From Dave Chisolm, acclaimed jazz musician and creator of “Instrumental,” comes a new tale of memory, loss, space and some very strange things in between.
Canopus features Dr. Helen Sterling marooned on a strange planet, with an even stranger creature in tow. Trouble is, she can’t remember who she is, and neither can Arther. She knows something’s terribly wrong, however, and issue #1 focuses on her journey to collect materials to help get her ship off the surface of this mysterious rock.
To say Chisolm’s spare is to do Canopus a disservice because Chisolm layers texture and background detail with great care to intensify the mystery and disconnection that’s key to pulling off this successful first issue.
Helen’s mired in what appears to be an alien blasted landscape. Things start to get a little weird when she stumbles across a strange robot creature who claims to be her child. But even weirder still when this minimalist vista begins to manifest things from her memory and subconscious. Chisolm keeps the nascent horror of Canopus crisp and measured with each additional manifestation. Both the art and layouts are impressive. Issue #1 features multiple sophisticated spreads with small, overlapping panels to create a confused mental landscape, as well as intrusive psychedelic horror in Helen’s reality.
Chisolm employs a controlled line with lots of careful shading in Helen and Arther’s face. One panel in particular sports this detailing exceptionally well: Helen’s eyes reflect the barrage of teeth clacking out of a canyon wall. Coupled with the linework around her eyes and nose, this adds a weathered quality. Without devolving into uncontrolled scribbling. Chisolm employs this detailing at various levels of intensity throughout the book. From the minimal crags and squiggles in the landscape, the gentle horizontal patterning on Arther and Helen’s faces and bodies, and the intense textures in close-ups.
Chisolm chooses an interesting colour palette that features a lot of soft, rosy gradients for the planet’s surface. Contrasted with more intense hues for Helen’s memory-scapes and flashbacks. There’s a constant, cold light beaming down on Arther and Helen as they travel, and Chisolm uses effective electric blues, hinted at above in the reflection on Helen’s helmet, for some of the action later on. The lettering features small, tight balloons and a wide, reedy font that feels just as tenuous as Helen’s grasp on her current situation.
Memory and Identity
Canopus is a bright star in the constellation that was once associated with Jason & the Argonauts. The star is named after a navigator who worked for Menelaus, the king of Sparta and spurned husband of Helen of Troy. There might be parallels here, and there might not, but Helen’s adrift and needs to find her way. On multiple levels.
Memory is a tricky thing. Chisolm’s aptitude for fracturing the lens gets at Helen’s trauma and the disruptive nature of human recall. There’s also time to breathe, as Chisolm shows us Helen’s journey through the serene – and often sinister – planet surface with large establishing panels and controlled background details. The spreads contain mirrored images to get at a solipsistic, fraught quality. As we dive into our past, we often retread and embed pain in our attempts to alter it. Chisolm establishes a visual rhythm that carries us seamlessly through impressive canyon walls, hallucinatory hellscapes and the depths of painful memories. “Canopus” also features the absurd associative quality of dreams and nightmares. The combination of these effects creates a story with a pulse.
As much as Canopus forces Helen, and by association the audience, to reckon with her memories. The book never does so without a grim sense of humour. A childhood object becomes a focal point for the first round of introspection and conflict. The object is at once touching and humorous as it inhabits the landscape in different ways. Similarly, Arther employs dream logic in a later scene to combat an encroaching threat. That moment is joyous and bewildering.
Helen’s memories aren’t just encroaching on her current reality – they also encroach on the page. The image above features an excellent small detail that characterizes Chisolm’s artful understanding of what comics can do. The inset fire panel functions as a visual break because of the colour palette shift. But the shaded gutter bleeding around the other three panels indicates both the emotional intensity of that flashback and, the possibility of the flames encompassing the entire page. As regimented and approachable as comics can be, the magic of the gutter means anything can happen at any time. While Chisolm doesn’t immediately unravel the structure he’s created, there’s a clear threat here to form as well as the content. All this from a bit of black around a panel!
Chisolm is making something very special and very personal in “Canopus”. The care with which memory is unspooled and crafted on the page pays off. This is the kind of book that we get from a single creator whose confident command of the comics page and its potential nets huge story benefits. Canopus balances its light and darkness with style but never goes slick. If this first issue is any indication, we’re in for a layered, heart-rending experience.
Canopus is available now via Scout Comics!
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