coughlin's script tends to stay away from clichés in general, but when they do crop up, his art helps the plot move past them nicely. There are a couple of glaring problems with the art - in issue #2, the scientists tranquilize the gorilla, and the way the scene is laid out is somewhat confusing, as the tranks just appear in his back and it doesn't appear they were shot from anywhere; and in issue #3, the scientists try to corral one of the giraffes, and the giraffe appears to be far larger than he should be. Coughlin could be indulging in some artistic license here, but I'm not sure why. It's a weird scene. Those are minor complaints, though, because Coughlin does a nice job creating the setting and giving us a lot of interesting characters, both animals and humans.
Sanctuary is an interesting comic, with the murder mystery and the conspiracy and the alliance between animals and humans and all sorts of betrayals and shifts in the story. Coughlin has a lot of characters and plot threads to juggle, but after four issues, he's doing a good job with it. I don't know if he's going to pull the whole thing together in the final two issues, but I'm very interested to read them to see if he can. If you're at all interested in Sanctuary, I will point you to the page where you can order them for digital consumption. Again, I have no clue if they will be available in print format, but you can take the chance and wait if you're old-school like I am. Still, 99 cents for each issue ... that ain't bad at all!