Samurai Penguin #3, 1987, Slave Labor Graphics
writer: Dan Vado
artist: Mark Buck
This may be the year of the teen-aged mutant ninja turtle, but 2006 was definitely the year of the penguin, with an abnormal series of feature films dedicated to the drama and/or adventure of penguin culture. Adorned in their perpetual tuxedos, penguins have always been fascinating creatures, birds but ironically grounded, residing in a part of the planet most life couldn't endure. They're natural protagonists as both the subject of wildlife study and the foil of fiction, and Samurai Penguin bottles all of that potential into a surprisingly entertaining story. If anything, originally published in 1987, this series was ahead of its time in the penguin popularity department!
This third issue features a group of Arabian soldiers lost in the South Pole that have decided to feast on the local penguin population to survive. Unfortunately for them, the local penguin population is protected by a peculiar brand of warrior, namely the Penguin Samurai, who attacks the group individually and surreptitiously, baiting and defeating the Arabians' leader just in time for American reinforcements to rescue yet arrest them. Although the penguins are personified and talk openly, the humans are oblivious to their intelligence, and, interestingly, much of this issue is dedicated to the ignorance and foolishness of these desperate soldiers, both Arabian and American. While the Samurai Penguin defeats them physically, writer Dan Vado exposes them satirically, producing a comprehensively desired result.
In fact, Vado and artist Mark Buck offer a caricature of President Reagan that would've betrayed inspiration from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, but I wonder if Samurai Penguin #3 wasn't published too soon to benefit from that legendary series' influence. I often resist researching any given issue's origins before posting these reviews, so with no month offered before this issue's 1987 copyright, it's possible that the use of the Gipper is an example of great minds thinking alike, or evidence that Reagan's presidency was so pop culturally palpable that artists couldn't resist incorporating him into their stories. Either way, his cameo in this tale is our entry point into its relevance, and, coupled with the contrasting bravado and insecurities of the American officials, establishes a light-hearted political commentary that adds a richness to an otherwise simple parody book.
The artwork of Mark Buck deserves some specific attention, as well, as his confidence with and mastery of the varied ink line adds a dimension to these pages that effectively saves them from their own muddied grayscale. Again, the use of certain techniques convey an influence from the Miller school of drawing -- i.e. "the floating nostrils," as I call them -- but the observation may simply expose an oversensitivity on my part to the natural artistic inclinations of that era. In one panel, Buck demonstrates perfect expressive caricature, in another, amusingly exaggerated cartooning, which speaks to this issue's balance of humanity and personified nature. While much of this issue boasts a satirical tone, Buck obviously takes his work seriously . . . thus, new readers like me do, too.
Interestingly, in the letter column, Samurai Penguin #3 continues a "four adjective and a noun name that comic contest," the very premise that inspired this string of reviews before the release of TMNT this Friday. Conversely, Samurai Penguin doesn't fall under these strict guidelines, because, while it marries a specific genre of fiction to an animal character, it doesn't bother with an unnecessarily long descriptive title. It could have, since the Samurai Penguin's friends are goofy little arctic fowls (dubbed a "Greek chorus" by letter writer/Incredible Hulk scribe Peter David), but the creators chose to emphasize their concept's strengths. Samurai skill. And a penguin. In so doing, their relationship with the Turtles ends and the title's own identity begins.
Perhaps no one year can be attributed to the penguin. Perhaps we've been living in the era of penguins all this time, and Samurai Penguin has just been on the ground floor on this remarkable animals' seemingly endless celebration. At least the penguins are always dressed for it.