Friday, April 25, 2008

Comics Are Expensive: THE DAMNED #1, SCARLET TRACES

Noted Expertologist Chris Lamb begs you not to attempt these complex reviewing maneuvers at home. You must be a fully licensed expertologist to do so.

I wasn’t ready for Comic Con. I realize that now. Not enough money, not enough sleep beforehand or during, and not nearly enough booze on hand to deal with the sensory overload (though the overpriced food court selling little bottles of wine certainly helped). What I did have was, in hindsight, less of plan and more of a vague notion that would be torn from me faster than a bit of plywood from a storefront in a hurricane: unless it was something I couldn’t find anywhere else, I wasn’t going to buy any comics.

I know, okay? I know. Before the con, and even up to standing in the corral waiting for the doors to open Saturday, it sounded like a great idea. The (ha ha) thinking behind this was something like Hey, I live in New York, where there is a fairly healthy number of comic shops. Instead of blowing my comics budget for the next several weeks on things I can probably get another time, why not pick up stuff I can’t get anywhere else? Like original art for the apartment, Chaotic starter sets (it’sforworkiswear), and funnel cake? A bit optimistic, sure, but as goals go not necessarily a bad one.

You can probably see where this is going. Within minutes of the doors opening I’d already picked up two books from Tokypop and was eyeing the Dark Horse tables for more than their giant yellow bags. While there were panels to keep me away from all the shiny things on Saturday, all bets were off Sunday, with the show floor swallowing me up and spitting me out with a bag full of treasure and a considerably lighter wallet. It’s hard to be disappointed in myself – really, could it have ended any other way?

So the bad news is that, between the art and books and everything, I can’t really afford new comics for the next couple of weeks or so. The good news, however, is that I have enough new things to easily fill the gap between now and then. It helps a little to think this was my master plan all along, but self-deluding only goes so far with bank statements.

Potential spoilers ahead, as always. Here there be plot points.

Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Brian Hurtt

When the first limited series of The Damned appeared on my radar last year, it wasn’t until the very end – I started reading one issue before the end, which was helpful in terms of not having to deal with the monthly wait between installments but a little disappointing in that there wasn’t going to be a regular flow of it. It was the sort of book that grabbed me immediately, blending a number of my favorite things – noir, stories that drop you into the middle of things, the supernatural, and the nagging feeling of reading a Tom Waits song – into a nicely twisting story backed by some very lovely artwork. By the time I’d put down the first issue, I was already putting together a mental list of people who very much needed to read it.

For those of you other there who haven’t had the book forcibly shoved on them by me, the short version: The Damned is the story of Eddie, a guy floating somewhere between “two-bit hood” and “lowlife” with an interesting twist – he can’t stay dead. Oh, he can die easily enough, and does so on a regular basis, but all it takes is something alive touching him to bring him back (at the cost of whoever did the touching, naturally). Eddie’s world is a nasty one, made up of a nameless town during the prohibition era where the underworld isn’t just a fancy word for the criminal element. Demons live amongst us, controlling organized crime and never letting the cowering populous forget who’s boss. Over the course of the original series, Eddie found himself stuck between a rock and a number of hard places, including a war between demon gangs, the strange gray place he visits every time he dies, and an ultimate power play that would have seen the demons replaced with something possibly worse. When last we saw him, he was running a club under one of the most powerful families around and looking to finally enjoy life a little.

Not that any of it was meant to last, of course. Before catching up with how Eddie’s been, though, the new issue first flashbacks to introduce us to his family, hinting at a much happier time of his life and the dark dealings between his father and a particularly nasty bunch of demons. It’s a nice moment, setting up not only an issue dealing more with Eddie’s estranged brother than Eddie himself but establishing that the whole thing with the demons running things behind the scenes has gone on for a good long while. It’s a simple but effective scene, building nicely on top of what we saw of how the world works in the first series. Only in a world abandoned by god and given over to the monsters could a guy like Eddie be the hero, and this briefest of looks at what he grew up with provides just enough fodder for your imagination to have you sympathizing with him by the end.

The rest of the book deals with Eddie reconnecting with his aforementioned brother Morgan as part of a frankly insane plan involving what might be the current location of their dead mother’s soul. There’s some serious history between the two (which will no doubt be delved deeper into over the next two issues), including a connection between the curse keeping Eddie alive and the strange tattoos covering most of Morgan’s skin. Perhaps even better than the requisite weirdness, though, is how well their scenes are written – Bunn establishes their relationship so quickly and firmly that everything past the first few panels of their meeting in a bar is just gravy. Their troubled relationship might not offer anything that hasn’t been seen before, but the skill with which its fleshed out packs more grace and subtlety than I’ve seen a comic manage for quite some time. It also provides a welcome change in perspective on the ordinarily cool and collected Eddie, which is always fun.

While any one who read the original series will feel right at home, things may be a bit rougher on new readers. With only three issues for the story there’s not a lot of time for playing catch up, and the weight of some scenes will most likely be lost without the context of the original series. That said, the broad strokes of what got us here are present throughout the issue, providing just enough detail to fill in new readers (and whet their appetites for the convenient trade of the original series, a mere $14.95 from Oni) without ruining the good bits, of which there are plenty. The Damned was a fantastic work, creating a world both eerily familiar and strangely horrifying at the same time. While it might only be three issues, “Prodigal Sons” appears to be picking up where it left off without missing a beat.

