Thursday, November 10, 2005

Sabretooth: Open Season

Script by Daniel Way, art by Bart Sears
Published by Marvel; $9.99 US
Collects Sabretooth #1-#4

Sabretooth is on the hunt. He’s chased a legendary beast to a snow-swept island in the middle of Lake Superior. When a U.S. Coast Guard ship answers a distress call from the island, followed by the arrival of Alpha Flight strongman Sasquatch, things get a bit more complicated and a hell of a lot bloodier in Sabretooth: Open Season.

Open Season has a lot in common with the first collection of Way’s Venom series. The protagonist is a popular Marvel supervillain, soldiers find themselves caught in a struggle between superhuman combatants, you’re never really sure exactly who’s on who’s side, and of course the setting - a relatively uninhabited wilderness during a brutal winter - mirrors that of Shiver’s.

One area in which Open Season and Shiver unexpectedly differ is in the quality of the art. Unlike Bart Sears’s disappointing run on Captain America and The Falcon, he tones down his hyperhuman style with the more non-super subjects, leaving his usual touches - e.g., jutting jaws and chins; prominent lower lips and foreheads; and compact, scrunched up faces - for the characters who deserve such treatment like Sabretooth and Sasquatch.

With Open Season, Sears shows much better instinct in when he should and shouldn’t amp up the more dynamic aspects of his style. For example, the face-off between Sabretooth and his prey at the end of the trade is one of its most artistically impressive moments. It’s featured in a double page spread that fools the reader into thinking the combatants are physically closer than they actually are. It’s the kind of thing one would expect to see every few pages of The First or Cap/Falc, but worked wonderfully in Sabretooth specifically because Sears saved it for just the right moment. This is Bart Sears at his absolute best.

Open Season is a fitting title, emphasis on “open”, as the cast grows and eventually everyone gets a chance at everyone else’s throats. Way handles the crowded line-up well, breeding suspense rather than confusion. The story is quick and bloody, and like Shiver treated in the way you’d expect in films from the Alien or Predator series. The Coast Guard guys get steadily picked off - though even by the end of the story it’s never completely clear who’s done the picking - and most of the victims are given enough dimension for the reader to care about their undoings.

It’s the only thing about the story that threatens to make Sabretooth a sympathetic character. While there’s a big question mark regarding whether or not Sabretooth has spilled human blood in the course of hunting his inhuman prey, it’s clear that the beast is his sole target and - assuming any of the murders are on his hands - any other victims were, in his mind, collateral damage.

Even Sasquatch is something of a suspect, considering his strange behavior towards the Coast Guard. I’m not a stickler for continuity (nor have I read much Alpha Flight and so would be ill-equipped to find any continuity errors), but Sasquatch’s actions seem bizarre. His mission is to stop Sabretooth from hunting his prey because the mutant’s success would supposedly cause an "imbalance in nature". Not only does this seem a strange sentiment coming from a superhero who is only a superhero because he purposely attempted to recreate the accident that turned Bruce Banner into a destructive and nigh-unbeatable juggernaut (i.e., this would rate very low on a “respectful of the natural order” scorecard), but he effectively sacrifices human lives for this thinly-defined principle (i.e., he never says “It will cause an imbalance in nature, and so fiery shit-boulders will flatten Toronto). He lies to the Coast Guard Captain when he enters the story, claiming he knows nothing about the situation. Maybe I’m just not well-educated in the motivations of Sasquatch; but it seems strange he would pass up the opportunity to save the lives of children and soldiers - not to mention warning away the Coast Guard ship and the other ships en route - in order to save the life of a ferocious, uber-powerful, man-killing beast. His presence succeeds in giving the story what Way wanted. It adds yet another unpredictable mix to the already crowded battlefield, and it builds suspense for the final battle between predator and prey. Sasquatch gets thoroughly trounced by both Sabretooth and the beast, showing the readers what both combatants are capable of. It seems a bit much though. The poor monkey bleeds more than Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs. Even the Coast Guard guys get a piece of him. Each defeat of the Canadian powerhouse seems that much more unremarkable. It would’ve been better to either keep Sasquatch out of this series altogether, or preferrably to come up with a more believable and well-defined reason for his presence.

Though, like I said, I’m no Alpha Flight scholar, though that’s also something of a minor weakness of Open Season. This is not a story for the Marvel-uninitiated. It’s likely most readers would at least know of Sabretooth from the X-Men films, but no background is given for the two other comparatively obscure super-guys in the story. Since I was at least passingly familiar with everyone involved, it wasn’t a problem for me, but it could confuse those unfamiliar with the Sabretooth’s prey. The drama of the revealing of the creature’s identity hinges on whether or not the reader has read past stories featuring the character (this may not have been a problem in single-issue form if they included those little bios at the beginning of each issue: I only read the trade so I don’t know if this was the case).

Despite these weaknesses, overall Sabretooth: Open Season is a worthwhile read. It’s fast-paced, but it’s not the kind of fast that you’ll breeze through it in ten minutes and put it back on the shelf. It’s fun and scary with beautifully rendered action sequences and an ending that will chill your bones. Refreshingly, it’s the perfect story for a character like Sabretooth by featuring him as a protagonist while not watering him down to the point where he’s no longer a villain. I’m becoming more and more impressed with Daniel Way’s work - to the point that I’m considering picking up his second and third Venom trades despite the mismatched art that turned me off from Shiver - and I’m looking forward to his upcoming run on The Incredible Hulk.

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