Nick Pyle’s Fend is an appealing addition to the sci-fi western stable, variously evoking Leone-style standoffs and Dragon Ball Z. Readers follow Arkin, a blank-eyed mystical maybe-android dressed like a western dandy, and Tober Helm, an armored heavy with a Santa beard and high-tech visor, as they travel through a mountain-fringed desert and a crystalline cavern to confront a bloodied, humanoid mess of wires. The comic features no dialogue, but when Arkin and Helm find the wire being, Sick Man, he blows the doors off a wall, a moment that implies the duo can’t allow him to go further. The ensuing fight includes a mix of identifiable weapons (Sick Man’s firearms) and more fantastical ones (a beam Helm directs through the crystal atop his cane). Sick Man’s efforts to resist Arkin and Helm drive a narrative of escalation, with Sick Man shifting form to form with intensifying ferocity. Throughout, everything appears to sparkle; Pyle grants a jeweled quality even to Sick Man’s techno-viscera.
Fend is the first book to feature these characters, although Pyle has shared scenes and designs from the same fictional realm on social media. In its format, Fend most resembles the European album, running 60 pages (40 pages of story, 20 more of supplementary materials) at generous 9.5" x 12" dimensions. Other reference points might include the shorter pieces in Heavy Metal magazine or a fight comics co-op like Cry Punch. It’s longer than your average anthology entry, but similar in its context-light, vibe-heavy motions. In other words, Pyle’s book is not a totally alien release. But nor is it exactly of a piece with these other comics. The book’s combination of story choices and production choices means the work inhabits its own space.
One effect of this combo is the potential activation of certain prejudices in a reader. Pyle’s sequential output is so limited, and—in Fend’s depth of characterization or complexity of story—this narrative so slight, that the book might register like a person taking a victory lap the first time he sets foot on the track. You can imagine a comic shop debate about what makes a work deserve a deluxe treatment, even if the only reasonable answer is that the relevant measuring stick doesn’t exist. And so it’s perhaps best to appreciate Fend as a dispatch from a more benevolent universe, one in which every genre riff arrives in a big-and-tall hardcover, a treatment to match a cartoonist’s aspirations or affection for their characters.
Throughout Fend, Pyle has a take-my-word-for-it approach to world-building, with explanations at a minimum. Information only arrives visually, suggested by details like Helm’s and Arkin’s tech-sorcerer combat tactics and the implied anguish of Sick Man. But the story’s environment still feels legible, and not just because of its western motifs. In drawing Fend, Pyle utilized only pen, marker and paint pen, and the result is wonderfully counter-intuitive. The materiality of Pyle’s drawings as drawings is often evident; for example, a reader can spot the visual texture that results from one marker stroke atop another. But these materials make the story’s setting seem more expansive at the same time, especially in tandem with Pyle’s frequent use of negative space. He pulls off a simple but effective feat of cartooning trickery: somewhere in noting the paper behind the drawing, a reader’s brain gets confused, and it begins to feel instead like a scene’s landscapes could go on forever.
Less effective is Pyle’s approach to depicting sound. More often than not, he includes labels that identify the cause of a sound, as opposed to traditional sound effects. (On one page, “Echoing footsteps”/ “Rocks clacking”/ “Footsteps”/ “Footsteps”; on another, “Kshunk”/ “Gunshot”/ “Kshunk” / “Gunshot” / “Kshunk” / “Gunshot/breaking metal.”) Pyle’s biggest swings—“Single guitar note,” “Mournful song”—are especially distracting, disrupting a reader’s immersion to no meaningful end. These labels are rarely more effective than onomatopoeia would have been.
Still, if this approach to sound is a bust, it’s also a minor dimension of the book. As a piece of action cartooning, Fend works. Pyle’s layouts, figure drawing, coloring and more all contribute to lively scenes. “Single guitar note[s]” notwithstanding, the comic has all the qualities of a committed and not-cutesy piece. One spread has Arkin—his massive hat spanning most of a page’s widescreen panel—surrounded by streaks of white light, perhaps white magic, before hurling this cultivated energy at Sick Man in the manner of an MLB pitcher. Pyle reverses our perspective to the face of Sick Man, already lit by his opponent’s attack - curiously sympathetic, given its mix of simple shapes and dangling wires. As in most good fight comics, the scene is a kinetic but considered composition, satisfying at each unit of storytelling.
As a total package, Fend is, hopefully, sustainable. Although the book quickly sold out its 500-copy print run, you can imagine some folks thinking twice about ordering a second volume after realizing they dropped $25 on a prologue. For more charitable readers, the excess will remain part of the appeal. These are 40 pages of story that go as big as they can.