A fair number of critics that I know of choose not to follow comics creators on twitter simply because they don’t want their impression of any given writer, artist, etc. beyond the printed page to influence their opinion of said person’s work, and I can sort of see the wisdom in that — after all, if you’re obviously “twitter pals” with a certain creator, and then you write a glowing review of their latest project, you’re going to be subjected, rightly or wrongly, to speculation that you’re just doing your friend a favor by telling folks to buy their book.
And then there’s the simple fact that a fair number of creators just don’t seem to like us critics very much. Don’t get me wrong — they absolutely love us when we have good things to say about their comics, but there’s a small but vocal number of freelancers out there who really don’t take well to having their work criticized for any reason. Obviously the recent death threats directed at Captain America scribe Nick Spencer are well beyond the bounds of civilized — or even rational — discourse, but then, Spencer’s habit of actively “trolling” for negative reviews of his work and then picking said reviews to pieces on social media is incredibly thin-skinned and lame, as well.
I’d like to think, though, that the average mature, adult critic can separate the creator from his or her creation (for instance, my impression of the aforementioned Mr. Spencer as a petulant crybaby and a shill for the pro-Wall Street, anti-labor “neoliberal” wing of the Democratic Party doesn’t mean I can’t think that The Fix is an absolutely brilliant book) and that the average mature, adult creator can withstand some constructive criticism about their work. Most of the time, at any rate.
All of which brings me to Shawn Aldridge, who is as good a “textbook example” as I can provide of why, unlike some of my peers in the “review game,” I actually do continue to follow comics freelancers on twitter. When I wrote something of a middling review for the first issue of his Vertigo series The Dark & Bloody some months back, Aldridge took it in stride and tweeted me something to the effect of “hey, sorry you weren’t so crazy about the book, but if you stick it out, trust me, things get better.” We back-and-forthed a bit from there, with him telling me that the “slow burn” pacing of the first issue was quite deliberate and that he and artist extraordinaire Scott Godlweski were playing something of a “long game” with the six issues they’d been given to tell their tale, and frankly, I think that’s pretty gutsy in today’s comics marketplace, where the hyper-inflated sales of first issues have created something of a “gotta grab ’em by the throat right away while we’ve still got their attention” storytelling methodology that reeks of desperation and undercuts any chance for a methodical and well-paced build-up of events almost from the word “go.” Sufficiently impressed by the earnestness of the writer’s intentions, I made Mr. Aldridge a deal — I’d stick with his book until the end, and if I grew to like it more as it went on, I’d let folks know.
Little did I suspect, however, just how much better The Dark & Bloody was going to get.
We knew from the outset, of course, that something nasty went down with our protagonist, Iris Gentry, when he was stationed in Iraq, but there was no reason to suspect that the horrors of war had followed him home in quite as literal a way as they did, nor did we have any initial cause to link any of this with his son’s new friend — or the spate of deaths that began to swirl around their lives at the same time she entered the picture — but it all comes together both simply and masterfully as issues two through six play out, and while there’s no “reinventing the wheel”-type stuff going on here, the long tradition of horror as morality play has seldom been in hands as capable as these in its comic book iteration.
I remarked in my first review how Godlewski’s art may be even more polished and expressive here than in his sublime Image series Copperhead, but by the time things come to a shattering crescendo in issue six, there’s just no doubt — this is the best work of his career, and he’s proven that there’s no genre he can’t delineate with genuine finesse. Ably assisted by Patricia Mulvihill‘s multi-dimensional color palette, what’s been created here is one of the best-looking books of the year.
Still, it’s the story, its characters, their world, and the tragedy underpinning it all that really grew on me as events progressed in this largely-under-the-radar title, and I’m actually sort of sad that we’ve got to leave it all behind. Not that I’m clamoring for a sequel or anything, mind you — this is a hermetically-sealed, self-contained narrative that, now that it’s concluded, is better off left alone. Sure, we get an entirely-appropriate “uh-oh — is it really all over or not?” final page, but again, that’s just in keeping with the best horror traditions, and while a return visit to the Gentry household might yield another interesting story at some point in the future, it’s in no way necessary — which isn’t to say that this comic didn’t leave me wanting more; it surely did, but that simply means that I’m itching to see where its creators go from here, now that their unassuming genre masterpiece has run its course.
Hopefully, the long-delayed return of Copperhead will be the next item on Godlewski’s docket, and I’m also optimistic that this series will open some doors for Aldridge with either “The Big Two,” should he wish it, or any of the indie publishers out there. I can think of any number of pre-existing corporate properties that would benefit from his “human-scale horror” approach, but if he’s got more original characters and concepts he’d rather explore, then I’d certainly encourage him to go down that path, given that creator ownership is always a better deal in the long run. Whatever the case may be, I’ll be following the work of both of these gentlemen — whether together or separate — as I know that they’re both more than capable of taking readers down some very interesting roads.
And if you like your roads bumpy, uncomfortable, and terrifying, then I highly recommend that you pick up The Dark & Bloody when it’s inevitably released in trade in the not-too-distant future. It’s everything you could possibly want in a “one and done” horror narrative and announces the arrival of some major new talents that, if given an opportunity to flourish in the industry, surely have many more memorable tales to tell.
Story: Shawn Aldridge Artist: Scott Godlewski
Story: 8 Art: 8.5 Overall: 8.25 Recommendation: Buy