Graphic Novel Review – Strangeways: Murder Moon

Genre and Storytelling
I am gleefully enjoying a recent trend in comic book storytelling.  In the past, a writer would tell a story and mostly confine it to a single genre.  There were times when a writer might send a character off to do battle with a vampire or a time-lost knight but these were simple, one note side trips.  Today, writers like Jeff Parker and Matt Maxwell see the rainbow of literary genres before them as a palate.  Whether or not a writer is successful relies on his or her ability to combine these elements correctly – we are not talking about random finger painting here.

Using multiple genre elements really brings a new kind of energy to a story.  It speaks to why I have always loved team-up books.  You get to see how different personalities interact.  In a mixed genre setting, we get to see this type of interaction but on a scale where whole universes collide.  Matt Maxwell has created a world in Strangeways: Murder Moon that has rich layers to each combination of genre and storytelling.

On the surface, we have a western/horror mash up.  If you look deeper into the canvas, there is so much more going on.  Let’s take the western aspect of this book.  At first it seems like, central character, Seth Collins is going to be a classic Leone-style stoic.  Then we add the western morality of brotherhood that was on display in films like The Magnificent Seven.  Seth’s mission is not unlike something from John Ford and he even chastises the town of Silver Branch which would have been at home in a Jimmy Stewart western.  These elements aren’t simply aping others; Maxwell merges them into his own unique and modern environment.  He is clearly a student of westerns but he brings this deep layered approach to every aspect of this story.

If I seem to compare this work to films, it is because of Maxwell’s cinematic storytelling style.  During Seth’s arrival at Silver Branch I couldn’t help thinking about camera movements and panoramic shots.  I could almost hear the horses’ hooves.  The action picks up pace during wolf attacks and the panels move by in a blur.  As the tension builds, the pace of the story takes its time to build up steam.  The panels from pages 70 and 71, for example, strike a steady and claustrophobic beat that is a horror film staple.

Maxwell doesn’t hit you over the head with his central themes or where he is going.  Some subplots seem tacked on and at the end of the main section; I wanted all of these untidy strings to be resolved.  While this is not classic storytelling perhaps, it is closer to what we readers call real life and does suggest that this is only a part in a greater story.  It does require some adjustment on the part of the audience and hopefully they can see past their expectations in time.  Some of the dialogue, especially from the townspeople, almost seemed to come from a singular western voice and at times, it was a little hard to differentiate between these minor characters.  His central characters, however, were strong and well defined.

After reading the decidedly different but also excellent Lone portion of the title, I find that this tale is one about belonging.  We have a strong need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  Are we a pack member, a partner or family?  What do we have to sacrifice to belong?  Should the group accept you as its member?  Once revealed, this theme echoes throughout the story – almost like seeing the ripples on the surface of the water and then seeing how it all started.  This is a rich, well executed story with few flaws.  Maxwell could well rival talents like Mignola.  I am keenly interested in seeing where he goes from here.

Art
Luis Guaragña provides the art and what is called “effects” for the main portion of this book.  I did not take to his style at first but grew to like it quite a bit.  Like most comic art, large pictures exhibit greater detail but smaller figures can lack definition.  Spider-man tends to lose the webs on his costume when he gets too small.  Guaragña amplifies this trait and in doing so, his smaller figures border on the expressionistic.  When we move close up, we get a type of grooved detail that can border on the grotesque at times.  Overall, the art is appropriate for the subject matter.  The woodcut style meshes well with the western setting and the faceted inking on the wolves gives the right amount of uncomfortable closeness needed for horror.  His use of black is always appropriate for the scene and is reminiscent of Frank Miller’s noir style in spots.

There are times when the action sequences are almost too general and although the pacing is good, I lost the specifics of what actually happened.  In the end, the specifics may not have mattered.  He really shines at times, like when Seth comes to Silver Branch, but he also struggles in spots like when the townsfolk run from the church.  I would be interested to see if an independent inker could smooth out some of his inconsistencies.  His layouts are excellent and his backgrounds are detailed when the setting is introduced then blend away as the focus shifts to the characters.

The art on Lone was provided by Gervasio and Jok.  This art was an excellent addition to the book as it provided more consistency after the energetic but challenging shifts from Guaragña.  Like the story itself, the art was reminiscent of Mike Mignola.  We are dealing with talking wolves and moon spirits now and the art provides a calm and rounded visual.  I am torn however because I don’t know if I really like “this” art or if I just like the fact that I recognize Mignola’s style.  I would like to see this art applied to a different type of story to see if they can bring something unique when outside of their comfort zone.

What to look for
Read the entire book through and then reread the first two pages…very cool stuff.

What might put you off
I would have to say the peaks and valleys of Guaragña’s art – sometimes it’s inspired and sometimes it’s stiff or confusing.

Recommendation
I loved this.  Highly recommended for fans of western, horror, Fables and Mike Mignola.  The rest of you should just pick it up because it’s great storytelling.

Credits

Title Strangeways: Murder Moon
Publisher Highway 62 Press
Copyright Date March 2008
Writer Matt Maxwell
Artist on Murder Moon Luis Guaragña
Artist on Lone Gervasio and Jok
Letterer Matt Maxwell

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