Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Jeff Smith
Publisher: Cartoon Books
Price: $3.99 US
Jeff Smith is a member of select club of comics creators who have worked almost exclusive for themselves, who focus their efforts on creator-owned properties and have managed to find great success with work they’ve written and illustrated themselves. Smith, with his epic Bone, has already carved out a spot of honor for himself in the history of the medium alongside such stalwart talents as Dave Sim, Terry Moore and more. But fortunately for those of us who appreciate his craft. I also appreciate the breadth of genres and material he’s opted to explore over his career. I’m pleased (but not surprised) to report Tüki boasts the same sense of wonder and humor that made Smith’s landmark Bone such a success. Tüki stands apart from the original runs of its older siblings in that it’s being presented in full color, and it’s a wise choice. The format for this comic is also a noteworthy difference. Tüki offers just about everything Smith’s fans love about his storytelling, but it still finds ways to do it in new ways. Hopefully, its release on the same day that this year’s Comic Con International opens in San Diego will ensure it’s not overlooked by a wider audience.
A lone warrior makes his way across a pre-historic African landscape, eager to find something to tame his rumbling belly, but opportunities are denied him by outside forces. The clever, resourceful nomad draws the attention of an evolutionary predecessor, who also happens to be something of a shaman. Bridging a language barrier, the elder demands to know the warrior’s secrets, his plans and what exactly makes him so damn special. It’s not long before he discovers one of the things that makes him unique is his drive to protect others despite his solitary existence.
The real visual star of this book is the landscape Smith is crafting for the hero to traverse. It’s lush and lovely, and he offers a variety of backdrops. Expansive fields, dense jungle, craggy mountains… Smith manages to convey an untouched quality that the prehistoric setting demands. And the colors are at their strongest when they’re adding texture and vibrance to the plentiful vegetation and natural beauty of the book. Just as captivating for the same reasons are Smith’s depictions of the animal life. The sabretooth’s focused stalking through the pasture is mesmerizing, and I love how it looks like it’s swimming through a lake as it silently approaches its prey.
Smith’s design for his hero is striking. I like the elongated look. Tüki’s clearly strong and sinewy, but he doesn’t look like a hulking super-hero figure. He’s expressive, but not nearly as expressive as the goofy yet mysterious shaman/Homo Habilus who sees greatness in the hungry warrior. He offers a good deal of the comic relief, and I love how Smith contorts his face to achieve that effect.
I hadn’t read much about this title before purchasing (I didn’t need to — it’s a Jeff Smith comic), so I was taken aback when I opened the comic and discovered it was presented in a landscape format rather than the traditional horizontal approach. I really don’t care for the format. Cradling a comic book in one hand as I turn the pages from right to left is easier and feels more natural. Flipping pages from the bottom to the top is counter-intuitive, and I find I have to set the comic on a table and read it that way instead of holding it in my hand. Now, the landscape format serves this story well, give the expansive nature of the backdrops, but I wish it had been stapled/side-stitched to allow for a more traditional page-turning experience. It’s a minor gripe, I admit, but it was definitely a distraction from my reading experience.
Smith makes some interesting choices when it comes to speech and culture with this unusual world. With a story populated by pre-historic man and his close relatives, one might expect a more basic approach to communication and cognition. But these characters are thoroughly relatable, and Smith employs a modern speech tone through which to depict their dialogue. I also love how he takes us inside Tüki’s mind, demonstrating how observant and clever he can be when it comes to his efforts to survive. That intelligence comes on the heels of an opening comedic scene in which Tüki bumbles, losing a saved piece of sustenance, and the two aspects make for a nice balance that makes the character even more likeable.
The promotional information for this comic book says the protagonist is destined to “be the first human being to leave Africa.” There’s little in this opening script to suggest that’s where the story is headed. Instead, the plot here seems to mainly be about the fact that this man, who lives alone and tries only to provide for himself, is at heart a thoroughly good, caring person. He could easily just look out for himself, embrace that only the strong survive. But there’s more to him than instinct and self-preservation. According to solicitation information, he’ll be driven by adventure and a yearning to discover something beyond the world he knows. But for now, I like that his journey is just about acting like he’s a part of a community even though he’s not. 9/10
Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.