BUY STATUS: In for the duration, and secretly hoping this shortened series means we’ll be getting another one before the year’s out. The Damned is pure fun through and through.

Writer: Ian Edginton
Artist: D’Israeli

Scarlet Traces is the sort of thing that makes me wonder if I have some sort of deep-rooted psychological trouble that’s caused me to blank out at any time during the last few years, as it’s the only real way to explain how I haven’t heard of it before seeing it at the Dark Horse booth. An unofficial sequel to War of the Worlds, dealing not only with what England did with all the Martian technology lying around at the end of the invasion but her plans for an offensive against the red planet? Clearly some sort of Durden-esque double life is the only way to explain how I could have missed a book so clearly written just for me. I suppose spending my lost time looking like Brad Pitt and sleeping with Helen Bonham Carter makes up for it, though. Maybe.

As touched on above, Scarlet Traces takes place in a post-Martian invasion England, a land transformed by the salvaged technology of the would-be conquerors into a steampunk (minus the steam) slice of the future where cars walk on insect legs, homes are warmed by modified versions of the deadly heat ray, and the country has isolated itself from the rest of the world, resentful over their lack of help during the war and hording all the treasure for themselves. It’s a cold place, for all its advancements, feeling very much like a child pretending to be an adult. While London rejoices in her Martian makeover, one doesn’t have to look too far to see the bad that came along with the good of the country’s great leap forward. More and more factories in the rural areas are becoming automated, with families so desperate for work that anything – including an ad looking for young women to work as housemaids in the big city – is worth jumping on if it means putting food on the table.

The central mystery of the book is built around one such want ad, pulling war veterans Robert Autumn and Archie Currie out of semi-retirement in the name of tracking down Currie’s seemingly missing niece. The plot naturally thickens along the way, with the trail to the lost girl becoming littered with buildings blown up to hide evidence, thugs packing pocket heat rays, and a homeless Sergeant finding and his pet dog finding emaciated bodies along the muddy banks of the Thames. All of this leads somewhat inevitably to a larger conspiracy, and while its revelation towards the end isn’t exactly a surprise, the scope and potential of the plan make it more than worth the wait.

Which is both a good and bad thing. In building up to the story’s turning point, Edginton and D’Israeli seem almost restless with their more mundane detective story, eager to just get through it and finally embrace the more fantastic elements. It doesn’t hurt things too much – the larger story of Autumn and Currie getting closer and closer to the madness lurking behind England’s brave new world is still a good read, but compared to the twists and turns things take from the start of chapter four on it can’t help but come off lacking. It’s a slow boil beginning that’s just ever so slightly off to such a minor degree that you might not even notice till you’ve finished the entire thing. Not a huge thing, but as I’m running out of ways to say “it’s really, really good” I thought I might gripe a bit to inflate my word count.

And it is really, really good. D’Israelli’s art is completely on throughout, creating machines and buildings both incredible to look at and slightly horrifying to consider. Edginton’s script drives home at every turn how little people have changed despite their wonderful new toys, creating a cast of characters ranging from tragically noble to the sort of disgusting that only comes with being sure you’re doing the right thing. Scarlet Traces is a thrill to read, a genuine new world built on the remains of the old and just the sort of thing comics were built for. For all the comics I read, few of them manage to stay with me after the fact. Yet even now, days after gobbling it up after getting home from NYCC, I keep getting distracted imagining the clatter of a traffic jam made of six-legged cars on cobblestone streets. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

BUY STATUS: Sorely tempted to throw sense to the wind (yet again) and grab the second volume immediately, but remaining strong. First thing on the list once I’m back in a cash-having way, though.

So far, so good. Next week will see more Con purchases, and maybe the week after that, but don’t let that stop you from recommending anything coming out in the meantime via the comments or an email to I’ll be keeping a list of what I’m missing at the shops for when I can pick things up again, and may even be checking it twice. See you then.


  1. I've been dying to read this. I also stumbled across it only recently and wondered how the hell I'd missed it. I knew the basics of the story, but I'm glad to hear the enticing synopsis wasn't the only thing the book had going for it. Will definitely pick it up now. Thanks for the second. Motion carried.

  2. Excellent to hear. We certainly aim to please.

    (Erm, which book, exactly?)

  3. Sorry. Should've been more specific. I meant "Scarlet Traces".

  4. Aha! Nice one. Like I said, the beginning bit is a little slow, but after that it picks up steam in a hurry. I'm really looking forward to the next one, now that all the stage-setting is out of the way.

  5. scarlet traces is incredible; i also picked it up at the con even though i never heard of it. i picked it up saturday, and on sunday picked up the sequel. it definitely doesn't disappoint. i thought it really made the whole story feel complete.

  6. That sort of talk isn't helping my ability to hold out on the next one till i can actually afford it, Margot. You really ought to be ashamed.

    That said, I read somewhere that Dark Horse's adaption of War of the Worlds, also by Edginton and D'Israeli, has the main characters of Scarlet Traces sprinkled throughout. Not in any big way, but you see Autumn and Currie in a newspaper, Ned Penny on the Thunder Child, that sort of thing. Looks like I'll need to hunt it down as well to have a nice little set.