Author Archives: madmollgreen

Review: The Shadow Glass #1

The Shadow Glass #1 1The Shadow Glass has an amazing premise, an unusual setting, and a potentially fascinating main character.

Aly Fell sets this historical horror story in Elizabethan London, centered around a fictional version of real-life court magician John Dee. An archetypal “Renaissance Man” in every sense, Dee’s “magic” blended early modern Christian mysticism, science, and entertainment–and inspired literary figures from Prospero to Doctor Strange.

Pop-culture representations of Early Modern England tend to get stuck in cliches about Shakespearean romantic comedy or witch-craze horror. So it’s refreshing that Fell has realized the fantastic potential of Renaissance magic as historical source material. Basically, as soon as I heard about this book, I couldn’t wait to pick it up.

Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed by the actual experience of reading Shadow Glass #1.

For starters, I had difficulty really getting immersed in the story because of its uneven tone. Fell has clearly done some careful research about Elizabethan history and culture, but doesn’t seem sure how to deploy it. His detailed drawings of clothing and architecture are fantastic–whether Fell is drawing sunny Tudor houses or dark, musty interiors, the art instantly transports you to this strange fictional world with admirable specificity and detail.

In contrast, the first two pages start with a cheesy, very extensive description of what sixteenth-century London looks and smells and feels like.

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Is this book trying to immerse us in a vivid historical setting, or to set up an ironic, pulpy tone? To be clear, either would be fine! There’s nothing wrong with luxurious supernatural-historical comics-verité… or with ironically purple prose.  But the overall effect is uneven and mixed, like Shadow Glass can’t fully commit to how seriously–or non-seriously–it wants to take itself.

It’s also in the first few pages that Shadow Glass is most riveting and well-paced, as we (barely) glimpse the terrible magical horror at the heart of the story: a fateful betrayal twenty years before the main action. This is the best, most interesting part of the story so far: a short flashback about actual magic. By contrast, the rest of issue #1 is mostly the young protagonist, Rosalind, asking earnest questions of old men who are hiding things from her. Any sense of mystery, as well as Rosalind’s entire motivation (discovering the dark secrets in her family’s past) is undermined by this flashback. I can’t help but think that the structure of this book would be much more interesting if Rosalind’s knowledge (or lack thereof) lined up with the reader’s. Otherwise, we’re just watching a character find out what we already know.

On the surface, Rosalind is everything I like in a heroine. She’s determined, brave, and plain-spoken. She’s named after one of my favorite characters, and she dresses like my namesake Molly Frith. I mean, she’s a sword-fighting student of a legendary magician! (What’s not to love?)

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But in practice, Rosalind is a bit of a blank slate. Fell draws her with confused wide eyes and a soft, slack mouth as she asks “Father…? Father? Father?” again and again and again.

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(Seriously, the word makes up a disconcertingly high percentage of her dialogue.)

I get the sense that Rosalind is supposed to be a nascent adventurer coming into her own, but we’re not seeing much of that side of her yet. She’s reduced to a girl in search of old men’s answers, defined by the sins of her father(s), and the exact nature of her education under Dee is completely passed over… at least for now.

To be fair, none of these criticisms should be the final word on Shadow Glass. This won’t be the last issue I’ll read, because it’s still entirely possible that issue #2 will more fully develop Fell’s potentially fascinating alt-historical world, or give some depth to his potentially fascinating heroine. These might be the awkward birthing pains of a solid new series, or they might be fundamental flaws.

Story: Aly Fell Art: Aly Fell
Story: 6 Art: 8 Overall: 7 Recommendation: Wait and See

Dark Horse provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Monsters & Mental Illness: Negative Space #1-3

NEGATIVE SPACEReading Negative Space feels deeply weird and deeply familiar all at the same time, in all the right ways.

I was instantly sucked in, right from the first issue. Scary squishy aliens, existential dread, grand conspiracies, and pink tentacle monsters in ugly orange sweaters? I loved it. And I loved how the art was somehow sketchily impressionistic and horrifically detailed at the same time. Owen Gieni’s pretty colors and artful composition are always walking that uncanny line, whether he’s drawing adorably gangly bodies or weird, disgusting gore.

And I loved Guy, the protagonist, right from first sight. Fat, self-depreciating, tender Guy, with his big nose and small, sad eyes. In just the first few pages, Guy is a complete person who it seems like I know intimately: a frustrated writer, disabled, lonely, brave and suicidal and in love with a barista named Woody.

