Hotblood! Zarco’s Wonderful Blend of Crime Thriller and Western Isn’t Horsing Around

Toril Orlesky’s Zarco is the natural evolution of what she achieved in Hotblood!. I devoured it in one sitting, drawn along by the story and the artwork alike, hungry to find out how—if—things would resolve.

This review contains spoilers for Hotblood!

Hotblood!: Zarco takes place nine years after the events of the first series. In the world of Hotblood!, centaurs exist alongside humans, living their lives and seeking their fortunes in the Wild West. Asa Langley and James Rook—a centaur—are established criminals with bounties on their heads; they rob banks and burn shit down, the chaos they started in Hotblood! enveloping them. Until Asa dies in a failed bank robbery and James is captured under a false name, and U.S. Marshall Rafael Zarco tasked with bringing him in on a $1,200 bounty.

Four panels from Hotblood!: Zarco. The first shows a rattlesnake's body against a brown background, the second shows US Marshall Zarco's back with a gun slung across it, the third shows a bird silhouetted against the sun, and the fourth shows an eye with a snake eating its tail inside.

In true James Rook fashion, he has a counteroffer in mind. The two embark on a journey across the U.S. in search of bigger profits, grappling with grief and morality along the way.

Zarco’s plot is much tighter than that of its predecessor, with no big moneymaking schemes or complex histories to it. It’s also considerably shorter, just 60 pages compared to Hotblood!’s 275. It’s also not quite finished. There’s a final scene to be filled in, which will be revealed after the conclusion of the currently ongoing Zarco Kickstarter, which ends September 1. Though it requires some knowledge of Hotblood! for maximum emotional impact, this side-story can stand alone, and makes a tantalizing appetizer for those who are curious about the world of the previous comic.

But to only compare Zarco to Hotblood! is to do it a disservice. It’s a captivating story of its own, drawing the reader into Orlesky’s beautifully imagined alternate history without ever feeling like it’s retreading ground. The previous comic was primarily done in shades of dusty sunset reds and oranges, and though Zarco starts the same way, it quickly transitions into bold blacks and bright, sometimes neon colors suggesting an almost neo-noir crime thriller vibe.

A panel from Hotblood!: Zarco showing Zarco lighting a cigarette in Rook's mouth.

That atmosphere fits thematically; though Zarco is a sheriff, he’s more on the lawful neutral side than on the lawful good. As such, he fits right into the dastardly depravity that makes the series such fun. James, pushed into a life of crime thanks to Asa’s influence, in turn pushes Zarco. It’s a slow, creeping sort of corruption, though Zarco doesn’t really have all that far to go.

Orlesky’s artwork has evolved in other ways, too. There’s a heavy use of unusual textures in surprising ways, drawing the eye to certain details, like the light of a cigarette in a dingy prison cell or the pattern of a rattlesnake twining its body around a dying crow. There’s a sense of thematically appropriate grit in each panel.

Many of the comic’s pages serve as markers of time passed, like chapter headings. They often consist of abstract patterns against stark black background, but even these are not wasted. A series of thick white rectangles becomes moonlight through prison bars; red diamonds suggest the dying embers of a fire. The careful use of negative space, including the space between scenes, sticking in your craw and forcing you to think about what’s coming. Even if you read the comic in one fell swoop, as I did, there’s a moment of delicious wondering what each abstract shape mean before you click onto the next page.

Though Zarco is very much a side dish to Hotblood!’s entree, it’s a wonderful expansion of the world and wonderful evidence of Orlesky’s growth as a writer and artist. It’s a delight to look upon, and the story is sure to make readers hungry for more.

Melissa Brinks

Melissa Brinks

Melissa Brinks is a freelance writer and co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast. She has an affinity for cats, cooking, gardening, and investing copious hours of her life in fictional worlds of all kinds.