Thursday, March 31, 2005

Review: Children Of The Grave #1-2

Tonight, I’m looking at the first two issues of Children Of The Grave, a four-issue miniseries written by Tom Waltz and drawn by Casey Maloney, and published by Shooting Star Comics. Issue #2 just came out this Wednesday.

The book is about a team of three American black-ops soldiers (leader LT and his brothers-in-arms Shiv and Li’l Pete) who find themselves in the Middle East hot on the trail of an insane military officer who’s gone rogue from his native country with a small battalion of loyal fighters and slaughtered a field-full of his enemies’ children. Our heroes come across the mass grave of said children to find every individual grave mysteriously emptied, and are then given orders to take down the violent madman and his entire cadre of scumbag gunmuscle.

The first issue sets up the story, and plods along a bit as Waltz tries to introduce all his characters and set up his basic plot elements. As a first issue, it’s a little sloppy. Too often, lately, I’m finding that miniseries spend their whole first issue setting up their pitch and (I can only imagine) expecting enough of the creators’ style or the pitch's charm to rub off on the reader to bring them back for the next issue. I think this is a mistake; if your premise is that an insane middle-eastern military leader has slaughtered a graveyard-full of children who rise from the grave for vengeance (and that’s a good chunk of this series’ premise), those zombie children should appear well before the last page of your opening issue. Instead of getting straight to it, most of this book’s opening issue sets up its characters and their histories. Personally, I don’t like when stories have to “set aside” time to establish their characters; I like discovering who those people are as the story occurs, in the thick of everything, so that I get layers of the onion peeled back as the plot progresses. To me, that creates a heightened level of excitement in the story by tying it to my connection with the people who inhabit it. I get more involved. This issue feeds me the whole onion up front, before anything else happens, and while a lot of the information we’re given is important later on, it's overwritten and kills a little bit of the tension, and I’m definitely glad that I got to read the first two issues in one sitting.

Because I thought the second issue of this was fantastic. Maloney’s linework is detailed and gritty, especially during an impressive firefight that opens the issue. The scene is just violent enough to balance the light-hearted excitement and action of the best military genre work with the disgusting and haunting elements of horror. At the same time, the writing itself balances military and horror themes in strong harmony; both the Waltz and Maloney are balancing the two genres very well, drawing on the strengths of each one to reinforce the other. Where a lot of genre-mixing work feels gimmicky and overly clever, this combination feels like a natural fit for the story being told.

In the middle of the firefight the titular Children of the Grave appear before LT and issue a strange demand; we learn something important about LT by his response, and at the same time the plot moves forward and a really interesting mystery is introduced, and LT’s relationship to the two supporting characters changes in a way that is both obvious and subtly handled. This is exactly the kind of crafty story structuring that I thought was missing in the first issue, and I’m glad to see this creative team has improved so much in just one issue – it’s not just an improvement over what I’d already read, but genuinely impressive and exciting in and of itself.

I’m surprised to say that at this point I have no idea where the series is going. Waltz has introduced a mystery that has me completely stumped, but without making the story or characters unreachable. The book can go in any number of directions at this point, and I’m excited to see how it’s going to play out. Whether you tried the first issue and it didn’t do it for you, or you’ve missed the series entirely so far, I recommend picking up the second issue (which has a summary of the first, to catch new readers up to the story) and taking a look. It’s good fun.

Here are the Diamond order numbers:
Issue #1: NOV042877
Issue #2: JAN052919 (available now)
Issue #3: MAR053100 (available in May)

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