Canto #1: A beacon of hope
This is the story of Canto, a “clockwork knight” who should not have either a name or a heart, and yet he possesses both.
He is the titular protagonist of the new miniseries from IDW, and already he’s one of the year’s best original creations. Truth be told, come the end of the year, Canto will likely make multiple appearances of “Best Of” lists, both here at Comics Now and at other outlets. Just one issue in, this is one of the most gripping and confident pieces of comics storytelling this year.
What struck me most about Canto is how balanced it is, particularly with its tone. It’s sweet and relatively innocent, yet it’s never cloying or twee. At the same time it’s exciting and even a little intense without resorting to gore or cynicism. Like the best “all ages” books, it can truly be appreciated by readers of all types. Children will like the whimsical main character, the charming clockwork knight with large, expressive eyes and an earnest, heroic resolve. Adults can appreciate that, too, while also getting engrossed in the refreshingly deep world-building and fable-like nature of the narrative.
Because, at its core, that’s what Canto is: a fairy tale. It’s the story of an unlikely hero who embarks on a dangerous journey to save someone he loves. Like having a name, this love is forbidden, as Canto and his fellow clockwork kin are expected to work and slave away for the sake of an oppressive regime. Things like individuality and feelings are not necessary for their work, so expressing even a hint of free-thinking results in severe punishment. That’s heavy, no doubt, and you certainly feel the plight that Canto’s people have to endure.
Yet, despite their plight, there is hope for change. A creature known as a malorex-- a ravenous beast with jagged tooth and pointed ears-- comes upon Canto’s people, who scurry in fear. However, one of Canto’s fellow knights assures everyone that this creature means no harm. He has heard the Elder speak of it, he says, and he decided long ago that their people are not food.
A foe has become a friend.
It’s a simple message, to be sure, but one that is always worth telling.
I mentioned balance earlier, and that applies to that characters as much as the story itself. Canto is an endearing character just by looking at him, and while he isn’t aggressive by any means, he isn’t nebbish or timid either. When someone he cares for is hurt, he knows he is the one who must embark on a measure to save her. He’s nervous, to be sure, and unsure of where the road will take him, but he isn’t so full of doubt that he is ineffectual. He cares for somebody, he knows the right thing to do, and he knows he’s the one who needs to do it.
For me, everything about Canto works. David Booher’s writing is compelling, drawing us into this fantasy world without letting us get lost. None of his lines are wasted, nor are we left wanting for context. Not to say you’ll leave this issue knowing everything about this world and the characters who inhabit it, of course. This is the first part of a multi-issue story, so that’s to be expected. Rather, Booher does what any good writer should do when bringing readers into a brand new world: he introduces us to a compelling group of characters, makes the protagonist relatable and likable, sets up the driving conflict, and immerses us in a fantastic world that we’ve never been to before.
His script is bolstered by the always excellent lettering of Deron Bennett, whose use of parchment-like narration boxes really sells the “fairy tale” aspect of the story. There are also two rather inspired pages that are brilliant in their simplicity: red and blue lettering to differentiate two characters in conversation, all against a spare, dark background with faint flecks of orange that evoke sparks and cinders from a forge. Like the story itself, it’s simple in concept and strong in execution.
I’ve already mentioned the strong character designs of Canto and his people, which artist Drew Zucker and colorist Vittorio Astone bring to vivid life, taking seemingly identical mechanical beings and imbuing them with personality. Canto’s story works largely because the clockwork people are pleasing to look at, capable of evoking sympathy, yet also capable of very human emotions. They love, they get angry, they sacrifice for each other, and you believe it because of Zucker and Astone’s work.
The story feels big, too, even though it focuses on such small people. Zucker utilizes some absolutely stunning splash pages that play with perspective, making the diminutive Canto and his people feel larger than the beasts that oppress them. Like Booher’s writing, the art draws you into this unknown world right from the start. It may not be familiar-- at least not yet-- but thanks to the companionship of Canto, it isn’t an entirely frightening place.
I loved this story, and I have a feeling that you will too. “A big tale of a small hero” is a common narrative device, and it’s used perfectly here. For Canto’s story is one of compassion, sacrifice, and heart, a shining beacon of hope in a world of darkness.