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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Comics Spotlight Review - Anathema: The Evil That Men Do

Mercy Barlowe fell in love with a preacher's daughter in a time when their relationship, if discovered, meant death for them both - and they were discovered. After Sarah is put on the pyre by her father, however, a swarm of crows descend upon the crowd, killing many of the participants and stealing the soul of the near-death young woman. Her lover, Mercy, saw it all happened, and is determined to track down the creatures that stole Sarah's soul and get it back. To that end, she enlists a local mystic to give her the power needed to confront the devilish cult that fights to resurrect a long-dead madman. That power, the curse of the werewolf, gives her the ability to fight back against the men who have so abused this world, but it forces her to lose control, to become a monster stalking the countryside, hunting other monsters. 

Unfortunately, we spend way too much time in Mercy's head, and her head just isn't as interesting as the book around it. There are a lot of 'grunt captions' during the action scenes, things like "Ignore the pain," or "Ungh." There are a lot of descriptive captions, too, as she thinks completely rationally while in the form of a ravenous beast whose violent actions she sometimes can't control. The constant narration has the effect of normalizing and minimizing the horror, of negating the animal nature of her transformation. Anathema is a book that desperately needs to play up that loss of control, but it only once finds a way to resolve the character's running monologue the the actions we see her perform in an interesting way.

Which is unfortunate, because that out-of-control grief is the best part, the point in which werewolf-the-creature meets werewolf-the-metaphor most cleverly and completely. When we meet Mercy, after two too-long prologues, she's already halfway there, a woman so consumed by grief that she's willing to accept any curse to save her lost love's soul. Though warned repeatedly against it, a local... sorcerer (?) agrees to help her, and she quickly finds herself lost in the transformation, hunting crow-men through the night sky while trying to avoid the villagers who hate and fear her exterior as much as they once did her interior.

Deering's artists - Christopher Mooneyham, and then Wesley St. Claire - are both talented. Mooneyham handles the horror a bit better than newcomer St. Claire, though; the first two chapters have some wonderful monsters, with excellent use of shadows to keep things mostly offscreen. St. Claire, who takes over in Anathema #3, fares better with the action, giving the book its most exciting sequence when she confronts a towering minotaur-like creature, but the coloring is blunter and less subtle, the creepy atmosphere largely lost in favor of bright colors and clear-as-day visuals. Both artists bring different things to the table, but it's nevertheless a jarring shift from monster-movie inspired horror to more traditional comic book action.

Anathema is, ultimately, a throwback to an older class of horror, clear influences ranging from Hammer horror to old EC comics. If you have a thing for tormented monsters, lost love, fantastical quests, and terrified villagers - as I do - then I suspect you'll find a lot to enjoy in Anathema. It has its flaws, particularly in its inability to really sell the horror of Mercy's transformations and a jarring tonal shift in the art. But Anathema is nevertheless entertaining, with some fantastic creature design and a story that captures the feel of classic pulp horror. There are great moments in here, eye-catching panels or excellent character beats, but Anathema: The Evil That Men Do strands those moments a bit too often in a sea of business as usual. Deering has a killer hook and her series has a great look, but it rarely lives up to all its promise.

Anathema: The Evil That Men Do was written and lettered by Rachel Deering, illustrated by Christopher Mooneyham and Wesley St. Claire, and colored by Fares Maese and Ian Herring. Available now from Titan Books.
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