There was a palpable sense of excitement in the room when Chip Zdarsky announced his second series published by Image this January: Kaptara. The phrase he used to describe the comic was “gay Saga”, played as a 50/50 split between joke and serious elevator pitch. Wild character designs on the screen behind him created by collaborator Kagan McLeod certainly lent credence to that concept though. They were big, fun, and over-the-top just like Zdarsky’s performance on stage. Sadly, Kaptara #1 doesn’t live up to the promise of this creative pairing or premise. The confidence and aplomb Zdarsky displayed on stage is gone, replaced by an introductory narrative that is unsure of its strengths and purpose. There are certainly some great elements within this issue, but it lacks a solid thesis or compelling protagonist to fuel the reading experience and encourage readers to pick up Kaptara #2.
Kaptara #1 follows the story of Keith Kanga. Keith is an environmental scientist selected to join a five-person exploratory mission to Mars. Along the way, things go awry (as they always do) and the explorers find themselves transported across the Galaxy to a strange planet called Kaptara. Zdarsky and McLeod fuse science fiction with sword and sorcery into this debut, taking five scientists and placing them in a land with very little in the way of scientific aesthetics.
The series' faltering start can be largely contributed to the strength (or rather, the weakness) of the Kaptara’s protagonist Keith. Despite his presence throughout the entire issue, Keith is never truly active. He is a passive protagonist who bounces between scenes and the actions of those around him. Whenever a new challenge is presented, it is always someone else who provides a solution or response. Keith is left to be dragged by his arm from one scene to the next with a worried look upon his face. This is pretty concerning, given the amount of investment Zdarksy is placing in Keith. As a reader, it's difficult to care for a hero that lacks any efficacy or significant concern.
And it doesn't help that Keith is a bit of a dick. He’s not an outright a**hole, but he does very little to endear himself to readers or his fellow crew members. Through most of the story, he is either an obstacle or a nuisance who's incapable of contributing. He only seems capable of offering jokes based on his observations during even life-and-death situations. These jokes don’t land well, considering that Keith is floundering while others work to save his and their own lives. His humor is often forced instead of arising naturally, as if he were trying to meet a quota. While there are certainly funny bits in Kaptara, many of Keith’s jokes read like unwanted commentary from a Reddit message board.
There are a couple of notable exceptions to this characterization, and both provide a lot of promise for Kaptara's future. The first comes in a flashback, beautifully colored in a much softer palette with the help of color assistant Becka Kinzie, where Keith is shown deciding that he wants to join the mission to Mars. The most important word in that entire sentence is “decides”. This is the only instance in all of Kaptara #1 where Keith is the driving force of the action, and it is the first time that he becomes a sympathetic and understandable character. While he still has a sense of humor, he feels much more like a complete human being with a rich, inner life here, rather than a joker in wild circumstances. This version of Keith is the one who could become a compelling central figure of a story, not the one currently occupying the present.
The second instance comes later in the story after Keith arrives on Kaptara, when he meets Motivational Orb for the first time. Motivational Orb is a large silver sphere with two small arms who occasionally displays motivational messages on its surface. Kagan McLeod takes this almost entirely silent 11 panel scene and makes it resonate. Keith's ranging emotions of anxiety, confusion, and the faintest glimmer of hope are all found in McLeod’s art. The scene endears you to both Keith and Motivational Orb, providing them humanity in this quiet, human moment.
That is the scene that really reveals the greatest strength of Kaptara #1: Kagan McLeod. McLeod invests the entire five-person crew with personality and motives, no matter how little exposition or space on the page they may receive. He focuses on their faces and body language, whether they occupy the foreground or background of a scene. Each person undergoes a dramatic arc (no matter how small) in Kaptara #1 primarily due to their consistent and purposeful presentation. There’s still plenty of madness in the story, but McLeod infuses all of the human characters with a soul.
And that madness is every bit as enjoyable. The creatures and enormous personalities of Kaptara don’t emerge until Kaptara #1 back-half (excluding an entirely unnecessary flash-forward on the first page), but they are worth the wait. McLeod has designed a bizarre menagerie to excite reader’s eyes. From monstrous threats to pompous plays on Conan comics, each new introduction is a visual delight. Motivational Orb may be the most obvious success here, but there is a palpable sense of energy bubbling around many of the new characters introduced by the issue's end. Keith is only beginning to discover the world when Kaptara #1 concludes, and what little he has seen provides the series’ most compelling reason for readers to return.
Kaptara #1 is an inconsistent beginning, one plagued by an uncompelling protagonist, but still filled with promise. If Zdarsky’s script in this debut proves to be 90% setup for the future, then there’s a lot of hope to held out for Kaptara. Keith, in his best moments, could still become the centerpiece of a fascinating story. More impressive still is McLeod’s contribution. Both the imagination and subtlety expressed throughout the issue are the most engaging reason to return. Kaptara’s debut is a mixed lot, and it’s difficult to tell whether it will be worth sticking around until Zdarsky and McLeod return.