By Courtney Ryan. Just like soccer and hazelnuts, bandes dessinées (or Franco-Belgian comics) never really enjoyed the opportunity to dominate in America because they’ve always been just a little too European for us. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of great art or content; popular titles, such as The Adventures of Tintin and Asterix, featured breezy plots that were washed down quickly thanks to flat color palettes and a simplistic panel design. But again, their European-ness made them just a bit unwelcome in the U.S. comics market, and the massive success of Marvel and DC almost made them feel unnecessary.

With something of a comics renaissance happening over the last decade—in that adults are either rediscovering a childhood love or realizing that being an adult doesn’t diminish the experience of reading comics—it’s natural then that readers are sinking their teeth into some of the elusive genres of bygone eras that were overlooked by mainstream America. This means that, either through the original classics or through modern reinterpretations, readers are fortunately becoming acquainted with bandes dessinées.

This week, Image Comics is releasing the first volume of a series that very dutifully pays respect to the French and Belgian comic strip creators of yore. Could this mean we’ll see more similarly influenced works in the future? Let’s hope.

Spy Seal, Volume 1: The Corten-Steel PhoenixSpy Seal, Volume 1: The Corten-Steel Phoenix

Written by Rich Tommaso.

Art by Rich Tommaso.

Anthropomorphic espionage and le neuvième art. As Spy Seal’s own tagline promises, this is a comic about “Britain’s slickest secret agent.” Think sealskin slick rather than James Bond slick, though. This is a world where rabbits are often perceived as suave and sexy heartbreakers, creatures with wings get picked first in gym class, and dogs, as usual, are naturally gifted detectives. The titular seal is Malcolm Warner, an affable, unemployed seal who spends his days visiting art galleries and playing a high-brow game of will-they-or-won’t-they with his best friend Sylvia. Thanks to his composed nature and military training, plus a little romantic serendipity, he is recruited as the latest MI-6 agent just as Britain investigates a series of terrorist plots against government officials that seem to have been executed by the Kremlin.

The ensuing adventure is simple, silly fun. If you’re not a fan of cheesy spy sagas then you’re probably not big on stories that feature seals wearing trousers either. So go ahead and move along. But if corny spy lore is your thing then Spy Seal delivers all of the genre’s appealing elements. Malcolm combines the right amount of cheeky coyness and sensible intelligence to be a believable secret agent, though he’s most amusing when bewildered and bumbling through the learning curve that comes with beginning a career in international espionage. The tale’s action moves swiftly while utilizing charming backdrops such as posh London and a medieval Scottish castle. In the end, Spy Seal strikes the right balance of whimsy and intrigue.

Interior page from 'Spy Seal, Volume 1: The Corten-Steel Phoenix'. Art by Rich Tommaso/Image Comics

Interior page from ‘Spy Seal, Volume 1: The Corten-Steel Phoenix’. Art by Rich Tommaso/Image Comics

A new genre for a prolific genre hopper. At the heart of Spy Seal is writer and artist Rich Tommaso, who has been a fantastic player to follow through his previous two Image series, She Wolf and Dark Corridor, and through prior works such as Horror of Collier County and Clover Honey. Though unlike in the past when he pulled heavily from dark and disturbing horror and crime thrillers of the 70s and 80s, Spy Seal enjoys a sense a levity that hasn’t been present in previous titles. He sheds the true-crime angle that has been his staple over the years and pursues a lighthearted caper instead. Likewise, he trades in the moody shadows and disturbing collages for delightful pictorials of stylish critters as they romp around a mid-century modern set that’s friendly for all ages. It’s Tintin meets Usagi Yojimbo and it works.

Tommaso appears to be having fun and his enthusiasm is contagious. Reportedly he based Spy Seal on a comic he created when he was 13, and seeing it come to life must be an especially surreal achievement for a professional comic book creator. But more than anything, Spy Seal is a reminder that some of the most satisfying stories to complete are the ones we’ve told ourselves or shared since youth—they just need a little time and wisdom to polish the formula.

Interior page from 'Spy Seal, Volume 1: The Corten-Steel Phoenix'. Art by Rich Tommaso/Image Comics

Interior page from ‘Spy Seal, Volume 1: The Corten-Steel Phoenix’. Art by Rich Tommaso/Image Comics

Still, there’s blood and guts. Unfortunately not everything concerning Spy Seal has been talking animals and espionage. Despite this comic being a tangible realization of a childhood dream, Tommaso expressed frustration in a now-deleted Facebook post regarding the low sales numbers of the first issue. His public vexation with the comics-buying public has spurred other discussions ranging from similar concerns to a potential slump in comic sales to artist entitlement. To his credit, Tommaso has graciously responded to sympathizers of his rant and critics alike, which has helped to move forward a more industry-centric discussion (rather than one that treats Tommaso like a monolith, which he is not).

Tommaso’s frustrations with weak sales really have nothing to do with Spy Seal and won’t affect how anyone reads this book. But to read a comic is to interact with its creator and it’s worth considering that Tommaso’s rather robust and prolific career of two decades brought him to the creation of Spy Seal. His rant sadly confirms what a lot of us have known or suspected for some time: that for independent creators like Tommaso, stories like Spy Seal are often a labor of love that arrive to us at the expense of stability for the artists.

Tommaso is a gifted storyteller and artist who has created memorable and engaging works for nearly twenty years. Spy Seal, Volume 1: The Corten-Steel Phoenix is a delightful example of Tommaso’s rich imagination and mastery of his craft. If anything, Spy Seal’s greatest flaw is appearing too effortless, masking the sweat and tears it takes to execute such a complete and confident piece of work.

7.5 out of 10