THIS REVIEW OF ‘POLAR: CAME FROM THE COLD’ HC CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
by Brendan Hodgdon. A life of violence is a cold and bleak one, even if it doesn’t take place against the backdrop of a bitter European winter. The severity of the Black Kaiser’s own only serves to highlight the brutality of Victor Santos’ first Polar collection, Came From The Cold. This Dark Horse re-release, timed to debut the same week as its Netflix adaptation and amplified with newly-added dialogue, is a prime opportunity for new readers to get acquainted with Santos’ beautiful, bloody world.
Given that Polar began life as a silent webcomic, it is perhaps not surprising that it’s a very brisk and very stylish read. For anyone familiar with Santos’ other work, it certainly isn’t surprising how engaging the entire affair is. The story that he tells, following the aforementioned Black Kaiser as he fights off fellow hit men who’ve been sent to make his retirement more permanent, is an old-school throwback. But it also gives Santos a great platform to let loose as an artist. The results are nothing short of stunning.
Santos’ style dances somewhere between Frank Miller and Darwyn Cooke, with the same bloody sensuality that those legends also bought to their crime stories. His exaggerated character designs allow him to emphasize the rugged and the risqué in classic pulp fashion. His use of color is particularly smart here; the black and white that makes up the majority of the book suits the wintry backdrop and the kill-or-be-killed morality of this world. And the carefully-deployed red throughout helps to emphasize the violence and danger that Black Kaiser deals in as he cuts through his attackers in search of answers.
Polar devotes a good amount of time to both sex and violence, and Santos is very careful and capable in how he renders both. The action beats are beautifully choreographed, all executed in a slightly different way each time. Santos doesn’t rest on one particular trick too long and keeps changing things up, which gives the action a sense of fluidity. One sequence involves static images of a hallway as Black Kaiser fights through thugs, zooming in more and more as the bruises and blood splatters multiply. Another is almost a collage of flowing snapshots, as Kaiser and his opponent engage in the dance of combat. Each emphasize the changing dynamics of Kaiser’s quest and are striking in their own way.
The sexual beats are also done very well, though in this case Santos has one (effective) approach. He captures fleeting glances of shapes against a background, at times laying on the red even more than in the bloodiest moments of violence. The end result at times becomes almost abstract, but it is always suggestive and titillating. And unlike the extended, multilayered fight sequences, the sex sequences drive home the fleeting, ephemeral nature of intimacy in Black Kaiser’s world.
While Santos’ art is certainly the selling point for this book, his writing is worth celebrating as well. While you can clearly see how Polar could function without dialogue (as it was originally intended), what’s been added for this addition works admirably. It mixes blunt, hard-nosed tough-guy-isms with small touches of personality that help amplify the world and the characters. And Santos’ worldbuilding, as established in dialogue, in background details, and in big narrative choices, is fun without being overdone. He builds it all with shorthand, and finds subtle ways to twist classic genre tropes (the retired pro out in the wilderness, the seduction that becomes an attack, etc). Santos displays a clever eye in mixing and matching to create an exemplary new angle on these kinds of stories—and in the process he gives himself a lot of great things to draw.
This first volume of Polar is the platonic ideal of good cartooning, a solid story brought to beautiful life by top-notch art. If you have yet to check out the work of Victor Santos, this collection is a great place to start. Polar will undoubtedly make you a full-time fan by the final page.
Dark Horse Comics/$19.99
Written & Illustrated by Victor Santos.
9 out of 10
Check out this 11-page preview of ‘Polar: Came From the Cold’ HC, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics!