Pulp and Dagger




Graphic Novel Review


 
 

Xenozoic Tales, Vol. 1:
After the End

2003 - available in soft cover

Written and Illustrated by Mark Schultz.

reprinting: Xenozoic Tales #1-6, plus a story from Death Rattle #8 - 1986-1988, originally published by Kitchen Sink

160 pages

Additional notes: intro by paleontologist Philip Currie; sketchbook.

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Cover price: $14.95 USA

Xenozoic Tales is set hundreds of years in the future, after one of those ill-defined apocalypses that arise in science fiction. The world is now comprised of human tribes, still living much as we do now -- with local governments, and people dressing in familiar styles -- but in the wreck of the ancient cities, with much of our current technology lost to them. Oh, and dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures roam the earth. And that's the gist of the series: people living with dinosaurs. But not the friendly dinos of, say, "Dinotopia", these are wild beasts, best avoided for the most part.

The protagonists are Jack "Cadillac" Tenrec, an iconoclast who ruffles the tribal government's feathers even as they often call upon him to save the day. He acts as a guide, policeman, and all around trouble shooter when he's not in his garage, retooling classic 20th Century cars. Jack is also something of a self-styled shaman, very much into an ecological, balance-of-nature philosophy. His chief foil is Hannah Dundee, an ambassador from another tribe, very much Jack's equal, and the two bicker so much, you can't help but assume, in true narrative tradition, that they'll eventually end up together.

Mark Schultz's well-regarded comic book series has risen again and again, not unlike the prehistoric creatures that people its pages. Originally published by the now-defunct Kitchen Sink Press, the original issues were later published as Cadillacs and Dinosaurs -- in colour -- by the since discontinued Epic line of comics (an imprint of Marvel Comics); Schultz also licensed it to the short-lived Topps Comics, to produce a series (also under the title Cadillacs and Dinosaurs) by other creators. Hmmm. There seems to be a pattern of mass extinction involving comics companies that publish the series. Dark Horse had better watch out, because it has recently released two TPBs collecting the complete original series in black and white. Along the way, the series also was turned into a network cartoon -- short-lived.

So why has a series that only produced a little over a dozen issues more than fifteen years ago enjoyed such periodic resurrections?

'Cause it's a lot of fun.

It's clear pretty early in this first of the two volumes that Schultz has a creative vision firmly in his mind. Xenozoic Tales is an unapologetic mix of old and new, of nostalgia and New Age. It's set centuries in the future, but characters dress in safari suits like out of a Jungle Jim comic strip and cruise around in classic 1950s cars. And what exactly is the scientific rationale behind dinosaurs walking the earth? If questions like that bother you, move on. But Schultz isn't just writing and drawing an adventure series...he's writing and drawing an adventure series that seems like the sort of thing we all would've read growing up, but never did. Schultz's art style even borrows from classic past masters like Wally Wood and a bit from Al Williamson (not to mention later talents like Berni Wrightson with his feathery inking). With the evocative illustrative style, Xenozoic Tales kind of seems like it might've been an old EC Comic. Rough n' ready, gruff Jack Tenrec is a pure 1950s hero, and ballsy Hannah is just the kind of foil you'd expect for him.

There's a hint of cartoony exaggeration early on (burly guys' shoulders seem a bit too broad, jaws a little too jutting) but that becomes less as Schultz refines his style. Throughout, Schultz, who was fairly new to comics at the time, shows a surprising eye for just telling the story with his images. The pictures can be striking, moody, artfully rendered, but above all, they serve the narrative, not the other way around. Perhaps also reflecting an EC influence, some of the stories are unnecessarily gory -- unnecessary in a series that is otherwise fairly family friendly, with little cussing or sexuality. Though, even then, the violence often feels more explicit than it really is -- a lot of black ink blood when a dinosaur attacks. And Schultz seems to move away from the violence as the stories progress, with the most, uh, gooiest story being the very first published (in a horror anthology called Death Rattle) though it's inserted in the middle of this collection.

Just as an aside, Schultz -- as a writer -- would later team up with venerable Al Williamson to produced an entertaining, two-issue Flash Gordon mini-series for Marvel Comics.

There is an unpretentious simplicity at times, which Schultz freely owns up to by the fact that some of the stories are only eight or ten pages long. Instead of stretching something out beyond its interest, he knows when to close the curtain on a particular idea. As such, Xenozoic Tales can subtly weave a panorama of this fanciful reality, with stories veering from man-against-man, to man-against-nature, to others that are more like dramas. When assembled together, these 12 stories benefit from each other. No one story is, perhaps, a stand out, but none are bad either. With no story expected to sink or swim on its own, the book becomes a fun read as you cruise from one enjoyable tale to another.

And just as you begin to become seduced by the intentionally old fashioned feel, the simplicity to some of the plots, you realize that there's a subtle sophistication lurking under the surface that probably wouldn't have been there in a real 1950s series. Though not given to brooding introspection, both Jack and Hannah begin to emerge as vividly realized, even believable, people, with foibles as well as virtues (albeit supporting characters are not as well defined). And the plots can evince a nice craftsmanship; the stories may not be especially complicated, but Schultz lets them unfold in a way that keeps you turning from page to page. There are also hints of an overall story arc, involving learning about the disaster which occurred centuries before, and a mysterious race of humanoid dinosaurs. But whether such threads ever paid off, I guess I'll have to read the next volume to see.

Perhaps most surprising is the series' increasingly explicit enviromentalism that lets you know that, beyond the "gee whiz" adventure, Schultz is trying to say something.

What sticks with you most about Xenozoic Tales is simply the milieu itself. Beautifully rendered by Schultz, even in black and white, the jungles are lush, the city craggy and gothic, the dinosaurs carefully rendered; the men are rugged, the women pretty. Perhaps reflecting its nostalgic roots, even when Schultz indulges in a little salacious cheesecake -- such as a sequence where Jack and Hannah go fishing, and Schultz presents Hannah in a few blatantly fetching poses -- she's still dressed rather demurely in a one-piece bathing suit. Oh, well, he can't get everything right!

Fantasy fiction is very much about escapism...and who of us hasn't fantasized about a world of prehistoric dinosaurs, where the concerns of our everyday lives are no longer relevant? Welcome to the Xenozoic era...you just might want to stay awhile.



 

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com



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