Knights of the Lunch Table Vol. 1 (Scholastic/Graphix); Caliber #1-5 (Radical Comics)


A look at two very different twists on the legend of King Arthur, one a gritty Western aimed at adults and the other a light adventure series for kids.



Knights of the Lunch Table Vol. 1: The Dodgeball Chronicles (Scholastic/Graphix)

142 pgs. full color; $9.99

(W / A: Frank Cammuso)

Caliber: First Canon of Justice #1-5 (Radical Comics)

28-32 pgs. ea. full color; $1.00 (#1), $2.99 ea. (#2-5)

(W: Sam Sarkar; A: Garrie Gastonny)

When a writer needs a quick story idea, it never hurts to borrow from the classics. One of the sturdier tales from the public domain, of course, is the legend of King Arthur, but how many more ways can there be to tell a story that’s been re-imagined by everyone from Mark Twain to Monty Python to the greatest Disney film ever made?

Frank Cammuso’s answer to that question is to change the legend into a light-hearted, fun-filled children’s adventure. His stand-in for King Arthur is Artie King, a meek young boy trying not to make too many waves when he transfers into Camelot Middle School. Unfortunately, not everything goes so smoothly for our tween hero: not only does a prank from his bratty sister Morgan earn him the ire of big bully Joe Roman, but he also immediately ends up on the bad-side of the school’s principal, the malevolent Mrs. Dagger, who punishes him by assigning him a mysterious locker that no one is able to open. When Artie miraculously opens the locker it doesn’t sit too well with Joe, and the only way to calm the big lummox is to face off against him and his toadies, "the Horde," in a game of dodgeball to decide who truly "rules the school." But even with his new friends Percy and Wayne, his cute classmate Gwen, and the hip science teacher Mr. Merlyn on his side, what chance does our wimpy hero have?

The cover to Knights of the Lunch Table by Frank Cammuso. Click for a larger image.Knights of the Lunch Table is an easy book to like. Cammuso’s script brims with personality, imbuing his everykid hero, his quirky friends, and his cartoonishly evil enemies with an individuality beyond their potentially clichéd roles. Knowledge of Arthurian legend isn’t required, but it does help add to the ambiance, from the creepy sooth-saying lunch ladies (or "Ladies of the Lunch," as it were) to Gwen angrily recounting how the Horde destroyed her village (it was a social studies project). Though Artie’s fish-out-of-water story can at times read like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (if it just built to the Quidditch match, that is), Cammuso’s approach is much more down-to-earth. He’s not above playing with our Arthur-driven expectations, either: after Artie opens the mystical locker, Wayne tells him, "You, my friend, are the chosen one, the legend." Artie counters "I’m not the chosen one! I’m usually the last chosen one!" It’s a feeling anyone who has survived middle school can identify with, making this a surefire hit with its intended audience.

His writing may be snappy, but Cammuso is no slouch in the art department, either. Nominated for an Eisner for his Max Hamm, Fairy Tale Detective series, Cammuso has a thick-lined, exaggerated style of cartoonish, expressive faces and limber-limbed bodies. His panel-to-panel storytelling is clean and easy to read throughout, other than a few small rough patches during the big dodgeball finale. With its relatable dilemmas and morals, likeable characters, and attractive visual style, Knights of the Lunch Table feels destined to sit on TV next to cartoons like Recess or Codename: Kids Next Door. Cammuso’s art style is so animated, it reads like it’s already halfway there.

Sam Sarkar tries to pull a similar trick by taking Arthurian legend into the Wild West with Caliber: First Canon of Justice. The action opens not on an Arthur stand-in, but on Jean-Michel Whitefeather, a half-French/half-Native American shaman haunted by visions and nightmares. Whitefeather has in his possession a mysterious gun, a gun that his visions tell him can only be fired by a mythical "lawbringer," who he concludes must be the righteous local lawman Capt. Pendergon. Pendergon and his posse are tricked into confronting the local Klamath Indian tribe by the Crimson Circle, a Cobra-like group of shady, red-masked baddies aiming to snatch the tribe’s reservation land in the confusion. During the ensuing battle he attempts to fire his new sidearm but is flash-fried by its mystical energy. Oops! Turns out the gun’s rightful owner is actually Pendergon’s teenage son, Arthur.

