Shiny Shelf


Tozo: The Public Servant

By Mark Clapham on 28 November 2009

Self-published comics are a long game, a war of attrition between the vendor and the masses of potential purchasers who may briefly visit your website or walk past your table at a convention, but who have limited time and money at their disposal.

But keep putting it out there, and you will grind them down, eventually.

So it was with me and ‘Tozo: The Public Servant’. I’d seen it on sale at plenty of events before, but only got around to picking it up at the recent Thought Bubble 2009 event in Leeds. I’m glad I did.

The two issues I bought collect the first two chapters of the story, which is being published online with a row of panels, or sometimes a whole page, published every Sunday at tozocomic.com.

I’d never have guessed from the comics that ‘Tozo’ was a webstrip, but the nine-panel grid that writer/artist David O’Connell works in lends itself to the online format very well, with two or three panels a week bursting out into the occasional two-row or full-page splash. It’s a very clever bit of dual-purposing that could provide a model for creators wanting to put something other than a gag-strip on the web.

The most striking aspect of ‘Tozo’ is the art – like Garen Ewing of ‘Rainbow Orchid’ fame, O’Connell is clearly influenced by Herge and other European cartoonists, with a clear line and vivid colours. Characterisation is strong, especially in terms of body language.

In terms of story, ‘Tozo’ uses a straightforward murder mystery (investigated by the title character, a policeman whose investigation threatens to turn him into a patsy) as an entry point for a wider political conspiracy, which is in turn the vehicle for a gradual exploration of a well-built fantasy world. The city state of Nova Venezia is a vivid setting that’s not quite fantasy, not quite steampunk, but entirely appealing, a colourful world filled with brocaded dignitaries and tiny automatons.

There are also hints of a wider world, including the malevolent-sounding but so far unseen Spider Empire, but thankfully this doesn’t come from info-dumps but from references built up through the character’s conversations. It’s an effective and naturalistic way of colouring-in a complex fictional setting without overburdening the reader with exposition.

In other respects, naturalism isn’t really on the table. There’s a slightly rigid quality to a lot of the dialogue style in ‘Tozo’ which seems to be intentional, either as part of the mannered, old-fashioned world or as a nod to the translated classics the author is influenced by (the strip itself is bilingual, with a French-language version available online).

This mannered style isn’t a huge barrier to enjoyment, but it does occasionally feel oddly distancing, as does the relentlessly stoic nature of Tozo himself – I can see why you wouldn’t want to burden the story with angst, but if the lead character shrugs off danger too much it can lessen the tension. Thankfully, Tozo begins to show more depth and vulnerability in the third and (currently in progress) fourth chapters.

‘Tozo’ is an intriguing murder mystery set in an appealing world, and told in an artful and charming way. You can read the whole series to date online for free at tozocomic.com, where there’s also a store to buy the first two printed issues (currently sold out). Well worth catching up with, and definitely one of the more vivid and distinctive comics being published online.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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