COMIC REVIEW: Sam, vols 1& 2 (Cinebook Reviews #33)

It’s been nearly a year, but Cinebook Reviews is back. I’ve been hellish busy of late but I haven’t forgotten about you, of the fabulous work being put out by Cinebook. Who are Cinebook? Well, it has been a while, I guess. Cinebook are a Canterbury based company who specialise in translating European comics for the English speaking market. Why are they important? Because there’s a tonne of great comics out there that UK and US readers never got to see. If you’ve missed my previous wanders through their catalogue you can check out my archive of Cinebook Reviews here. Happily for me, Cinebook have taken to sending me a good variety of their books on a semi-regular basis and, happily for you, I can tell you all about them so you know which ones you should throw your money at (or not) and why.  Sam is a case in point. Let me just say the word ‘robo-pocalypse’ and casually stroll off. I’ll see you after the jump…

SAMcover2SAM is the story of a group of teenagers who have grown up in the wreckage of the old world, scavenging like rats for survival; relentlessly hunted by robotic enemies. If I had to pigeon-hole it into an age group I’d call it Young Adult, but it may appeal to a wider range of readers. The first thing that jumped out at me about SAM, when I slipped the first volume out of the envelope, was a distinctive Manga vibe. Okay, that’s a lie. The first thing that jumped out at me was the frickin’ cool looking Iron Giant style robot on the front cover, but the second thing I noticed was the Manga vibe. Prickles of excitement raced through me. I’ve loved most of the books that have been sent my way but I think it’s fair to say that many of them share a kind of samey ultra-lined, pastel shaded look. This image popped cinematically and boded well for the contents. Flick through either of the first two volumes and props immediately go to artist Shang Xiao for his renditions of the city-scape. The backdrop is suitably moody; full of shadows, rubble and the skeletons of civilisation. There’s a genuine sense of scale which helps put the survivors plight into context.

Writer Richard Marazano kicks things off nicely by dropping us into the middle of events, trusting his readers to pick up snippets of information as they go along. All we’re told is that this is ‘Our world. A probable future’ and that Man is no longer the dominant species. We are quickly introduced to a group of teens who are scavenging through an urban wreckage. The characters are nicely delineated in both look and personality right from the start. Ian is our hero: a scrawny young redhead with a nifty set of goggles. He’s an engineering genius and a hothead. There’s a bit of a power struggle between him and Russ; a chunkier, older boy who is equally hot-headed but more pragmatic. He lacks Ian’s vision, focussing on how to survive now, rather than how to improve life. Ella has more shades of insight and finds herself caught between the two. She supports Ian in general but fears his recklessness. I’d like to see her developed more as the series progresses because she has potential to be a decent female role-model if they’d give her a bit more agency and dial back her crush.

Life changes dramatically for this trio and their fellow survivors when Ian discovers a gigantic robot that seems to be protecting him rather than attacking the group. Ian is determined to explore and exploit this relationship but most of the other humans are less inclined to trust his judgement. They’ve seen too many of their fellows killed to risk exposing themselves and their base to the mechanical monster. It’s clear from the start that this is no adult-free utopia, but a daily struggle for survival. While it doesn’t come close to comparing with Attack on Titan for a sense of horror and fragile mortality, the creative team do manage to inject enough threat and unknowability into the portrayal of the machines that their shadow hangs over everything, despite their sparse use. I particularly appreciate the way that Shang has come up with different body designs for the machines to suit their purposes. After all, machine life can redesign itself within a generation or two. It adds menace to the enemy because they can appear in any number of forms in almost any location.

SAM is not quite the action epic I had hoped it would be, neither is it quite the child-friendly one boy and his dog analogue it could so easily have become. Thought has clearly been put into day to day living in these extreme circumstances, how these last outposts of humanity might adapt to survive etcetera. Similarly a lot of effort has been put into portraying the teens in that crucial point between childhood and adulthood to the degree that it sometimes come across a bit soap opera-ish. They are at times hopelessly naïve, violently emotional, determined or despairing based on whatever happened in the last five minutes, and capable of tremendous acts of bravery. They don’t swear as much as real teens do and are, in some respects, a little too articulate – but at least they are consistent in their inconsistencies. I found myself drawn in despite myself; wanting to know more about the back story of both the world and the characters. If Ian was abandoned at such a young age, how did he survive with killer robots on the loose? What has happened to the rest of humanity in the city, or across the world? The nail in the coffin for me is that I don’t feel as terrified for the children as I should. It just doesn’t grip me. The danger is there, but I don’t have the emotional connection with any of the characters. As such, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to my peers. However, I think pre-to-young teens will get a sense of empowerment out of it and enjoy the possibilities that unfold.

GS Rating: 3.5/5

GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak

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