Ever had the desire to mingle the elements of "talking animal" stories with the complicated intricacies of a murder mystery or suspenseful thriller? If one is ready to experience a more grown up "Disney style" adventure with plenty of talking animals but none of the songs, dance numbers or flaky writing, then "Sanctuary" is the series to try. Created by Stephen Coughlin and published by Slave Labor Graphics back in 2012, it has been a full year to the day since the first chunk of this surprisingly dramatic tale of the goings on at a strange animal sanctuary was reviewed in this column. Since then, the story has progressed and reached quite an exciting climax.
The entire ordeal began with the death of a panda within 24 hours of the sanctuary claiming him. From there readers were introduced to Erzah the white tiger cub, his friend Cleo, his father Zeke and the lion King, along with the giraffe trio of Biff, George, and Lorraine and the gorilla mates June and Judah. On the human side is Dr. Pierre, inventor of the "Kelleric Accelerator" which allows humans to talk with animals, along with the obsessive "Miss Odette" as well as some other human staff. As this subsequent two issues unfold, it becomes vastly clear that "Miss Odette" is more than she seems; she's a deranged ecological terrorist intent on destroying the sanctuary and freeing the animals, regardless of consequences or who gets hurt along the way. While some of the animals are in on the complicated espionage act, others - especially Erzah and his friends - are caught in the web of deceit. It is up to Erzah to rescue his "best friend" Cleo from the clutches of a tribe of deadly spiders who may have been involved in his father's disappearance. And while Dr. Pierre may survive a shotgun attack by "Miss Odette" - even if his mustache does not - it soon becomes a madcap struggle for him to regain control of the sanctuary.
Jordan Fong handles the colors with letters by Jef Bambas, but the lion's share of the work is by Coughlin himself. He has a cartoonish, illustrative style akin to an animation storyboarder, which makes the often dark and twisted tones of his story come across as more stark. These issues have thrilling escapes from spider caves, a mangled giraffe who survives a broken neck, a lot of action and more of Biff, the surliest giraffe one will ever meet. Coughlin has carefully woven a story in which the ambitions and morals of the cast of characters don't slip into stock shades of white or black; both the animals and humans often have conflicting or intersecting goals of their own. Everyone seems to have a secret to them to explore and reveal another layer of the mystery. The energetic "cartoon animal" art works well for the action as well as keeping all of the characters distinct as well as a contrast to the mood. No issue, page, or interaction is wasted as the storyline becomes more complicated and nuanced with every turn of the page, even in these action issues which reap a lot of the seeds of the development done in previous ones. Despite all this, the story still retains a sense of humor about itself at key interludes to prevent things from getting too dire.
At less than a dollar an issue for 25 pages of story (via ComiXology), "Sanctuary" offers far more than a quick glance at some of the covers would imply. "Talking animals", like many genres or story tropes, aren't flawed in themselves; their strengths and flaws come from the writers who employ them. Coughlin is telling a far more complicated story than Disney would ever tell using such tropes, and the winners are readers looking for distinction in their comics.