If you had to bank on one indie comic getting the Big Hollywood Bump, Polar would be as safe a bet as any. Victor Santos’ gorgeous series — which follows super assassin Black Kaiser as he’s ripped out of retirement — debuted in 2012 as a webcomic before Dark Horse picked it up. Since then, there have been several new volumes (it all wraps up with volume 4 this year). More importantly, Netflix recently adapted the series, with the killer Kaiser played by Mads Mikkelsen.
Given all this hype and buzz, now’s the perfect time to revisit volume one (“Came from the Cold”), conveniently re-released this month as part of an all-new second edition. And while there’s no telling how the movie will be received as a continuation or expansion of the canon, one thing’s quite clear: Adaptations are a fun, tedious ride into the heart of fiction itself.
Nerds raging against adaptations is nothing new (it’s part of our shared DNA). Usually, that angst is geared toward movies/TV. But in this case, larger issues appear when you look at Polar in its entirety, viewing its history and evolution and contextual bounty as if from a treeline two clicks from your target’s Swiss mansion.
Perhaps the biggest issue that I have is the addition of dialogue between the webcomics and Dark Horse volumes. Santos’ art alone is so wildly gorgeous — there have been comparisons to Frank Miller’s work with Sin City, but Santos’s efforts are a beauty all their own. He’s clearly paying homage to that sort of approach and style, but the work in Polar is sensual yet warm and inviting, stark but brimming with life, focused and yet still open and explorative. His use of that perfect shade of orange makes the art wildly attractive without distracting from the inherent sense of grit and aggression in each scene.
The addition of dialogue — especially lines that feel both clunky and hackneyed — is like writing Instagram poems on the Mona Lisa. One might argue that the dialogue itself is a homage to the action movies of the ’80s and ’90s, and while it certainly has that same mix of cheesiness and forced coolness, it’s just not a proper fit. Polar feels like it needs that sense of disconnect that comes with foregoing dialogue to really shine. It’s the sort of fictional entity that exists as a series of visuals, quick flashes of color and movement that drive its sense of brooding and ultra-violence.
It is worth noting, however, that the inclusion of dialogue isn’t all bad. It does help to bolster the narrative, not only in the way that it makes the story feel more structured, but also in expanding characters and building up tension or humor or emotion. Kaiser, especially, is still mostly mute, and his dialogue doesn’t really impact his characterization. (Generally speaking.) And that’s crucial in showing his inner darkness and that struggle of returning to the assassin game.
As an extension of that, it’s important to note that the webcomic excels over the comic collections in that Santos only published new entries every few days. As such, people only had a few new panels to consume at any given time, and that’s truly the best mode for this particular book. Given just how visually oriented Polar is, that piecemeal approach lets the reader swim around the many shots, taking their time to explore and build a personal narrative as they see fit. I’ve talked about this ability in other reviews, but the Polar webcomic does it in a way that feels more deliberate and thus impactful.
This isn’t a condemnation of the story at all, and certainly collected editions work just fine. But this does speak to the process of adaptation, and what we lose (or gain) as a franchise is modified in whatever configuration. These sort of things are worth paying attention to, whether a book becomes a movie or the book itself is tweaked somehow.
There seems to be a trend in maximizing accessibility or injecting new ideas/energies – and that translates to over-complicating basic stories. As if there’s something mutually exclusive to testing and pushing audiences and still giving them something primal and evocative to cling to.
Adaptations aren’t (entirely) evil, but the multi-pronged example of Polar demonstrates a few essential truths. Namely, some core elements can make or break a new entry, and often the first iteration is a guideline which must ground and anchor subsequent versions. In the case of Polar, nothing is truly impacted from the overall quality and intent of the story, but these changes — and whatever happens in the movie — are nonetheless important. Fiction isn’t just a nachos supreme you can customize at your will (but it will also give you heartburn if you consume too much). There’s a reason the devil is in the details — complexity can often be masked as simplicity, and that’s especially true for the comics medium.
As a final note, I’m excited to see the Netflix adaptation. And while as of writing I’ve only seen the trailer a handful of times, there’s something about it that feels in line with spirit of the webcomic. Like, the way certain shots are framed, the slickness and disconnect of the violence, and the multitude of emotional end-goals. Sure, there’s just as much that could go wrong — the addition of the neighbor character, the supporting cast, special effects, etc. — but then that’s the point: Polar takes dumb risks and flies on the dual winds of emotional bluntness and extreme style. Plus, I’d watch Mikkelsen mime his way through a Dick and Jane book.
Above all else, I generally enjoyed volume one, and think it’s a great title for all audiences. If I’m somehow overly critical of its many offerings, it’s only because I like Polar that much. Rare is the franchise that you can thoroughly enjoy and still dissect critically without damaging its original luster. Just so long as they don’t turn this into, like, an Off-Broadway musical in 2021.
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