Polar: Came from the Cold, written and drawn by Victor Santos, is an excellent espionage noir thriller. Black Kaiser (It’s a code name but the only name we get.) is a retired spy marked for extermination by a secret organization that once employed him, but even after years of retirement he won’t go down without a fight. We are never told his real name, because Black Kaiser is who this man is and has been for years. He is a spy and a killer through and through, and while he is still a man, his skills are so deeply ingrained in his psyche that he can call upon them without a thought and without hesitation. What Santos does with this simple, straight forward story is truly exciting, and he does it with a three-color palette of white, black, and orange, and largely without any dialogue.
Originally a silent web comic, Santos has crafted a script that peppers in dialogue here and there for the Dark Horse hardcover collection, and though the dialogue is a new addition, it only enhances the story, even providing one of the main villains with an even more eerie, malevolent presence. Like Black Kaiser, Santos never relents and his definitive style is on display throughout the story, and he stays true to it until the end. His use of shadows and contrasting colors is extraordinary, and he builds entire scenes and tableaus with negative space, framing a shootout in a snowy patch of trees or a brutal fight through a secret lair. Borders and outlines are largely created by other objects, so the look is flat and fast, the characters seeming to float in a kind of open space that flows through the book. Black Kaiser tears through that space.
The style almost becomes another character, and, in instances, it allows us to get inside Black Kaiser’s head to see him break things down as they happen, if not before. There are some pages that have so many small panels that disseminate an elaborate action sequence or come together to paint a larger picture that you are in awe of Santos’ ability to cohesively connect so many images. The use of space and shapes, especially to coordinate or convey violence, are great, and, at times, make you wince, because they elicit such a visceral visual, such as when Black Kaiser is being tortured or when he unleashes his fury against a bevy of guards, the pages looking like a Jackson Pollock painting, almost to the point of obscuring the action. While the art can be a little overwhelming at times, it never denies its sense of style, often forcing you to look at an image in a new way, like a code you need to decipher in order to unlock an action or an idea.
The characters in Polar: Came from the Cold are types and tropes, but Santos knows this, embracing and playing to it – this is a small, tight story, full of death and determination, with a strong visual style and some absolutely phenomenal, cinematic set pieces. The story starts with a bang, and we follow Black Kaiser, wanting first solitude and peace, then wanting vengeance and finality as he moves to free himself from the stranglehold of a system that won’t let him go. You won’t want to let him go either, but, luckily, Santos and Dark Horse have packed in extras that let you revel in the power of Black Kaiser without putting your life in danger. Polar: Came from the Cold introduces you to a spy you never want to cross, or double-cross, but who you would want to have on your side, so you don’t end up on the other side of alive.