Flash forward a few years, and we find Arthur grown from awkward kid to a brooding, long-haired romance novel cover model. When Arthur’s brother, Kay, is gunned down in cold blood by a Crimson Circle agent, it’s declared self-defense by the throng of onlookers, but Arthur knows better, and uses his father’s gun to blow a cannonball-sized hole of righteous justice in the SOB. Soon, Arthur and Whitefeather are on the run from the Crimson Circle, but they gain allies in bounty hunter Lance Lake and Arthur’s all-grown-up-and-all-filled-out childhood love Gwen.

One of several variant covers to Caliber #1 by Stanley Caliber comes with a Hollywood-worthy high concept (Excalibur as a gun named Caliber! Brilliant!), but that’s its biggest problem: it reads like a cynical cash grab, an attempt to sell the concept to the movies because, hey, Hollywood sure loves comic book movies these days! It will come as little surprise, then, that writer Sarkar is a 23-year film industry vet, a former actor turned screenwriter who now runs Johnny Depp’s production company Infinitum Nihil (who, perhaps not so coincidentally, optioned Caliber for the live action movie treatment before the first issue even shipped).

None of this would matter if he wrote a killer comic, of course, but the biggest problem is that Sarkar’s script reads like an illustrated screenplay, not a comic book. There was no real attempt to adjust to the comic book medium: Sarkar leaves all the heavy lifting to the artwork, leaving no identifiers to help the reader differentiate scene from scene and character from character. He also uses virtually no sound effects (I count 5 in the entire series), meaning even the big action set pieces feel totally lifeless on the page.

Radical went all out the production values for this book, one of their two launch titles, and at first glance Gary Gastonny’s hyper-realistic art looks a step above your typical comic book. But once you get past the sharp cover designs, the slick paper, and the rich, painterly colors, you’ll find that Gastonny stumbles at the very fundamentals of storytelling. Page layouts are needlessly complicated and often hard to follow, with more oddly-shaped panels slashing across the page than a 1990s Rob Liefeld comic. His layouts leave little room for the dialogue, resulting in multiple points where the balloons get read out of order just because they were crammed in where they’d fit rather than in a position that allowed the script to flow logically. A perfect example of Gastonny’s storytelling shortcomings arrives in the series’ third issue when, if the art is to be believed, one short conversation is spread out over two days (the scene goes from night to day to night to day again) and five different locations. His work is also slavishly photo-referenced, but sloppily so: pictures of love interest Gwen in later issues go beyond lightboxed tracings to straight-up computer-manipulated photos, and he uses a different "model" almost every time he shows her. When a character doesn’t look like herself, even from panel to panel on the same page, it’s a jarring effect that rips the reader right out of the story. (Gastonny is at least moderately more successful in his stuntcasting of Colin Farrell as bounty hunter Lance Lake.)

Sarkar and Gastonny almost pull the book out with a crowdpleasing ending, with our hero Arthur giving his own version of the Braveheart speech, his gun raised high in the air as sunlight bursts through the clouds above him. But as quickly as it regains its footing, it loses it again with an over-the-top action piece packed with twists that turn the tide toward our heroes favor, twists that come out of nowhere without even being slightly hinted at earlier in the series. From beginning to end, it’s a jumbled mess, and ultimately bears little resemblance to the legend it supposedly took as inspiration. It’s little more than a standard revenge Western with some fantasy trappings.

Though it, like Knights of the Lunch Table, is loosely based on Arthurian legend, Caliber is that book’s polar opposite, and not just because one is a gritty Western aimed at adults and the other is a light adventure series for kids. Its plot is over-complicated and hard to follow, its characters are interchangeable and uninteresting, and its artwork is all style and no substance. | Jason Green

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