Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Eighty Days’

“I lose some of me in all these places and I can’t help the way I’m changed”

Eighty Days is a love story and a war story, and those two things go together awfully well, don’t they? This is brought to us by Archaia, which remains an excellent publisher even after being subsumed into Boom! Studios, and it’s the creation of A.C. Esguerra. Let’s have a look!

Esguerra gives us a world dominated by a government called the “Aviation Vocational Order,” or AVO for short. It’s a world of flight, with pilots having a much higher status than most people, as they’re the knights of the sky. Jay is an expert pilot who works with/for Sable, a woman he’s known for years. One day he meets Fix, who hires him to take him to the central region of the continent, but stiffs him on the bill. Jay gets Fix to work it off, and it turns out Fix is a genius at navigation and code, but his status – he’s “no-class” – means he won’t ever succeed in the society as it’s been set up. As AVO begins to encroach on other lands, Fix tries to escape its influence, and he and Jay fall in love but things go south when they do try to make it across the border. Sable ends up capturing Jay, but he sacrifices himself so Fix can escape. That’s the end of Book One.

Esguerra worked on this book for years, and it’s clear from the way the book is structured that they weren’t sure if it would lend itself to a longer work, as Book One could easily be a complete work, even though it ends sadly. The first part is where the title comes from, as Jay and Fix fall in love over 80 days, as Fix works off his debt and then Jay realizes how talented Fix is and then how desperate he is to escape. So Books 2-4 become the aftermath of Jay’s arrest, and Esguerra does a clever thing: in Book One, the focus is on Jay, but in Book Two, Sable is the focus, and finally, in Book Three, Fix is the focus. Book Four is about the war against AVO, with all three characters getting the spotlight. It allows us to learn a lot about each character, even if the other two don’t simply disappear, and it also allows us to empathize with all of them – it’s easy to do so with Jay and Fix, as they’re sympathetic characters, but Sable’s journey from ambitious hierarchy-climber in AVO to rebel leader is the best one in the book, as she changes the most. Despite some spats, once Jay and Fix are together, they’re together, and while it’s refreshing that we get a love story that feels real – as in, they don’t fall for each other right away and they don’t let pettiness ruin it – it’s also not as dramatic as Sable deciding that AVO is a bad thing and she has to do something about it. So her section, where she realizes that she can’t do what AVO wants her to do, is the best part of the book. Books Three and Four, in which Sable and Fix rescue Jay and then the three characters lead a rebellion against the government, is fine and adventurous, full of frontal attacks and misdirection and sacrifices, as the rebels figure out ways to fight a numerically superior enemy, and Esguerra does a nice job showing how it would all work. AVO is not much more than a faceless totalitarian government (there’s a “bad guy,” to be sure, but he’s a stereotypically bad dude and never seems like a real threat), so what Esguerra does nicely is show how these three people, working together in different ways, can rally a variegated and somewhat fractious alliance to fight for a common cause. In most war stories, the good guys might have minor differences, but there’s never much indication that they’re working for different reasons and toward different goals. The allies in Eighty Days are a bit more interesting, because they do seem to have different motivations for fighting, although that doesn’t stand in the way of their goal. Jay, Fix, and Sable are the glue, naturally, and the only characters that get a lot of development, but Esguerra does a good job giving some of the ancillary characters some personality, so they’re not just cardboard people moving the plot along.

Where we can see the biggest evolution in the book is in Esguerra’s art, which is good to begin with but becomes better as we move through the book. As I noted above, Esguerra worked on the book over some years, and it’s clear that when they started they were in a far different place than when they finished. Early on, we see all the marks of a younger artist – a thinner, almost too-precise line, a reliance on hatching, and a reluctance to use chunks of black (which goes hand-in-hand with the hatching). There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, it’s just that I’ve noticed over the years that as artists evolve, they move away from that (this is a generalization, of course, but it generally holds). In the first half of Book One, the comic looks cleaner, as Esguerra uses their line work to suggest everything, and the art is slightly more cartoonish than it would later become. It’s fascinating to watch Esguerra’s art evolving, as there’s a moment where the turn of a page brings about a shift in the art, from the use of precise pens to a more brush-based approach (this could all be digital, of course, making those terms anachronistic, but I’m just using those terms as short-hand to describe what the art looks like). Esguerra obviously knew how to do this prior to that page – early on, they use a thicker brush to show Sable’s lustrous black hair – but as the book moves along, we get more beautiful brush work, a wider use of chunky blacks, a bit more abstraction in the line work, more use of grayscales (the early parts of the book are much more black and white), and a lessening of the hatching. It’s a nice progression, and it syncs up a bit with the tone of the book – in the early part of Book One, the book feels more hopeful, as Jay and Fix fall in love (reluctantly on Jay’s part, as he’s more worldly than Fix and knows things might not work out well). As they attempt to get away from AVO, the art gets a bit darker, and then we get the final two parts, where the story takes a dark turn and the art becomes darker. I don’t know if Esguerra planned it that way, as the art is clearly a progression from a younger artist to an older one, but it’s interesting that the art matches the story (to a certain degree) in this way.

This is a nifty comic that feels like a throwback to grand adventures of the 1930s and 1940s in Hollywood. Esguerra updates things, obviously – you’re not going to see Errol Flynn making out with Cary Grant while Katharine Hepburn leads them into combat (although, shit, I would pay big money to watch that movie) – but the tone is the same. We get a believable romance (which shouldn’t be as hard as it is to do, should it?) set against the backdrop of an epic war, and we get three characters who are interesting in their own ways, and none of them are simply a plot device for another character’s development. This is a solid, entertaining comic, which is always nice to see.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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