“It’s a hard world for little things,” declares Lillian Gish in Charles Laughton’s 1955 film noir classic The Night of the Hunter. Having seen this film countless times since childhood, the words of Gish’s pious, stoic Rachel Cooper rang in my mind at the conclusion of the first volume of the Squarriors series (available in stores December 30th). Miss Cooper may have been referring to the plight of orphaned children, but the same notion of indomitable courage under duress certainly applies to the diminutive heroes of Ash Maczko and Ashley Witter’s epic animal adventure comic, and Gish’s gun-totin’ mother hen would certainly appreciate the biblical paraphrasing of its tagline: “And the meek shall inherit the earth.”
Indeed they shall. Ten years after the onset of human extinction (by causes yet to be revealed), animals of various species have divided into separate factions from a single, more primitive founding tribe known as the Amoni. The animal kingdom of post-human civilization has attained a more evolved consciousness and intelligence; those who have defected from the Amoni wish to utilize these newfound abilities to facilitate a peaceful new way of life in a universal animal utopia, while the Amoni prefer to continue living by their baser instincts. Writer Maczko’s tale focuses upon the struggles of the Tin Kin clan (comprised mainly of mice and squirrels) as they fight to live by the Code of Will and survive in a world where the Amoni—as well as the Maw, allies-turned-rivals of the Tin Kin—nurse a constant thirst for their blood. It is the belief of the Tin Kin that living by the old ways of instinct, as the Amoni do, will perpetuate their extinction in a similar fashion to the humans (or “Creators,” as they are known amongst the animals) before them.
It would be very easy to call this story “Game of Thrones-meets-Watership Down-meets-Star Wars-meets-Walking Dead-meets-Fellowship of the Ring-meets-Mouse Guard,” etc. Squarriors is all of those things, and none of those things. It has many of the elements that make those stories compelling: rebellion, holocaust, riveting (and bloody) battle scenes, shifting alliances, sympathetic heroes, villains with mysterious motives, shocking twists, even a Scooby-Doo ending of a sort. Yet Squarriors retains a certain freshness; it feels immediately classic and familiar, but never derivative or trite. Though each installment begins with a wraparound-story flashback to the end of human times, we are given minimal info as to the ultimate fate of humanity, adding a mounting undercurrent of mystery to the story. Ultimately, Maczko’s tale maintains a steady focus on its animal subjects, with an implied reveal down the road as to how mankind seals its own doom. (Personally, I find that anthropomorphic characters are much more sympathetic anyway; in today’s Trump-for-President society rife with Kardashian worship, sometimes I favor a story that’s NOT all about the humans. As my favorite bitchy patent-leather-daddy villain General Zod once said, they are beginning to bore me. Sometimes you just need a break from human conceit, even in comics.)
Visually, “stunning” is hardly a sufficient word to describe the work of Ashley Witter. For a fantasy tale, the art is breathtakingly true to life. Witter executes Maczko’s characters with a painstakingly-detailed realism that still allows their humanlike facial expressions and body language to translate, and serves to make any bloody battle scene or death that much more arresting and heartbreaking. (I mean, most of us bum out at the sight of roadkill, but to watch a squirrel die a gruesome death after actually hearing the backstory is pretty devastating.) The artist’s use of color beautifully underscores key points in the story; scenes of hope and solidarity among the Tin Kin are subtly colorful, while scenes depicting illness, conflict or battle have more of an umbral, gray color palette (driving home both the bleak existence of the Tin Kin and the bloody-violence-and-gore element, the latter of which is refreshingly not overdone or gratuitous). Though I will definitely be purchasing the trade in support of this Kickstarter-funded project, I hope there will be an eventual fancy hardcover edition, as the gorgeous artwork alone warrants a nice coffee-table worthy volume.
Overall, any fan of fantasy-adventure stories—or comics in general—would be doing him-/herself a disservice by sleeping on the perfection of Squarriors. With its winning combination of Maczko’s engrossing, classic conflict-driven plot, purposive storytelling, and Witter’s formidable artistic skill, this series could easily hold a high-ranking position on anyone’s Best Comics of 2015 list. The word on the street is that the trade has already sold out of its first run at the distribution level. How could that many readers be wrong? (Hint: They can’t.)