The opening pages of Caliber Comics’ Broken Bear feature a shocking betrayal as young squire Selm turns on her hulking mentor in a misguided attempt to regain the feeling of control and strength that was taken away from her when her entire village was murdered. The Witch she and her protector have encountered in the murk of Pulpwood Swamp is clearly tricking her to some extent, but there’s also a worrying amount of free will involved.
It’s a moment which is doubly shocking due to the fact that “Bear”, while fairly gruff in his delivery, seems like a genuinely good guy. No abusive captor here, just a no-nonsense hero trying his best to keep his ward safe after rescuing her from the aforementioned massacre. And so starts our story, as the newly empowered Selm strikes out on her own, trying to carve her own path in the world while never really managing to escape the haunting memory of her betrayal.
I’m always up for a bit of fantasy horror, and while the tone ebbs and flows from lighthearted to harrowing throughout the course of the first volume, it’s this opening moment that really sets the table for this series. Creators Frankee White, Adam Markiewicz and A.H.G. are clearly bursting with ideas, and combine to create a rich, challenging and visually stimulating world for Selm to try to find her feet in.
While a lot of fantasy stories these days seemingly feel the need to try to shoehorn in some grand subversion or post-modern twist, Broken Bear is happy to tell the story of a young lady dealing with the consequences of her actions. That said, it’s not all guilt and lamentation, and there are some fun fantasy tropes trotted out along the way to give Selm some interesting allies, adversaries and obstacles to overcome.
Broken Bear also possesses an impressive level of polish for a small press release, which sounds like a bit of a backhanded compliment but really isn’t intended as such. This is a great looking book, and Markiewicz and A.H.G. do a cracking job of bringing the fantasy world to life with a striking, detailed and expressive visual style. The character designs are solid, if a little derivative at times, and the key beats of the story are delivered with the requisite artistic flair.
In spite of all these strengths, my main niggle with Broken Bear is the fact that it reads like a tale of redemption without any actual redemption. At the end of this first volume, Selm is still making decisions that aren’t just thoughtless, but borderline evil, and as such the whole thing ends up feeling a little hollow and unsatisfying.
That’s not to say that I was expecting some sweeping, clichéd arc where she finally realizes the error of her ways and that “the real strength and heroism was inside her all along”, but the events of this volume leave her as a fairly unlikeable protagonist who doesn’t necessarily develop in any meaningful way.
That said, there’s still a hell of a lot to like here, and the faint glimmer of Selm’s possible salvation is enough to make me want to read more. White, Markiewicz and A.H.G. have crafted a vivid fantasy world full of intriguing characters, creatures and moments, and Broken Bear is a series I have absolutely no problem recommending to lovers of the fantasy genre.
Broken Bear Vol 1 is available right now on ComiXology (CLICK HERE)