Already anticipating future things!

*Saved Again From My Own Failings Dept: The invaluable Jim Roeg, as part of one of those monster-sized digest posts of his, has compiled a big index of Seven Soldiers reviews. And even after you’ve read them all, the list will prove valuable just for keeping things organized - lord knows all of my stuff has long ago gotten to floating around in the internet ether, with little in the way of useful organization. Until now!

Be sure you read the whole post though, there’s some interesting stuff (as there always is with Jim), especially the bits on DC's Testament, a book I might need to check out. Regrettably, all I know of writer Douglas Rushkoff’s comics output comes from Dirk Deppey’s scathing review of his prior Club Zero-G; Deppey dubbed it the worst book of 2004, concluding that “Club Zero-G reads like an attempt to cash in on this new "graphic novel" thing by an author who really didn't have a clue about storytelling, let alone how to accomplish it in visual form, let alone had a story to tell in the first place. What a shitty, shitty comic book.” Hopefully this new title will inspire a more positive reaction in me than the last one did in Dirk.

*Ok, January 2. I think it’s time for the first advance review of the year.

Strangeways #1

This will be out pretty soon, hopefully within the month. It’s from Speakeasy, 32 pages. Nice Steve Lieber cover of a wolf chowing down. Fans of horror comics in particular will want to keep it in mind, and make sure to keep an eye out for when it’s released.

Cowboys and werewolves - it’s a funny and catchy concept, initially absurd yet ultimately fitting, as the untamed landscapes of the pulp western are dark ones, violent and constantly tottering on the edge of calamity at the hand of unexpected forces. In my mind, much of the appeal of the classic cowboy yarn derives from the lawless status of the setting, the stripping away of civilization as we understand it to observe (enjoy) humanity in a less adorned state, freedom seemingly more possible through the absence of social safeguards. Many have drawn connections between westerns and assorted subgenres of science fiction, whether it’s the once-omnipresent post-apocalypse brand or the spacefaring antics of Serenity; the connecting tissue is the promise of thrills and danger in a less-regulated world, and storytelling tropes are often compatible in either genre. Thus, it’s not absurd to imagine monsters lurking in the blackness (they often do), and matching up fabled, well-traveled beasts with the style of the western suddenly appears natural (even before you’ve located the pre and post-Code horror stories that have adopted such genre-swapping stances in our comics past). There is still a capacity for camp, of course.

Strangeways is definitely not camp; it’s also more horror than western, at least in this debut issue. Writer Matt Maxwell is plainly working to set up a thorough backstory, one deeply rooted in that connecting tissue mentioned above, and keenly aware of the interactive possibilities between various genre mechanics. This debut issue opens with a meeting between a native tribe and one of the beasts; swiftly, the story is peppered with notions of revenge surrounding those constant cowboys ‘n indians skirmishes, with a dollop of mysticism. Next issue, as evidenced by Maxwell's site, will feature an ever-applicable twist on the old lynch mob device (how many good townsfolk have locked their doors at the arrival of strangers, either in fear of Bad Bart and his black hat or the local bloodsucking plague-bringer?). And all of this is centered around the exploits of Seth Collins, Civil War vet and stolid man of few words, who’s only trying to get to his estranged sister, who requests his presence for some strange reason. That’s why he’s on this dank job, co-piloting a carriage of travelers on a dark route, which is what enmeshes him in the black doings of the big dogs.

But that’s the real focus of this issue; the majority of the storytelling space is spent on some familiar cat-and-mouse between the crew and passenger of the carriage and a big nasty werewolf, who comes out of nowhere and wreaks much havoc. Sequences like these throw a lot of attention onto the visuals, and artist Luis Guaragna handles himself decently. He works in a scratchy, heavily shadowed b&w style, character faces constantly minimalized down to pools of ink dabbed around the suggestion of features, save for the occasional close-up, revealing an appealingly detailed grasp of expression through the eyes and mouth. Backgrounds are filled with slicing lines and copious crosshatching, individual elements occasionally light on detail. Page compositions are sometimes a little difficult; a view from the inside of a vehicle tumbling over is convoluted and slightly tough to parse, and there’s a tendency for word balloons to be placed in inopportune locations, drawing the reader’s eye to new segments of conversations when the current one is not yet finished. These are mild faults, but present. Special mention must be made, however, of Guaragna’s werewolves, however, which look perfectly feral and viscous, sometimes only a blur of scratches and ink and sometimes towering and muscular.

Fun stuff - clearly introductory, but offering up some instant entertainment with the premise suggestions, and doing nice work with conveying a lot of hints and promise through sparse dialogue. This is good, and efficient, and bodes well for future chapters. By way of making his process transparent, Maxwell also includes a neat bonus section, complete with selections from his abandoned drafts of the script - it's enlightening to see the evolution of the project during its long gestation (almost a decade in total) into what we have in front of us. Also included is a nice Guy Davis pin-up, and additional comments from Maxwell; a solid presentation.

This is only part one of four in the opening storyline, and Maxwell is clearly preparing us for mysteries in the future. It’s interesting that the western elements are what are largely applied toward the mystery, the future, while the horror bits are more immediate, thus controlling the issue. As far as horror goes, it’s well-wrought and appealingly dark, playing up the midnight abandon of isolated paths through impenetrable woods. Fans of horror comics have perhaps had their interest piqued already, and I think they’ll enjoy the purchase. But Maxwell’s characters, minimally filled as they appear here, can carry this thing further. There’s the promise of future genre-mixing storytelling explorations in the future, and that’s what I’m looking forward to, and probably what will carry the book into future issues (one can only dodge werewolves so many times, as we all know). The present of Strangeways is worth catching your attention, but its future is where the real jumps will hopefully occur.