XenozoicA column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Danny Djeljosevic, Jason Sacks
Jason Sacks: If you were to ask me what would make up the perfect comic book, it would likely have everything that this book has. I like books with exciting adventure, strong yet beautiful women, heroic yet flawed heroes, some politics and palace intrigues. And dinosaurs. Oh yeah, dinosaurs. Please give me a good stegosaurus or pterodactyls, please, Mr. Comic Creator! Oh, and if you can include some gorgeous art in the book, that will make things absolutely perfect for me.
And look at that, Danny, Mark Schultz gave me exactly what I wanted!
Danny Djeljosevic: My first exposure to Schultz's comics actually comes from Cadillacs & Dinosaurs -- one of the many indie comics that became cartoons in the 1990s because networks and animation studios wanted some of that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles money. Being a small child at the time, I remember absolutely nothing about it -- except, y'know, the Cadillacs and the dinosaurs -- but as an adult I am no less intrigued by pulpy adventures with dinosaurs in them. It's a good thing that we have Xenozoic, a nearly 350-page collection of Mark Schultz dinosaur comics!
Jason: There's so much to love in this book. I love how you can look at virtually any page from about Page 100 on and just marvel at the level of craftsmanship that Schultz brings to his work. The cities and settings look absolutely gorgeous. In the post-apocalyptic world that Schultz creates, everything has an amazing patina of mystery and strangeness, like a distant memory of a strange dream.
Danny: Schultz pretty much owns his world from Page 1 with his textured, lurid, Bernie-Wrightson-meets-EC-Comics linework, but after a couple of years/a hundred pages/several stories he really starts hitting his stride as a draftsman and storyteller -- especially as he starts handling the art solo instead of relying on some Steve Stiles' wonky inks that often turn Schultz's figures into lumpy TV animation art. By the later stories in the early '90s, Schultz's style developed to Brian Bolland levels of perfect-lined hyperrealism as his writing became more complex and ambitious, while still retaining that sense of post-historic adventure.
Jason: The story "Two Cities" is a perfect example of that beauty, high adventure, dreamlike strangeness and two-fisted action. That story brings us amazing dinosaurs, awesome cars, some romance, a band of pirates, the mysterious city of Wassoon, several exotic creatures, amazing battle planning and then a breathtaking battle. It's a packed and breathless 20 pages, gorgeously drawn and with tremendous continuity to the main series, but also a thoroughly satisfying story in its own right.
Best of all, this story fits perfectly inside the world that Schultz creates inside this book. The world after ecological collapse is an amazing and often terrifying world, but also a world that Schultz has thoroughly thought out. We get the sense all throughout of how complex and interesting his world is. There are political intrigues and internecine battles, assassination threats and screaming mobs ready for battle.
Danny: Even before that, you can tell Schultz's interests in doing Xenozoic Tales (as it was titled in infrequently released single issue form) were maturing. Four years prior to "Two Cities" is 1988's "The Growing Pool," a surprisingly high-concept meditation on science experiments and apocalypse where a living goop called "archeoplasm" causes a mini-ecosystem to form in a nearby lake. Then there's one of my favorites, "In the Dreamtime," wherein our heroes Jack Tenrec and Hannah Dundee accidentally inhale some poisonous gas that give them some pseudo-arty hallucinations. It's like getting to the expansive, weird parts of the Beatles' catalogue, but with dinosaurs and hunting rifles. All of this growth leads to the later stories in Xenozoic, which bring some ambitious political intrigue to the high genre antics.
Jason: But there are also stories of pure adventure, often with unexpected conclusions. The early story "Xenozoic!" has a devastatingly dark and eerie conclusion that reads like a classic '50s horror story. At the conclusion of "Benefactor," a nasty man meets a very bitter end in a wonderfully horrible manner. "Green Air," the story of man's first flight after the apocalypse, has an ending that's both charming and sad, while the wonderful "Foundling" has a subtle ending that proves to be very important in the book.
Danny: Most of those stories are (very fun) early adventures, which show off Mark Schultz doing whole lot of worldbuilding in the background, introducing and developing themes that would allow him to eventually to start forming what was setting up to be a pretty epic tale in the later stories.
