A Secret You Shouldn’t Keep To Yourself: Reviewing Spy Seal From Rich Tommaso And Image Comics

by Oliver MacNamee

Rich Tommaso’s new series, Spy Seal, is based on a character he dreamt up in his early teens and who he has resurrected once more thanks to a random tweet he sent out last Hallowe’en which included a drawing of Spy Seal. The response was enough that Tommaso has now brought him to life in this new book from Image Comics. And, it’s something a bit different than your average American comic in both style and substance.

As previously mentioned in our recent preview, this is a comic that is one small part John LeCarré and one larger part Tintin. It’s different in that it harkens back to a bygone era of classic French comic albums. When Tintin was riding high and it seemed that every kid in Europe read his globe trotting adventures. The post war comic albums of Europe were like the Silver Age of Hollywood and it’s easy to see why Tomasso would what to revisit this period. Who wouldn’t? We see it all the time even now with Hollywood, so why not more in comics?

Stylistically then, the layout of each page is in keeping with this tradition. The use of clearly defined grid panel pages throughout the book, along with the flat solid use of colour and simplistic, yet proportionally realistic, artwork, all harks back to an age when comics were simpler to read and follow across the page.

As a reading experience, simply from a technical point of view, it’s a breeze. In months to come, as the whole series eventually gets collected in trade paperback, I can see this going down extremely well with libraries, with reluctant readers, and as a great entry point into comics, and particularly the European comics tradition that even today seems to favour simply laid out pages to better tell their stories upon. And, like Tintin, the flat colours also look back to this era. It’s a homage from a fan, but with anthropomorphic animals.

But, it’s not the only element that looks back at the past as the story is set in the 1960’s. A time when both the British Empire and the French were falling away from colonial (mis)rule. But, also a time when Britain still felt like they were ‘Great’. The Cold War is at its perilous peak, and Spy Seal and his friend and housemate, Sylvia, end up in a Cold War conspiracy by sheer accident, while visiting an art exhibition at a local gallery. And, while Spy Seal has had some military training (making him an ideal candidate for spying) both he and his friend– an artist–seem to be more left-leaning than a lot of people of that era.

In stumbling upon this episode of espionage, Spy Seal continues to remind me of a good Tintin yarn. Tintin was himself very good at falling into adventure by accident, by dumb luck, or because his job took him to such exotic climes, all the while having a casual air about him. And, so too Spy Seal, who has these similarities as well. There are shoot-outs, rooftop chases and femme fatales, and there’s even a ‘Maltese Falcon’ of sorts, that everyone is after; the titular corteen-steel Phoenix. And all in its the first issue.

That, and the whole aesthetic package which includes strong yet simple depictions of 1960’s London, the fashion, the squared off speech bubbles and a quick pace about it that sees the story develop at pace throughout this debut issue, introducing us along the way to some of the cast, who we will be getting to know in later issues. I just hope it can find a home with American audiences.

It’s a great all-ages read, and beautifully designed from cover to cover. Evocative on purpose of past masters, but adding to them, too. Spy Seal is a homage and a hearty first issue and a secret you shouldn’t keep to yourselves.

If you like spy thrillers and European comics, you’ll love this. Donald Duck meets Ian Fleming anyone?

Spy Seal #1 is available now from Image comics.