Selm makes a daring choice to seize power and defeat her own helplessness. But there’s always a cost, and “Broken Bear” chronicles her journey toward that grim realization.
Story: Frankee White
Art & Letters: Adam Markiewicz
Publisher: Caliber Comics
“Broken Bear” opens with Selm, a young squire to a famous and feared warrior, making a bargain with a swamp witch to gain power at a terrible price. White and Markiewicz plunge us into the action in just a few pages, and Selm’s choice echoes through the rest of the book. We’ll come to see her not as the stalwart she wants to be, but as a confused young girl whose heroic example might’ve not been the best in terms of valor or life choices.
White and Markiewicz do a lot of good world-building in this first volume. We quickly realize that this fantasy realm has a bit more in common with Conan than Lord of the Rings – there are mercenaries, corrupt warlords, errant traders and big ol’ monsters in this world, and they all contribute to a slightly muted take on the sword and sorcery genre. Selm’s world is grim, but that grimness is necessary. We’re meant to take her quest and the danger around her seriously, and the stakes need to be high for her errors and blunders. She’s impetuous, headstrong and just a little goofy, and her heart’s not quite yet in the right place. She’s flawed, and compelling as a result. The dialogue and narration can wander into exposition at times, but White pulls back a bit when necessary and lets Markiewicz’s art do the work.
The jail cell scene stands out a bit, however. It’s paced well and placed where we’d expect it in the story, but The Bear’s dialogue is too bald and straightforward to roll well with the weirdness White and Markiewicz craft thus far. Dialing back the dialogue here and amping up some mystery or ambiguity would serve that scene well, and also lend credence to The Bear as a legend and a threat. Riddles are a trope, but they’re an excellent one when used well. Playing around a bit more with the esoteric here could amplify the gulf Selm felt between herself and her master and justify her initial choice to usurp his power.
Markiewicz has a good command of physical action and favors a lot of larger panels to help establish the landscape and the creatures of the world. The swamp is crowded with slender trees and oppressive muck, and Markiewicz utilizes the page turn to reveal Selm’s first conflict with style and flair. Markiewicz does the architecture of the market, the arena and Balzac’s tower with the kind of sweeping grandeur we want out of a fantasy book, and each creature is distinct and sports just a few defining physical details to edge us toward the fantastic. Of special note here are Balzac’s guards: their stony height and weird, elongated limbs are unique and function well as both a threat and, later, a bit of heartbreak. Markiewicz employs a somewhat loose line, and that sketchiness can break down a bit in medium to wide panels, but it’s a good choice for the book’s style and is pretty consistent throughout.
A.H.G. balances Markiewicz’s panache with a more muted color palette than we’d expect out of a book like this, and it works. Single-color backgrounds are effective for action pops, but the wild pinks, blues and exotic hues of the marketplace feel just a bit worn and washed out, as if the magic’s gone out of Selm’s world. It’s tonally appropriate, as she’s chasing a legend and a version of herself she’s not quite sure she can reach, and the overall choice to go a bit dark keeps the book from bordering too hard on bombast when it counts.
Markiewicz chooses a minimal font that feels a bit too clean at times, but it works and it’s readable. Fantasy books often venture too far into ornate, scrolling text, and it can be a strain. Going simple is wise. The balloons are a bit rounder than they need to be, but there’s minimal padding and they read pretty well. Finally, the sound effects are bouncy and bold without going too cartoonish, though a scratchier line on some of them would blend better with the art. Overall, the lettering doesn’t stand out in a negative way, and that’s a far greater accomplishment than many realize.
“Broken Bear” leaves us with one hell of a cliffhanger that promises more limb-hacking goodness ahead, as well as a chance for Selm to continue her adventures and, possibly, learn from her mistakes. White and Markiewicz do a great job of portraying Selm as impulsive and none-too-kind, and her actions clearly have consequences. Just how monumental those consequences might be remains to be seen.
The Verdict: 7.5/10 – “Broken Bear” is an entertaining and non-standard take on a fantastical heroine’s journey, with good art, colors and letters to back it up.