Jason: At the center of it all are several vivid characters. I love the supporting characters, like the engineer Mustapha Cairo, whose plans are always in question, and the beautiful and horrible Governor Dahlgren, who is a master politician and manipulator.
Danny: We can't forget the flora and fauna of Xenozoic, which not only allows Schultz to draw some seriously sick dinosaurs and beautifully wild vegetation, but also forms the basic theme of the comic as nature struggles with humankind and hardly anyone is safe as society struggles to survive in a world not exactly meant for humans anymore. And Schultz's knack for drawing dinosaurs is only surpassed by Bill Watterson -- especially as his style develops in later chapters.
Jason: But this book is really all about a man and a woman: Jack Tenrec and Hannah Dundee. You'd be hard pressed to find two more complex and fascinating characters in fantasy literature. Jack is a two-fisted man of action who loves to restore old classic cars into amazing devices for the future. He's also a man who has visions visited upon him and who is firmly and deeply committed to doing everything he possibly can do to prevent the cataclysm from hitting the Earth again. He also has a hard chin, fantastic hair and awesome muscles, so he obviously attracts a lot of attention from the women in the book. Most importantly, by the end of the series Jack becomes a bit of a political pawn in the power struggles of the post-apocalyptic world, becoming the linchpin for some shocking events.
Danny: He's the quintessential barrel-chested pulp hero, and his clear worldview makes for some compelling stories, especially as it's at odds with the people running the show. As society's expanding and developing, he just sees the same legendary cataclysm that created the world of Xenozoic happening again somewhere down the line. It's a potent metaphor for real-world ecological issues, but it's (thankfully) never didactic.
Jason: Hannah Dundee is thoroughly Jack's equal. She's a politician always playing the game at several levels deeper than her peers. But she's also a woman of many other talents. She's a historian risking her life to find precious lost books. She's a fighter who's good with a gun. She can fish and hunt with the best of them. She's absolutely gorgeous, and seems to get more gorgeous as the book goes on and Schultz builds his skills. Oh, and my favorite part of Hannah is that she's impulsive. She makes the wrong decisions and at one point persuades Jack to destroy one of his precious cars just for fun. She's an amazing action female who stands out from most women in fantasy literature.
Danny: You can tell Schultz was getting better over the course of the series because Jack gets less ugly and Hannah becomes increasingly sexy. But despite how striking Hannah is -- and Schultz has an amazing ability to draw the eye toward her no matter what she's doing in a given panel -- she's a fully developed character, too. She's not only a foil for Jack or just a damsel in distress; she's fully capable on her own, especially as she spends more time with Jack in the wild.
Jason: The best part of this all is that the book works completely elegantly for me. There's a hell of a lot going on, but it all makes sense and builds internally. The story works in all directions because Schultz has a great grasp of story pacing. He will linger on important scenes and often deliver a page or two of wordless content. But he's also capable in the same story of delivering depths of story that are breathtaking and exciting.
Danny: As a student of the short comic story, Xenozoic is a master class in short-form storytelling. Nearly every story ranges between 10 and 20 pages and tells a complete little tale -- each entertaining on its own, but when put together, tells this episodic yet constantly growing meganarrative of a dinosaur-infested post-apocalyptic future. Too bad it doesn't end -- Xenozoic collects most of the Xenozoic Tales material (at least, the stuff Schultz both wrote and drew), and the final story in the book ends with the enticing promise of another story ("Next: The Low Road Home") but then there are no more story pages! You get the sense that Schultz never really got to the really big, epic story he was building to. Then again, it leaves a big, fat question mark on the fate of the world -- much like the one hanging over ours.
Jason: Yeah, I really loved this book. It’s an amazing lost gem from the 1980s, reproduced gorgeously and full of as much quality comic storytelling as you could ever want.
Danny: There's so much forgotten, quality stuff from the indie boom era, and the poppy, pulpy Xenozoic is a testament to that. Hopefully this is the start of some comics' missing links resurfacing.
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.