Buzzed Books #79: Spy Seal: The Corten-Steel Phoenix

Buzzed Books #79 by Drew Barth

Rich Tommaso’s Spy Seal: The Corten-Steel Phoenix (Collects Issues 1-4)

Let’s talk about adventure comics. While DC Comics published their own, titled Adventure Comics in kind with Action and Detective, the realm of adventure comics as a genre is uniquely European. Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese, the various works of Jacques Tardi, and Hergé’s Tintin all typified what is considered a European adventure comic. From the high panel count, focus on onomatopoeia, and quick bursts of action that would fall back to let the rest of the story progress, these kinds of adventure comics became their own genre. And this is the pedigree that Rich Tommaso pulls from with Spy Seal. While the comparisons to Tintin are apt, Tommaso finds a niche in his unique blending of European adventure comic styles and American comic book action.

Spy Seal

Spy Seal is exactly what the title implies: a spy who is also a seal. Although this is not completely unique in the anthropomorphized world that Tommaso has created with various birds, rabbits, and Gila monsters roaming on two legs, it does help the audience in honing in on our main character even in the largest of crowd shots. We find our titular Spy Seal, Malcolm, unknowingly dropped into assassinations, intrigue, and art heists by the third page. From there, it’s constant movement around the world to confront the mystery of the Corten-Steel Phoenix. However, this is only a part of a larger mystery, a mystery that we’re not privy to just yet. But this serialization of mystery is something that adventure comics thrive on—while a portion of this case has been solved, there’s a few dozen more questions to be answered much later.

Tommaso is able to create a sense of legitimate dread and intrigue in a world exploding with colors and animals. Much like Tintin, he’s crafted a story and world that is very much appropriate for any age audience while maintaining a maturity in how the story is being told. Between chapters, we as an audience are left to infer what happened to get us from where we were previously to where we are now. This method of compressed storytelling on Tommaso’s part allows us to see what moments in Malcolm’s story are most relevant. We don’t need a training montage or an hours long train ride when we could have the mystery and intrigue immediately. The immediacy in Tommaso’s art brings us along for a ride from moment to moment, scene to scene, panel to panel. Malcolm is swept away in his story, and we’re swept away with him.

Adventure comics today occupy this weird little space in comics due to its classic past, and Spy Seal looks to disrupt that space gloriously. It isn’t completely beholden to European adventure comic traditions, nor is it imitating American comic bombast. Tommaso is one of the most interesting artists creating comic art right now because of how he blends what he’s learned about comics into distilled wonder. Spy Seal is adventure comics following an old path with new boots and you want to see what lies at the end.

Drew Barth

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.

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