4 out of 5
I really enjoyed Tuki, Jeff Smith’s webcomic which I read in its printed format. I was bummed that it had seemed to halt in its tracks, as the story had a great sense of momentum that deposits us right on the forming edge of a quest. So: when Jeff Smith started to crowdfund a collection and continuation of Tuki in graphic novel format – sold. I put in my purchase, and did not read anything further about the project, just sitting on my hands while waiting for the first volume to arrive.
When the opportunity came to dig in, Tuki: Fight for Fire – the new subtitle for this opening graphic novel – was just as absorbing as I’d remembered, but also different in some way. The pacing; the focus. When I’d get to the backmatter, I’d understand why – that this was not a “simple” gathering up of the webcomic, but was wholly reworked by Smith, expanding and redrawing and repurposing, in order to upscale the story to an epic. Hence my preamble above: I’m sure I would have known this if I’d read up a bit more before clicking the ol’ Buy button, but no matter. And while this might not be important to a new / more informed reader, it does end up affecting the rating, in the sense that our rollercoaster-of-events from the webcomic, which were very, very Tuki-centric, are now more patiently brought forth, and the cast given a more equal weight. Tuki is still the protagonist, to be sure, but it does feel like he’s the main star in an ensemble of kids and talking animals, instead of the leader to a gaggle of hanger-ons.
In Tuki, our name character is but one human species amidst the several researched types feature in the 2 million BCE setting of the story. He’s a survivor, known for toppling “giants,” but very much a loner, tummy grumbling and carefully tracking and hunting down food. Along the way, he meets a talking ape shaman – yes, we’re going to jump right into that, but it works perfectly with Jeff’s naturalistic, cartoonish style – who was warnings of coming events, but also wants to partner up with this slayer of giants, and the two start off on an odd couple journey, Tuki still just focused on survival. …But then he meets a child in his travels, and gets roped in to saving the kid’s sisters, and then the pair up with a little monkey named Poo…
This sounds comical, but some frightening stuff happens along the way, similar to how Bone was cute creatures, but the story was seeded with growingly ominous elements – the same masterful blending is happening here: elements from another plane are seeping in to this reality, and Tuki seems sensitive to that.
Jeff allows for a very organic flow to the story, and the aforementioned backmatter shows how much thought he’s put in to smoothing out the story. Comparing the pacing to the webcomic side by side expands on this: things that were a single “page” in the webcomic are now several pages long, but for good reason. And the book is in black and white (the original in color), but its gained the richness of cleanliness of Smith’s best B&W art, less jittery than RASL but more “adult” than Bone.
The sole downside to this upscaling of scope is that this first volume doesn’t really get to the point of giving us a sense of where we’re going, or why. I mean, there’s the mention of impending something-or-other, but it’s notable that Smith has to include an epilogue with a character we’ve otherwise not met / has not yet been mentioned, essentially promising that there’s more serious business to come. The Bone comparison is apt again, since that title also ramped up, but we did have mini-goals along the way that kept things relevant; Tuki has a more long-form vibe, right from the start. However, as handled by Smith, there’s no doubt we will get somewhere. The book and its world and its characters are all surely absorbing, making the wait for the second volume as fun as it was for the first.