Guy’s name seems to indicate that he’s a stereotypical “everyman” kind of hero–you know, just a “guy.” But Guy isn’t the bland, unremarkable kind of everyman who usually appears in this kind of story. He certainly doesn’t look like everyone else: he’s big, he’s Native, and he’s gay. He’s idiosyncratic, but deeply relatable at the same time. He’s not special in spite of being normal–he’s relatable because he’s so vividly unique.

I also really loved that from the first issue, Guy’s supernatural powers and existential weaknesses are all wrapped up in the same big package. The same capacity for feeling and understanding that make him a writer are inherently linked to his illness, and to his supernatural, maybe-messianic empathy.

Guy’s depression is the catalyst for the entire story. He’s not just sad and desperate before he gets whisked away on a grand adventure. Negative Space is a story about mental illness on a grand, cosmic scale–and it’s not a symbolic story about mental illness, either.

Negative Space #2You know that mad feeling that the entire universe is being engineered just to fuck with you personally? Well, in Guy’s case, it’s actually true. A shadowy organization called the Kindred Corporation is monitoring and manipulating his life, making sure that it sucks as much as humanly (or inhumanly possible), because they’re working in collaboration with the Evorah, an alien race that feeds on negative emotions.

There’s nothing particularly innovative about making illness into monsters. In the wrong hands, fiction that externalizes disability into something that can be fought and destroyed can be deeply unhelpful or even harmful to neurodivergent people.

But it can also be extremely comforting. In a recent episode of This American Life, a guy named Paul Ford describes how he programmed an “Anxiety Bot” to send him nasty emails about himself. This certainly isn’t the kind of thing that’d work for me, but it worked for Ford–by creating an artificial voice that mirrored and replicated his anxiety, he was able to recognize how “stupid” and alien and robotic that voice really was. The terrible thoughts he was having about his life? Those thoughts weren’t really him–they were his anxiety talking.

In my experience, being able to externalize my disability was a crucial step in learning to live with it. That’s not me–that’s the illness trying to get me is something I had to tell myself hourly and then daily and weekly to survive. A lot of people find it very helpful to imagine their illness as something other than or outside of themselves–as alien or “mean” or “stupid” or monstrous or evil, or whatever else works for them.

But, paradoxically, surviving with a mental disability is also about acceptance. I’m more than my illness, but I am also chronically, permanently, inherently ill. I’m disabled. As much as I’m able to convince myself that That’s not me, that alien thing is definitely here to stay.

So, basically, my personal strategy for coping with and recovering from mental illness has been a paradoxical balancing act between externalization and acceptance. It’s confusing and contradictory, but the important thing is that it’s a trick that works (for me, at least). So who cares if it doesn’t make a lick of sense?

In Negative Space #2, Guy sets off on a grand adventure. He teams up with a group of resistance fighters, including Woody and a turncoat alien named Beta, to arm and detonate an “emotion bomb” that might harm Kindred Corp. and the Evorah. Guy also finds out that he’s a powerful empath who could play a crucial role in both the resistance and the Evorah’s global takeover.

But it’s in Negative Space #3 that Guy starts to make his first big stand against humanity’s oppressors. And it’s also in Negative Space #3 that Gieni and writer Ryan K. Lindsay pull off their big emotional and artistic masterstroke.

As Guy takes command of his newfound powers, it doesn’t mean shedding his depression, or no longer feeling suicidal, or by suddenly becoming happy. He does it by feeling sad. In one hazy, beautiful, purple-pink splash page, Guy remembers his father; he feels angry and deeply sad, and that’s what fuels his big, badass moment against earth’s alien enemies.

I’ve never really seen anything like this. I’ve lived with mental illness for years (pretty satisfactorily, I might add!) by tricking myself into accepting that awkward paradox between externalization and… well, acceptance. But Negative Space #3 pulls off a weird magic trick: making that paradox seem effortless and honest to me for the first time.

It sounds false and cheesy when you write it out: Guy uses The Power of Feelings to fight his internal (and external) demons. But it sure doesn’t feel false on the page.

Story: Ryan K. Lindsay Art: Owen Gieni
Story: 9 Art: 8.5 Overall: 8.3 Recommendation: Buy