Archaia Entertainment isn't exactly a household name, and neither are many of its artists — but they should be.
For example, few Americans have heard of Sergio Toppi, an Italian cartoonist and illustrator who died last year. But if you've ever seen the work of Walt Simonson ("Thor"), Simon Bianchi ("Wolverine") or Denys Cowan ("The Question"), you know about him secondhand, because those terrific artists have all been inspired by Toppi's work — and, as good as they are, remain pale shadows of the master.
This I learned from the recent — and only — English translation of Toppi's "Sharaz-De: Tales From the Arabian Nights" ($29.95) by Archaia. Yes, it's a retelling of the legend of Scheherazade and the 1,001 Arabian Nights, as made famous in the Western World by explorer Sir Richard Burton, although the name change of the central character serves no purpose that I can see. Also, there are considerably fewer than 1,001 stories here (more like 11), and the book ends before the famous climax, where the king, rendered a better man by Scheherazade's stories, marries her.
That absence disappointed my wife, who wasn't familiar with the Arabian Nights, and was concerned about Sharaz-De's ultimate fate. I was not in the least disappointed, as I knew she'd be just fine, and these tales are as bizarre and fascinating as I remembered from their source material, which I read in my youth. And they're more subversive than I remember, as almost without fail each story features someone mighty brought low by hubris (and magic).
But as absorbing as these timeless fables are (in whatever form you find them), they take a back seat in this one instance to Toppi's art. I barely know how to begin describing his intricate embellishment, which makes virtually every surface — including flesh — appear to be made of metal, or wood, or feathers, or leather, or beads, or some complex combination of them all. Toppi plays with size and perspective as well, with people and objects morphing as the story requires. All of which might become incomprehensible, if not for Toppi's inarguably brilliant use of black and white space, which he uses to frame what he wants the reader to see, all with a designer's eye it's hard not to admire.
I think I've run out of synonyms for "brilliant," so don't take my word for it: Seek out "Sharaz-De" and see for yourself. .
Up next is another book that harks to storytelling methods of the past, "Cursed Pirate Girl" ($24.95) by Jeremy Bastian. Our heroine is, indeed, a cursed pirate girl, who, despite that curse business, cheerfully sails the legendary Omerta Seas in adventures that somehow combine "Treasure Island," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Pippi Longstocking," with perhaps a touch of "Peter Pan."
This is rousing good fun, especially for young girls in search of adventure where their gender plays a better role than "hostage," or for kids or adults of any age who enjoy a romp amid magical seas full of swordfish in full armor, parrots that travel inside of fish and pirate ships named, incongruously, "Honey Boar."