Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: Anathema #1

Blessing of a Curse

Fiction lies. Popular fiction like Mystery, Fantasy and Horror fits out fiction's lies with better hats, longer coats and faster horses. Put another way, it's never about the detective, the King or the vampire. Horror holds truths to be self-evident: beware of strangers, don't overreach and stay away from cobwebby books in locked rooms. Horror desires to deceive before it fixes its teeth and allows reality (the true horror) to set in. Horror is always results-based and there are always stakes.
  Writer Rachel Deering, artist Chris Mooneyham and colorist Fares Maese dress up Anathema #1 in classic gothic tropes like remote castles, women in distress and the supernatural. Anathema opens with consecutive stories in which the past is present in two twice-told tales. Deering parallels the beginnings of her protagonist, Mercy, and Mercy's bĂȘte noire, Count Aldric Karnstein so that each origin unfurls to reveal a heroine (and a villain) both bound by bad decisions. At its heart Anathema is a hero's journey in the most parochial sense, however, Deering creates a wolf in sheep’s clothing that comments on intolerance, the consequences of (in)action and the restorative power of storytelling
  Mercy does not live up to her name (at first) as she chooses to run rather than to save her lover, Sarah, when the two are discovered by Sarah's father. Mercy escapes while Sarah is sent to burn for her sin. Mercy's escape -- in light of Sarah's capture -- is kept off-stage and it's not clear where she thought to go as she fled in blind fear. Guilt is a cruel gift that keeps giving; a tender mercy of the wicked that Mercy must channel if she is to overcome her desperation.
  Sarah's screams call Mercy back from her flight, but she arrives too late. In a shrewd twist Mercy bears witness to three unholy acts: Sarah's unjust death, the sudden slaughter of Sarah's persecutors by a murder of red-eyed crows and the in extremis reaping of Sarah's soul by those same red-eyed devils. Mercy breaks and when she does she breaks bad. All the gutters in Anathema take the black with one exception: the moment Mercy realizes the gravity of her decision not to act to save Sarah's life. In an unbroken border, Mooneyham and Maese surround a prostrate Mercy in white. It is at this nadir that she finds her voice, becomes a storyteller and seeks an audience.   Deering's decision to begin Mercy's story in medias res requires a fair amount of narrative to explain the goings-on. At first, it's not clear that this is a retelling of events. Sure, all the verbs are in the past tense, but when the art is this effective it's easy to overlook grammar. Mooneyham's pencils and Maese's colors elevate the narrative exposition from only a telling into a showing. The art is so dynamic that it's easy to miss the two white narrative boxes of Mercy's interlocutor amongst the champagne colored multitude of Mercy's narration. Mooneyham and Maese's work possesses a crepuscular glee; silhouettes and macabre shadows are offset by a luminous moon and the flames of the pyre. Maese's cool color palette illuminates the story and gives it the look of stained glass. Mooneyham's figures foreground forests dense with vegetative verve and leaves awhirl symbolic of a fall. The faces of Mercy and Sarah are open, void of too much detail, but always split with tears. In the attack on the sanctimonious mob, Mooneyham backgrounds a grisly moment of a limb being torn off and hoisted into the air by one of the crows; an indelicate and emblematic image of Anathema's mark of horror.   
  Mercy laments her woeful account to Henrich, a hermit, who lives on the bayou; think of Merlin having Yoda's gibbous posture and male-pattern baldness, but with hair by Paulie "Walnuts." A lore master, of course, Henrich knows the evil that men do and knows from where soul-sucking fowl fly. He tells Mercy the story of Count Karnstein aka the soul harvester, a former plague doctor who goes mad when he cannot protect his own family from the Black Death. Torches blaze, sacred chants praised and Karnstein becomes more monster than man. Secreted away within his keep he sustains himself on his victims dying curses of God before taking their lives and their souls. In time, his own sloth and avarice causes him to be hunted down, killed and his heart quartered and spread to the four corners of the land. Mercy's eyewitness account leads Henrich to believe that the darkness gathers again and that Karnstein's toadies now labor to see their master restored to his former soul-eating glory. Henrich finishes the history lesson as the imp of the perverse seizes Mercy; she decides to reconcile her initial cowardice and save Sarah's soul be it by blessing or by curse.
  Mercy goes to Henrich for help -- his name is the first word she says after the narrative white-out -- and in spite of his poor cuticle health and the many skulls he keeps at hand, Henrich seems benevolent enough, but Horror has a funny way of making fiends of friends. Deering mirrors Mercy's story of the events of Sarah's death with Henrich's recalling of Karnstein's legacy as a way to foreshadow how actions have consequences when the black arts get invoked. By setting each story back-to-back, Deering draws a connection (intended or not) between Mercy and Karnstein. Mercy is not evil like Karnstein (not yet anyhow), but the two do share a bond when it comes to the fortitude required to make a personal sacrifice which makes each one more equal than adversary. Is it unreasonable to think that Karnstein could be a fork in the road that Mercy may one day choose to take? Deering knows her horror and it will be curious to see how close she hews to heroic customs or if she decides play more fast and loose.
   Anathema is punitive to the point of being puritanical. Words like 'sin,' and 'innocence,' 'suffering' and 'persecution' all find their way into the script and a narrative that calls for an innocent to be burned at the stake and another woman to be tortured until she curses God is nothing if not medieval. It doesn't take a seer with Henrich's faculties to notice that Deering has something to say about intolerance and ignorance. The blessing of Horror, after all, is its ability to work within an outmoded milieu that reflects current social anxieties. In the story's prologue Deering writes: ''In the hearts of those few, the fires of hatred still burn, and not a soul is spared their unyielding wrath.'' How much farther Deering develops this angle seems at odds with the choice Mercy makes at the end of the story. Unless, of course, Mercy believes as Bassanio does in The Merchant of Venice: ''To do a great right, do a little wrong [4.1.213].'' That's not to say that Deering has to temper her attack on prejudice, but by the end, she has set Mercy's course, she is dealing with different animal and there is no going back. 
  There is nothing to keep the wolf from the door in Anathema. Deering, Mooneyham and Maese craft an ageless horror story that finds purchase in today's social climate. Mercy is power. As any comic book reader knows with great power comes great responsibility; it's the blessing and the curse that makes Anathema such a charm.  _________________________________    

Anathema #1 is available as a free .pdf download at http://theironrachel.deviantart.com/
Issues #2 - #6 were successfully funded through kickstarter.com. To read more about Anathema visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/theironrachel/anathema-keep-the-lesbian-werewolf-epic-alive


  1. Great in-depth review, Keith! A lot of us are looking forward to the next issue, and were very glad when Rachel's second Kickstarter was successful.

  2. David,

    Thank you! I backed Rachel's second Kickstarter funding issues 2-6. Now, I want, need, must read the rest! So glad to have discovered this series.