Indiana Jones and Lara Croft have nothing on Kate Kristopher.
Indy, Lara and a host of famous explorers get their butts symbolically kicked in Shutter, the first postmodern adventure comic. Kate may be human, but that's about all she has in common with her forebears in the world-traveling biz. Even so, she manages to be cooler than all of them.
Those forbears include not just Indy and Lara, but the authors — from Henry Rider Haggard to Edgar Rice Burroughs — who established the adventurer genre at the turn of the 20th century. They dramatized a practice that had become common for Westerners with plenty of cash and plenty to prove: Adventurous men (and some women) ventured into ostensibly untamed lands and treated the indigenous people like they weren't people at all. Nonplussed by increasing urbanization back home, explorers slaughtered big animals and brought the corpses back to furnish jungle-themed man caves.
Not so in Shutter, the first six issues of which are collected here in paperback. On Joe Keatinge and Leila Del Duca's alternate-reality Earth, the animals frequently massacre the people. In fact, the very definition of "people" is expanded dramatically. A robot teaches at Kate's school, mer-creatures lead her summer camp and mutants sit on the court that expels her from the military. As for the animals, they include a mountain-gorilla doctor, a mohawked, bounty-hunting fox and a criminal platypus.
Kate, a gangly mixed-race woman with a swirling ponytail, stands on equal footing with the diverse denizens of her world — equal footing, that is, except for her fame as the daughter of a noted adventurer. It seems that when Kate was just a child, her father began taking her along on his travels. Together they visited the depths of city sewers, the heights of mountain ranges and even, in a beautiful episode at the beginning of the book, the moon. Now her father is dead, and she has yet another awestruck kid asking for her autograph on the subway. (He just happens to have horns.)
Wait — the subway? Yes, this heroine gets around town the same way as everybody else. Of course, that's before a fire lizard and a humanoid cat target her apartment with a bomb. She narrowly escapes, but her transgender best friend is hospitalized. Soon she's on the run again, pursued this time by rival gangs of homicidal lions and purple spirit ninjas.
It's all so busy, and so much fun, that it's easy to overlook Keatinge and Del Duca's deliberate subversion of the adventurer genre. (Keatinge is credited as the writer and Del Duca as the artist, but they're also listed as co-creators.) The careful thought that went into every upended trope is evident with some looking. Even the gory interludes — and there's a lot of gore — undercut classic explorer myths in which killing takes place somewhere far away, leaving only a bloodless trophy.
Keatinge and Del Duca's agenda is clear in the character of Kate's butler, Harrington, a walking skeleton. In a flashback we're told that Harrington used to be a living human — a white man, in fact. One day a dying woman — apparently black — came to his door seeking refuge, and he refused her. "Turn me away and I curse you to serve my heirs without end," she cried. And so he has, for Kate is her descendant.
There's a limit to how much you can unpack Western tradition in a comic book, and the reader's sympathies remain with Kate, the heroine. Fortunately, every illustration is so entertaining that politics are far from the only attraction. Del Duca's spiky, energetic style is addictive, and colorist Owen Gieni fills each spread with electricity.
Every page seems to vibrate (and not just the ones with complicated shootouts going on). Del Duca and Keatinge may want to close the coffin on the adventurer genre, but their heroine has it better than Lara Croft ever did.
Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.