Pullbox Reviews: By the Horns #1 – A swords & ray guns fantasy, with magic, monsters, & soup for everyone…

Elodie hates unicorns. For nearly a year, she’s dedicated her life to tracking down and killing them all for trampling her husband, Shintaro. Now exiled from her farming village of Wayfarer for selfishly neglecting her duties, Elodie and her half wolf/half deer companion, Sajen, search the continent of Solothus for clues to the whereabouts of unicorns. When they discover a lead in the port city of Lycus, their revenge mission suddenly takes a dangerous turn.

Growing up in the small farming village of Wayfarer, Elodie lives a simple life. Simple in that Elodie hunts monsters of all shapes & sizes, tracking them down and slaying them without hesitation or remorse. She’s searched far & wide, ignoring the pleas from her village to give up her life of violence, to put aside her weapons and join the work of the harvest. Despite it all, Elodie remains determined to stay the course. Her only true regret is that lately, there just haven’t been any unicorns out there to kill.

Yup, Elodie hates unicorns. Despises them, in fact, from the ends of their rainbow hued tails to the tips of their sparkly horns. The specifics behind why she hates them haven’t been fully revealed, but we do know that it involved the death of a loved one. Other than that, we just know that Elodie’s rage has grown to encompass anything that gets in her way and has a horn on its head. Sure, that really isn’t much to go on, but in this opening issue we’re given just enough to whet the whistle without giving away the whole apple cart. It’s a slow build in character that lets us get to know who Elodie is before we’re made privy to who she was.

A large part of what strikes the balance between reveal & slow burn is the personality invested in the two characters we’re introduced to. First, of course, there’s Elodie. Aside from her burning need to slay, behead, & make monster head soup (don’t ask, okay?), there are obvious layers. Markisan Naso has given her the brash, leap without looking outlook you’d want in a monster hunter, but there’s also hurt buried deep. With the loss she’s experienced, the hunt is all she has left. Then there’s Haru the village elder with a soft spot for the young slayer. He comes across as a quiet soul with a wry wit, and a shared loss ties him to Elodie in a way that rings true, not forced.

Another part of this story that works is the way the narrative is broken down. It’s not strictly linear, in that the first page of the book shows us (presumably) the end of the story, although some details are obscured. Then we jump back a year as Elodie is introduced, and finally we fast forward another several months as her mission of mayhem is in full swing. The tactic does a good job of showing readers a bit of what we have to look forward to, and then pulling it back to show us why it’s gonna be worth riding it out to the finish. Naso has a knack for doling out plot a little at a time, not relying on complicated twists & turns to clutter it all up. Twists are cool, but they should build up from a solid story foundation instead of relied on for their own sake.

As in all comic books, the story is only a part of a larger equation, and in a world building title like By the Horns the artwork is going to play a massive role in making it work. It would be so easy to fall into old traps, using existing monster designs or relying on shock and awe to carry the visuals. There’s no shortage of books out there that believe all you really need to sell a comic is a chick in a corset and high heels on the cover, slap a sword in her hand and then have her hack some stuff up. Granted, there’s an audience for that, but I have to tell you that as a guy who gets a lot of comics sent his way, it gets old. There are titles out there that I used to really enjoy, back when they had something original to say but before they fell into the “rinse & repeat” cycle of warrior babe sees baddie, warrior babe slays baddie, warrior babe cracks jokes about doing it all in heels.

Yeah, I’ve mentioned the high heels thing twice because that really drives me nuts. Thankfully, Elodie has an appreciation for more sensible footwear, and for that I’d like to thank artist Jason Muhr. There’s no overt attempt at sexualizing our hero. I mean, sure, she looks good on the page but Elodie’s style is more about function than bust-enhancement. Muhr’s character designs are mostly about people just getting through the day without undue attention paid to how they look doing it. The sketchbook feature at the end of the issue shows the steps the creative team took, deciding on Elodie’s balance of form & function as her world developed.

And the world of By the Horns is just cool! Again, the easy assumption would have been, as it was here in the early stages, a basic fantasy setting. Over the course of putting the story together, Markisan Naso changed gears and decided that the world of Solothus would be a blend of fantasy & science fiction. Not an easy thing to pull off, Muhr makes it work by subtly including the sci fi elements in the backgrounds and in wardrobe designs. Instead of the finished product coming across like an over the top hodgepodge mess with Muhr jumping up and down, waving his arms and shouting “Look! Swords and rayguns!” the combination of elements is revealed more naturally in the story.

Finally, I have to give huge props to Andrei Tabacaru for the work done on colors and visual effects. The flair given to Muhr’s illustrations is gorgeous, with all of the flash and spectacle you’d expect in bright fantasy world, while grounding much of it in a more gritty foundation. That’s the trick, I think, that really sells this title for me. Sure, it has all of the elements of high fantasy seeded with sci fi themes, but the core of the story has a hint of darkness to it. Tabacaru colors the world of Solothus in a way that’s bright and airy, but the shadows are there if you’re really looking. Take a look at the preview pages below, and pay special attention to the first to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

I have no idea if By the Horns is going to stick the landing, but I do know that the opening issue is a great introduction to a unique world. Of course the quest for revenge isn’t a new motivation for a protagonist, but there are enough hints at a deeper and more detailed arc to give it a bump. Coupled with a fantastic design and some organic world building, it’s a title I’m going to follow.

Final Score: 11/13

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