Originally transgressive fictional icons, professional killers have become aspirational. They work to clear targets, reap rich rewards, and have the recognition of an elite peer group, an enviable set of working conditions. In the post-Jobs For Life era, they prove that youthful mastery of a diverse skillset enables a lucrative early middle age, followed by a comfortable retirement. Whether acting on behalf of an agency, Mr & Mrs Smith style, or working alone, assassins seem to be living the twenty-first century dream, if somewhat amorally.
Sadly for them, our culture demands that such characters be kept from true contentment until their karmic overdraft is paid off. Yet when those who come to collect are so often competitors or former employers, rather than the justly aggrieved, kismet becomes tragedy. Punished by their own higher-ups, targeted assassins become glamorised reflections of the working man, facing down the corporations that treat workers as assets to be liquidated, risks to be managed. In this environment, professional virtuosity is no longer its own reward, revealed instead as a tragic flaw, a seedling of self-destruction.
Recognising this unjust reversal, our killer heroes are justified in tearing it all down, laying waste to the hoarded fruits of their labours. They live the revenge denied those betrayed by society’s rules, the unexpectedly redundant masses. And after that revenge? Well, live or die, they’re strung tight between two core tenets of the fictions they inhabit. Killers cannot be unmade, cannot ever live outside of Death’s shadow. And yet, having vanquished their would-be destroyers, who is more truly alive? This unresolved tension reverberates through the pages of Polar: Came from the Cold, embodied in the grizzled lead character.
Opening in a snowbound landscape (reminiscent of George Clooney flick The American, to whose butterfly motif it also pays homage) and referring to low temperatures twice in its title, a Cold War allusion seems immediately apparent. Black Kaiser (yes, that’s really our hero’s name) certainly dresses like a Cold War assassin, decked out in eye-patch and turtleneck, which offers genre-savvy readers an easy handle. Black Kaiser is an ideological warrior, untethered in a modernity whose ideology is money.
Creator Victor Santos locates the story in “our universe, but with a ’70s sense of fashion”, and reels off a stellar list of movies and comic book artists as inspiration, all classics of the existential noir school. These influences aren’t listed for show, either, as Santos rapidly deploys a succession of genre motifs; the secluded location, the honey trap, the hidden blade, and the ambush reversed. Familiar as these tropes are, Santos’s style is all his own.
Visually, there are two facile but relevant comparators in Frank Miller and Michael Avon Oeming (the latter of whom Santos has worked with on Mice Templar). Polar shares with Miller’s Sin City a love of high contrast, the inkiest of inks making for complex negative spaces, shadow grids (which, like Miller’s aren’t always entirely consistent), and scenic detail. Even Polar’s signature, and extremely effective, high note reds bring to mind Varley’s primary colour inflections from later Sin City tales. Santos is no Miller copycat though, sharing much more with the fluidity of Oeming’s line, forsaking anatomical precision (and occasionally legibility) for kinetics, dynamic action pinwheeling across the page. Santos has both Miller and Oeming beat in one regard though; layouts.
In the page above, Black Kaiser’s heightened perceptions are outlined in nanosecond grids, eyelid twitches of prioritisation. He’s a human target designation system, the organic equivalent of Terminator’s computerised POV, and yet the techniques communicating this mechanical precision are distinctly low tech, human hand-crafted. It’s icing on the cake for lovers of intelligent sequentials, and still far from the peak of Santos’s proficiency. That comes after Black Kaiser has… No, wait, before we get to that, let’s deal with this comic’s obvious weakness, of which our hero’s name is an example.
Polar started life as an online action comic, the equivalent of one printed page going up at a time. It was also silent. When Dark Horse approached Santos about publishing Polar, both parties were concerned about this silence, and Santos has said that in printed comics the pacing is different, words helping to “drive the reader”. So a number of pages were added, dialogue overlaid, and some sound effects, too, for good measure. Numerous comic artists of varying styles have held that words, as dialogue or narration, keep the reader on the page longer. Yet Santos disproves this argument himself, in numerous eyeball-gluing passages of silence. To take one, the following page comes at a point where Black Kaiser has been captured, drugged, and tortured, and must fight his way out of a rendition camp. So we have this letterbox shot, a commencement in silhouette.
The contrast is high, and look out for the first spatter of red, the effect it has on the otherwise clean composition, declaring a paradigm about to be shattered. Now skip ahead two pages (this sequence is too good to give away completely).
Black Kaiser is fully committed to the moment, he’s found flow, doing what he does best and for the highest stakes poss
ible, survival. There is no finesse here, none of the strategy or composure of earlier fights. Things have gotten messy.
Now he’s transformed, jaws agape like some feral beast amid Pollock sprays of blood and matter, red and black flecking together as the camera pulls tighter and tighter. Those images are only half of the full sequence, a visceral polyptych that sucks the reader into Black Kaiser’s berserker fury to show what lies at the black heart of this old survivor. And it’s all done without words, or even a sound effect. Nor is it the contrast with preceding or subsequent dialogue that lends them such weight. It’s just good art.
Passages of silent action this immaculate make the awful names (“Black Kaiser”, “Damocles”) and dodgy one-liners (from a dying would-be killer: “you… fucking legend”) that much more awful and dodgy. There are a couple of solid, genre-appropriate lines tucked in there too, but none of these words mean anything. There is such visual accomplishment in this work, (like, hilariously, a sequence where a female associate playfully strips Black Kaiser’s towel from his waist, using a laser-guided gun turret’s muzzle), that words genuinely aren’t needed. Much of the additional material that isn’t word-laden is a drag, too, like a sex scene so visually abstracted that I genuinely couldn’t tell what was going where. Sexy? Or surplus? Especially when you know a creator has the guts to let this page breathe.
Of course, page turns have to be respected in the digital to paper transition, and some new material, like an extra page capping off the earlier fight sequence, does add value. Santos uses lettering creatively, evoking character, yet he applies this technique to the character most like Kevin, the SILENT killer from Sin City: The Hard Goodbye. Knowing the guy with the filed teeth and fondness for torture by small blades is a sneering little prick adds nothing. His evil creepiness is already there in the art.
Polar’s surfeit of text on the page (not by modern comic standards, but by comparison with its online silence) means that rhythmic layouts, evocative shading in several decisive beats, and the sheer breadth of tone and technique on display, are overshadowed by our remembering that we’ve read this plot before. Polar is a great online comic, one too good to be free to read; a lean, tight story filtered through the best genre influences and frequent aesthetic excellence. Unfortunately, Santos and Dark Horse have conspired to “clarify” the story, and succeeded in reminding us that none of what we’re reading is new.
Everything interesting that Polar has to offer is visual or thematic (and therefore communicable visually). If you subscribe to the “8 universal plots” theory, then everything interesting comics as a medium has to offer is visual or thematic. And while words may keep a reader on a page longer, they keep them there reading, not looking. That’s the problem with words, they belong to plot. Santos and his story are better served by silence, where the reader can infer, and the unresolved tension of the assassin who finds their sunset can be heard, humming beneath a final smile.