Rich Tommaso’s latest comic takes a silly premise and spins it into a surprisingly sincere spy caper, offering affectionate winks to Hergé along the way. Even for Image Comics, which bills itself as a company where any kind of story can find a home, Spy Seal stands out as an unlikely and quaintly-structured comic which feels different to anything else that its publisher produces -- even though it clearly walks in the sneakers of several comics before.
The premise is simple: we follow the lead character, an anthropomorphic seal, as he finds himself roped into a conspiracy to take down members of the British Government. But beyond the title and the whimsy which flies into the character design, the high concept doesn’t actually matter. Aside from a few rather subtle puns, the comic doesn’t have any interest in the inherent ridiculousness of avian artists, ravishing rabbits, and seal sleuths. The character designs are fun and create a distinctive look for the comic, but at heart this is a very simple and old-fashioned spy story with Tintin as its central influence.
As such, much of the enjoyment of this first issue comes from the choices in design and Tommaso’s pacing as an artist. He is very quickly able to paint a romantic version of London for the reader as an inviting cultural haven for the middle-class to indulge their interests and ambitions. The bright palette never raises beyond the strength of pastel colors, lighting up the streets of the city in the same way that Los Bros Hernandez brought the warmth of Mexico to the printed page. His pages are slow and deliberate, even through fight scenes and chase sequences -- all the better to drink in the sights of London’s artistic scene, and create atmosphere.
Tommaso’s sense of design stands separate to his sense of character, which is a little rougher. Throughout the issue he happily plays into stereotypical character stock, with a bevy of British characters who all tend to sound like the jolly spiffing sort of gentlemen you’d see inside a Biggins story. That classical sense of innocent spycraft -- everybody here is heavily mannered in the spirit of a John le Carré novel - makes for an enjoyable read whilst the comic keeps things breezy and light, but as a result does offer a slightly thin sense of character for the reader. In addition, there are times where the design actively upsets the comic.
One character, the femme fatale, speaks in broken English which is eventually revealed to be due to a Russian accent. However, the comic first presents this character without any background -- and as the character in question is a buck-toothed rabbit, the comic very clearly suggests to the reader that this character is playing out a full-blown Asian stereotype, breaking the flow of the story immediately as the reader has to contend with the suggestion that the comic is willingly introducing a racist conceit into the narrative. This doesn’t prove to be the case.... but that the comic doesn’t realize what it’s presenting to the reader is a troubling realization which suggests the artistic design and editorial narrative from Tommaso need to both show a little more awareness moving forward.
Really, the first issue of Spy Seal offers artistic command of the page and an engaging world, but struggles to fill that world with interesting or diverse characters. Much like the seal himself, whose simple, smart turtleneck is a clear homage to Tintin’s most identifiable outfit, this first evokes all the right inspirations, but doesn’t yet offer a clear guide as to how it stands apart from them.