There was a pretty neat theory I once heard--can't remember where--which said that the reason the Book of Revelations in the Bible sounds like "the ravings of a maniac" (quote Thomas Jefferson) is because the whole thing is code. A giant metaphor for the collapse of the Roman Empire. In essence, it's the underground resistance saying "take heart, this only lasts so long." In other words, one can view the Bible through a different perspective if one wants--as a secular, politically charged manifesto. (Edit: according to the creators of this comic, this theory pops up in a book they consulted for research called Revelations: Vision, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels. Pretty cool.) Then there's the fact that, contrary to how glossed-over it is in mainstream history texts, the Chinese and Roman empires had quite a bit of back-and-forth trade and dialogue, though of course distance prevented the Silk Road merchants from carrying anything larger than, you know, silk and whatnot. Still, with Europe and Asia using the Middle East as a trade route to navigate the remnants of Pangaea, it provides quite the underused setting for intriguing and complicated plots.
So when I found out the premise behind Three Sovereigns, by Anthony Di Franco and Fabrice Adinaryanin, you could have colored me giddy. It takes one of the most well-known stories in the Bible--that of the birth of Jesus--and turns it into a story not of God and man, but of kings, rebels, ancient power struggles and subterfuge. Not only that, but it mixes elements of the Far East in as well, and puts it all up in semi-manga style. There are some noticeable bugs in the work, but I think if they work those issues out in later volumes this could be a pretty cool series to read.
In essence, we have the story of the Three Kings of the Orient coming to give gifts to Jesus, but reinterpreted as a special mission to infiltrate a "terrorist cell" aimed at rebelling against Roman authority. It seems, however, that the Three Sovereigns have ideas of their own. But, seeing as this is an action comic, events quickly find themselves festooned with swords and organs. Huh. That's a weird mental image. Machete wielding kidneys, or kidney wielding machetes?
The writing is generally pretty good. Di Franco can make a dialogue sound convincingly vintage, with King Herod speaking in a very opulent, flamboyant and commanding style while the Sovereigns speak with humbler word choices. It was easy to feel the personality of each character and imagine what they sounded like--Balthasar's controlled, tame speech contrasting against Gaspar's booming voice and Melchior's confident verses. I like it a lot. I do wish Di Franco had done something similar to, say, Battle Angel Alita (or Gally for the NEEERDS (kidding, I like you)) for some of the older language. When Yukito Kishiro dropped a load of lesser-known words and phrases into his dialogue, he would asterisk those words and stick a tiny footnote at the bottom explaining the meaning behind it. I have no idea what "Mimesis" is, but I'd prefer that the author tell me rather than have me do a Google search. It's less about efficiency and more about explaining bits and pieces of the world we're looking at. Footnotes would help flesh out the world in a self-contained fashion. I know some people, in the larger theory of reading, are against this, but I don't see how it would hurt. It's a minor note though, and for the most part I enjoy how these characters speak.
The overall story has an intriguing premise and a solid, logical chain of events. It does have a bug or two though, in that there is a key plot point that is explained after it happened, but never shown. If I hadn't been told about it, I would have assumed the opposite had occurred judging by events as they were depicted. I hope that doesn't become a trend in the next iteration. Though I would like to assume that the fact that they went back and inserted the exposition on shown past events at all would mean that they knew it had been confusing. Because otherwise why bother with the recap?
Fabrice can do a decent semi-manga style (as I would classify this...not quite all the ticks of a true manga style, but the Eastern sensibility is there nonetheless). In spite of the size of his panels he can still make some good action poses and fight scenes, filled with all the kind of violence and gore you'd want in a graphic novel like this. His characters have interesting designs and it's easy to tell who they are and their personalities just by looking at them. I think he needs to add depth and texture, though. There are some scenes where scenery and faces can appear as flat as cardboard and lack a sense of durability or life. I also think perhaps that he could play around with the shading a bit and see if he can find a more pleasing look, because the thin, short and dense lines he uses make characters feel...grainy, is the word I think I'm looking for. There are some special effects that hint at the ability to make more impressive visuals, but feel a little too thin and fragile, especially for the amount of panel space they are allotted at times.
However, much of the "graininess" could be a function of the b&w pages. There are some colored sample pages available and they show much more depth. So I don't know.
If I had a metaphor, it would be a turkey sandwich of just turkey. It's decent and has potential, but what really makes it good is the mustard and the cheese and the other stuff you add on. Does that make sense? I think Fabrice's work is of a quality that puts it above a sliced turkey sandwich, like, say, a leftover Thanksgiving day turkey sandwich (don't even pretend you don't know what I'm talking about), but it needs adjusting. Jesus this is getting obtuse.
I might have made it sound worse than it is; personally I want to see more of this because it's an interesting premise and I think it's done enough right that it deserves to be read. I just think it has a few small issues to iron out, or vegetables to add or UGH MY METAPHORS at least check it out.
TL;DR: Three Sovereigns has a few flaws to fix but it gets the basics down and runs an old story under an interesting new lens with plenty of action and an art style with potential. It does a first issue well and I'd recommend you read it.
Three Sovereigns is written by Anthony Di Franco and illustrated by Fabrice Adinaryanin. Published under DFKO, you can read a preview of the first issue on their website and buy the full issue on Graphicly, Amazon Kindle (which supports Spandexless!), or Nook.
A review PDF of Three Sovereigns #1 was graciously provided to Spandexless by the creators.