Strangeways: Murder Moon
Matt Maxwell, writer
Luis Garagña, Gervasio, Jok, artists
Highway 62 Press, March 2008
If Strangeways were twice as long as it is, it’d be a better book. I don’t mean that the story should be expanded, mind you; there’s an admirable and intelligent economy to the way Maxwell sets up his world-weary Western-horror milieu. It’s just that the existing material feels crammed into 50% fewer pages than it would really take to tell the story properly. Particularly in the early going, the exposition-heavy word balloons necessary to introduce the characters and the plot jockey for space with a riot of heavy, hard-to-parse blacks in every panel, which in turn fight for primacy on cramped pages whose gridless layouts make it difficult for the eye to find an anchor, or for the story to find a rhythm from shot to shot, page to page, and scene to scene. The result isn’t the psychological claustrophobia called for in the story but an artistic claustrophobia that hampered my experience of that story. Simply spreading the images and dialogue across more pages would give everything the room to breathe it needs. Indeed there are passages you can point to–an evocative jailhouse conversation between the sheriff and a condemned man, the climactic meeting of the gun-toting hero and his werewolf antagonist’s kin–where just such an effect is achieved. Not coincidentally, these are the points in the main story where Maxwell’s compellingly melancholy take on his two genres comes through most effectively.
The short story that rounds out the collection presents another counterfactual case in point. Here Garagña’s Caliber/Desperado-style inking is supplanted by Gervasio and Jok’s wiry line and washes of white, and the effect is like stepping out of a stuffy saloon into a moonlit night. Maxwell’s writing is particularly strong here. As with the main story, the prose is refreshingly tight (seldom is heard a misplaced word, to paraphrase a perhaps appropriate song). But this unique “origin of the species” story for the werewolves combines an imaginative core concept involving Native American mythology with genuine emotional power–it’s the kind of think I think Dan Simmons tried to do in The Terror, but like similar stories in, say, Hellboy, it works better here in this lean and mean format. (It also shakes loose of the grime-encrusted Western setting, which is fine by me. I’m a little tired of that vibe, which now that I think of it probably doesn’t bode well for my plan to Netflix my way through Deadwood.) If there’s more of this sort of thing on the way from the Strangeways project, I’d be happy to check it out.