The cover of Kings and Canvas issue zero features a dragon/millipede/lobster harassing a boxer atop a windswept cliff. What lies within the book is a skewed fantasy vision where pugilists are exalted, wandering heroes. If I wrote a detailed description of the Kings and Canvas #0 and #1 here, I'd be doing a disservice to you and to the book. Suffice to say (for now) this is a strange series that plays it straight very well. Every line, written or drawn, etches mystery into the fictional world. Every color choice begs your eye to linger just a while longer. The book smartly alludes to a greater air of fantasy while building its own realm set in an unrecognizable, but comprehensible America. Strange idioms and dialects mesh and clash. Technology and magic share casual places in human life. It all works well enough to convince you the cover image is completely logical. Any zero issue has an uphill battle with its audience. Ostensibly the "zero" denotes an artificial jumping on point. It means this is where you learn the rules and tone of the series proper. At the same time the issue is presumed to be optional, providing new insight or clarification for an already running book. King and Canvas actually published zero before one, thus making the extra-long introduction most readers' first exposure to the comic's world. So, I suppose it is important for the sake of completeness. But it is crucial because of its quality.
In said zero issue we meet our protagonist, a very large and battle-weary prisoner called Mammoth. He's a complex, Conan-like figure, though he's no brute. Violence may be inherent to Mammoth's nature, but there's a keen philosopher's mind squirming in that ugly head of his. Issue zero has him spinning a yarn of a boxer’s great battle with a crafty lobster monster. And you easily get swept up in the tale. You feel whiplash when the comic interrupts its story-within-a-story to hit us with a dose of Mammoth's harsh reality. We learn about him and his personal outlook though the framing story as well as through the tale Mammoth tells his fellow inmates to pass time.
Issue one… is fine. It misses much of the whimsy of the previous story. Instead, Neil Kleid uses clever, self-aware dialog to expand Mammoth's personality and introduce a worthy foil. What's more, this issue shows our protagonist's physical limits, an important component to making him relatable. It succeeds in following directly from the events of issue zero, but does little else. As a first issue, it's a bit weak. Not much happens other than moving main characters into each other’s paths. It all goes by very quickly. And despite its charm, the story feels like a continuation rather than a significant story on its own. So, don't be fooled into thinking the two should be read out of order.
Naturally, Kings and Canvas has a lot of fighting. The exaggerated, nearly comical quality of Jake Allen's art makes each blow brutal without devolving into excessive gore. Delightful touches pull you into the narrative and render its characters with expressive line work, both subtle and dynamic. For instance, the way a malevolent dragon hangs casually from fingers of rock in between matches tells you so much about the arrogance its opponent will have to conquer. People’s faces contort into exaggerated, twisted grimaces and beaming grins. Bodies similarly curve and thrust with manic energy. The scenes of boxing elevate the sport into something mythical and glorious.
It is a shame these two issues couldn't be fused into one. However, I can't imagine what would be cut. Kleid writes with great efficiency as he escorts us through his world with confidence. One minute you're puzzled by the nature of boxing as a heroic endeavor. The next, you're swept up in the terrible grace of an expert fighter trying to win his dignity from sometimes unworthy foes. Every panel matters. Every word counts.
Like a skilled fighter, Kings and Canvas wastes no motion and it hit with nearly every punch.
Score: 4/5 and 3/5
Kings and Canvas #0 and #1 Writer: Neil Kleid Artist: Jake Allen Colorist: Frank Reynoso Publisher: Monkeybrain Comics Price: $0.99 Release Date: 8/12/15 and 11/4/15 Format: Ongoing; Digital