Nothing about Toril Orlesky’s Hotblood! is exactly what it seems. It’s a comic about the Old West, but there are centaurs. There are centaurs, but no magic. Every character is lying, but probably not in the way that you expect.
There are so many layers of deception to Hotblood! that it’s at times difficult to keep the stories straight. Simple facts–James Rook is a centaur employed by Asa Langley, a steel tycoon with a sharp tongue–hold true, but with no character willing to be entirely forthcoming, the reader is constantly on unsure footing. That works in the comic’s favor, drawing you along as if following the thread of something being gradually unraveled. Even when you’re not sure of the path, you’re enjoying the ride.
Rook and Langley make a fascinating team, as the former’s murky past and the latter’s wit and schemes play wonderfully off of one another. Their relationship is a whirlwind of increasingly high stakes, and, as a reader, their downward spiral is engrossing. They progress from reluctant employer and reluctant employee to literal partners in crime, as Asa aims to get back at his business partner, Wakefield — not by talking to him about his company shares, but by blowing up a train.
It’s that kind of impulsiveness and ambition that makes these two characters so compelling. That they’re frequently destructive might be off-putting to some readers, but their relationship to one another and the rest of the world is complicated. There are moments of genuine warmth and moments of depravity that make Rook and Langley feel real and intriguing, like people rather than vehicles for fluffy feelings. Positive relationship depictions are both great and necessary, but that’s not what’s at work in Hotblood!–here, we have flawed people doing sometimes terrible things, but remaining fundamentally people beneath it all. Even when they’re at their worst it’s not depravity for depravity’s sake, it’s depravity because sometimes humans do terrible things to one another, no matter how much we’d like them to be good with a capital G. They become a sort of Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple, two do-badders on a reckless journey to make money by blazing a crime-ridden trail through the Old West.
Because the characters are so unflinchingly human, Hotblood! is never gimmicky, despite its unusual premise. It’s a comic about centaurs in the Old West, but there is little emphasis on comparing and contrasting that world to ours, which works to the comic’s benefit. Its characters are unique and memorable enough that you may sometimes forget that this isn’t our world, especially because Orlesky takes pains to ensure that the world’s history isn’t painted over with a fine layer of varnish. Racism exists, and not just against centaurs. The Civil War happened, as it did in our world, because of slavery. Though these things are not the focus of the story, they shape the events and characters in such a way that it’s impossible to forget they happened.
Hotblood!’s sense of place and time is not just because Orlesky has spent time developing her world with historical accuracy and consistency in mind. The artwork, in beautiful, dusty color palettes, balances between desaturated and vibrant at appropriate moments. Sunset scenes are particularly good–reds and oranges make the muted tones of Langley’s outfits and complexion stand out, also highlighting Rook’s hair and coat. Even if the story doesn’t catch your interest at first read, Orlesky’s colors alone are worth a look.
Color isn’t the only thing Hotblood! has going for it. Orlesky’s artwork looks deceptively simple–faces are light on detail in comparison to the scenery, which vary between sparse and painstakingly detailed. The linework is light and sketchy, but not in a way that feels haphazard or quickly done. In fact, the lightness of the lines and Orlesky’s overall style makes the world feel natural. The detail is where it needs to be, suggesting texture and shape without overwhelming the viewer with too many details. Everything about the artwork is enough, just like the story and characters. Orlesky has a talent for knowing precisely what a scene needs, whether it’s a particular color palette, the right suggestion of lines, or an unconventional use of panels. It’s a beautiful sense of cohesion that few comics by large teams can muster because, as a webcomic, Hotblood! is the sole production of one person.
Though Hotblood!’s story is less memorable, it’s hard to shake the impact of its artwork and characters. And thankfully, though the series has ended, some of its characters and its fascinating world live on in Zarco, which only improves on the features that made Hotblood! so great. It’s the perfect evolution, and something that will allow Orlesky to grow her talent in new and exciting directions.