Like it or not, we live in an age saturated by #1 issues. To the comic book outsider, that may sound like I’m talking about an epidemic of chronic urinary tract infections; and while I’m definitely not, there is arguably a comparison there about picking something up that could lead to a rather uncomfortable experience. See, with so many #1’s on the shelves these days, it stands to reason that, be it at your LCS or online, you may make a random, errant pull of what you believe to be a new title, only to find out later that it’s actually the second or third arc of a series that has been renumbered. I don’t need to tell you, that can be what the French call, “a real motherfucker.” Such was the case with myself and Four Eyes: Hearts of Fire #1.
Little did I know, after flipping through our review copy and laying claim to it in the Comic Bastards Bullpen, that this was indeed the follow-up to what has apparently been a Joe Kelly/Max Fiumara joint a long time in the making. Hearts of Fire is a continuation of the book’s first volume, Forged in Flames, originally published in the halcyon days of 2010.
And while I didn’t know that on my first reading of the issue, it’s a credit to the creative team that, while I was fairly turned around as regards plot, I wasn’t so completely lost that I didn’t enjoy the story. In fact, with its grotesquely stylized visual style, its incredibly engaging dialogue, and its solid narrative structure built around a batshit kooky, magical realism frame, I was immediately left to wonder where this book had been all my life.
Set between Depression-era Chicago and New York, Four Eyes tells the story of the ill-fated Savarese family, who, like everybody else in the United Sates at the time, have been negatively affected by the stock market crash. Where the Savareses’ story diverges somewhat is in the fact that its patriarch, Giacomo, was [SPOILER] burned to death while trying to steal the eggs of a fucking dragon. At a small beach in Queens, no less. So, not only is this a world fettered by historically-dire financial straits, it is also a place where dragons exist, are hunted and captured, and pitted against each other in underground dogfighting ring-esque tournaments.
The real meat of the story, however, is set about Giacomo’s son, Enrico, who, in trying to fill his father’s shoes as provider of his mother and himself, and protector of their “castle” (i.e., their tiny hovel of a family home), is taking up Giacomo’s mantle as a dragon trainer, under the tutelage of the old man’s former associate, Mr. Fawkes, and the secretly-peering eyes of his old (and very dubious) boss, Christoforo Boccioni. In this, the first issue since the series’ previously delay-belabored original run, we find Enrico secretly training his dragon, the titular Four Eyes, whose birth defect has made him blind, frail and all but worthless on the circuit; very much like Enrico, himself. This, of course, is a running theme in this pretty damn great book.
In Four Eyes, Kelly and Fiumara are telling a story about people who are well and truly out of their depth, shadowed by forces greater than themselves, be they personal tragedies, the race and/or economic politics of the time, or simply because of the fucking dragons. Here, we experience all of those hard edges at once, as Enrico is taken by Fawkes to one of the black-run underground dragon gladiator training facilities, where in every respect, brutal hardships snap like teeth at the atmosphere, leaving only Enrico hopeful that he will not be soured by a world of ruthlessly abusive taskmasters. In so doing, he hopes to do his family’s legacy right, and discover what, or indeed who, really killed his father.
In its face-value adventure story merged within the allegory of magical realism, Four Eyes is How to Train Your Dragon - meets - Pan’s Labyrinth, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s stunning in every respect. While Kelly sometimes (and mostly forgivably) falters with young Enrico’s overly-advanced manner of speech, the rest of his dialogue is nigh-on spotless in execution; heartfelt without being maudlin, horrifying without being cheap, and mysterious without being cliché or gimmicky.
I know I just compared it to two other movies, but in that collision, Four Eyes feels like something unique: a multi-layered coming-of-age story swallowed by multiple throats of time and fantasy. It is truly no wonder why, without an understanding of the book’s background, I was so flummoxed... and why I was so compelled to get caught-up.
Feeding that singularly impressive style is the artwork of Max Fiumara. Illustrating his forms as though they have been stretched and pinched, pulled and inflated, Fiumara does a frankly incredible job of carving the economic misfortune into the very fabric of his figure work. This is a slim and scant society, as ill-fitting in their clothes as they are within the strange, mythic situation in which they have found themselves, and which they desperately try to exploit for financial gain.
Just as fittingly, everything in this book looks like it has been blown from glass, be it in the lithe yet bulbous figures or the intricately-etched, gorgeously-detailed hew of the dragons, which stand out all the more for their grim and gruesome detail; an idea that is juxtaposed by their apparently non-hostile nature. Not being a regular visitor to the Mignolaverse, where he spends most of his time, I have not bumped into Fiumara often, but his work here, like the issue itself, makes me want to seek out everything else that came before it.
All-in, the parity of art and page narrative in Four Eyes: Hearts of Fire #1 is astonishingly well done, thanks not just to the seamless confluence of Kelly and Fiumara’s storytelling, but also to the efforts of letterer and designer, Thomas Mauer, who does a fantastic job at balancing the book’s pace. As I said earlier, it is a credit to this entire team that I could enjoy a later issue of something so steeped in previous story so much. And just as I had a great time plowing through Volume 1 to fill in its gaps, I look equally forward to seeing what its future issues will bring.
Four Eyes: Hearts of Fire #1 Writer: Joe Kelly Artist: Max Fiumara Leterer/Designer: Thomas Mauer Publisher: Image / Man of Action Cover Price: $2.99 Release Date: 1/6/16 Format: Miniseries; Print/Digital