When I picked up Spy Seal #1 for review, I was expecting some light-hearted antics about a slippery secret agent seal. What I got from Rich Tommaso’s book was the start of a surprisingly heady spy story. Honestly, that’s a bit of a let down, but what’s actually between the covers is an okay read.
The book opens with the titular hero of the story, Malcolm Warner, and his artist friend attending an art show at a gallery. A performance art piece turns out to be an assassination attempt, and after a brief chase, Malcolm is left with questions about how the the assassins and a mysterious, buxom bunny he met at the gallery are connected. By the end of the book, he’s embroiled in some conspiracy, and has been recruited by MI6 to be a secret agent.
If this sounds like some kind of James Bond story, you’re half right. It has some of the trappings and relatively straightforward plot of typical spy stories: attractive women, mysterious bad guys, a cultured hero. I think where it diverges, though, is some of the very heavy political overtones. Right on the first page, Malcolm and his artist friend Syl are discussing the oppressed lower class and class warfare. Not exactly what I was expecting. Later in the book, Malcolm discusses with the buxom bunny, Angora, freedom and the nature of governmental oppression. By that point I wasn’t surprised, but the long, wordy sequences slowed the pacing of the story. They provide some insight into the characters and the larger world, but perhaps those topics could have been better integrated into the flow of the story.
I suppose that as much as I wanted some seal silliness, having the anthropomorphic seal be cultured, refined, and political is pretty subversive, which is admirable. On the other hand, Tommaso doesn’t really play up any of the animal qualities of his characters. If the bird characters aren’t going to use their wings, or the dog cop doesn’t use his nose, then what is the point of making the characters animals in the first place? Sure, there is a bit of humor in the basic premise, but he neither mines the concept for humor nor plot points. It leaves me wondering why he didn’t just make everyone a human. Hopefully, in future installments, these elements are played up more.
I had one very specific issue with one of his characters, Angora the rabbit. She is supposed to be Russian, but the look of the character, with buck teeth and narrow eyes, and her choppy English dialogue, reminded me of 1960s stereotypical Asian characters. I was pretty offended. It wasn’t until a little more than halfway through the book, when she and Malcolm have their political talk, that it is revealed that she is Russian. With the one stereotype in my head, it was hard to see the character as anything but that. Probably not what Tommaso intended, but it really took me out of the story for a while.
Tommaso’s art gives the book a European-ish feel, to go along with the British setting, largely due to the thin line work and totally flat coloring. It gives the issue a unique look on American shelves, but doesn’t do a whole lot to get me excited. Inside, there isn’t a ton of action, but what action there is, primarily a rooftop chase scene, is well executed, at times silhouetting the characters against the night sky. Other than that solid chase scene, there isn’t too much in terms of interesting artistic choices. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when there are dozens of books on the shelves that take more artistic risks, it is hard to recommend this book based on the art.
Despite the silliness of the title, Spy Seal #1 is the start of what looks like a relatively straightforward spy story. Some issues with characterization and pacing bogged the issue down for me, and the uninspired art doesn’t provide many stimulating visuals. It isn’t a bad comic per se, and maybe I just couldn’t shake my expectations, but this one is tough to recommend.