And getting back to comic books I picked up in the Summer Chicago trip we come to:
The Black Coat:... Or Give Me Death trade paperback.
A few words first... Indie and small press publishers are a special breed and in many ways they have it ALL over the "Big Two" of Marvel and DC. With the small press you have more (and even mostly) creator owned projects instead of characters owned by a corporation. Because of that there is more opportunity for stories that actually go somewhere.
In modern comics the "revolving door of death" has become a common joke among fans. It isn't a question anymore of if a character will come back to life but when. Marriages are made and then erased, characters are given kids and then the kids are erased... or rapidly aged to adulthood to "get them out of the way" and so that they don't have that nasty habit of making characters who are supposed to be perpetually 20 or 30 something years old don't end up seeming "aged". Needless to say, in the world of Marvel and DC bad things tend to happen and then two months later no one seems to notice or care.
Not so much with Indie comics. The creators having a relative measure of more control characters who die tend to stay dead, events have long-lasting repercussions, and no one cares if the characters seem to age.
Among the small press publishers out there Ape Entertainment is one of my favorites. These guys are responsible for publishing the delightful Scratch 9, which I reviewed earlier, the 'pulp with a twist' mini-series Femme Noir (seriously, check this one out people, it's AWESOME! One of the stories features a robot gangster. How can you not love that?!), the wild and humorous The Misadventures of Clark and Jefferson (more on that in a later post) and much more.
Back in 2006 Ape Entertainment published the first Black Coat mini-series; subtitled: A Call To Arms. I do have to admit that, in order to fully understand what is happening in ...Or Give Me Death here you pretty much have to read that one first. I will, however, see if I can summarize without giving too much away.
A little information about the series... You've heard of Steampunk, right? If not, go to Wikipedia and look it up. Or Google it. I'm frankly too lazy to try to explain it here; well, The Black Coat series is a little like that, only it's set in the time just prior to the Revolutionary War which is, technically, before steam power so it isn't exactly Steampunk. I don't really know what to call it which is kind of fun because it means that writers Ben Lichius and Adam Cogan are breaking new ground here. Either way, the series is full of anachronistic technology.
So, anyway, in the first series we meet Nathaniel "Nathan" Finch -- New York City businessman, newspaper publisher, and genius inventor. Nathan operates a ring of agents and spies who are helping to feed information to the leaders of the upcoming Revolutionary War (which leads to some cameo appearances of Benjamin Franklin and the like). This ring is known as the Knights of Liberty.
Even more than keeping an eye on the British, Nathan is aware of the fact that there are things out there in the world which people do not believe in. This lack of belief does not make them any less real. Dragons, shape-shifters, magicians, etc. Nathan opposes them all if they pose a threat to the people of the Colonies.
In that vein, some new players arrive in New York in the first series. A mysterious man leading an equally mysterious organization who allies himself with the British and brings agents of magic and monsters to aid the British forces. He also seeks the secret to eternal life which a scientist claims to have created. What the formula produces, however, is something not dead and yet not alive and the side effect is a madness that leads to murder.
In the first series Nathan sets out to stop this undead killer and ruin the plans of the British and their evil allies but in the process Nathan pays a terrible price...
And now, ...Or Give Me Death!
The Plot: Ursula, Nathan's right hand, follows his instructions and gives him what is supposed to be the perfected formula. They are soon informed, however, that it was not perfected after all and Nathan can expect to eventually lose his mind and become a danger to himself and those around him. In the meantime, he discovers that he has become, like his previous enemy, something not dead and yet not fully alive either.
As he struggles to control his condition his friends search for an ultimate cure. And in the midst of all of this the forces of evil continue their plans unabated. Between Nathan's inability to lead and Ursula's preoccupation with his cure they fail to notice there is a traitor in their midst. Can the Knights of Liberty pull it all together? Is Nathan doomed to become the kind of monster he has always fought against? And what are the evil plans afoot and how will they impact the coming war for independence?
My Take: I love the idea behind all of this. Lichius and Cogan dive into a serious genre mash with an almost unparalleled glee. We've got a hero who is very much in the pulp vein complete with mask... although instead of a cape we get an 18th century greatcoat and instead of a cowl we get a tricorn hat, we've got anachronistic technology, we've got alternative history with a sprinkling of real history thrown in for fun and then we've got classic, Gothic monsters. Looking at that list you would think there is no way that would work but Lichius and Cogan pull it off and do so beautifully. Here is definitely something that has never quite been seen before. Here is something new under the sun and it's a great romp.
And it's more than just the plot. The reader quickly gets invested in these characters. We like them, we understand them and we rise and fall with their successes and failures. And, as was mentioned above, because this is a creator owned series, all bets are off. There is not necessarily any character who is "safe". Anyone could die at any time. It gives the series an edge and a real sense of tension to the action.
It must be said that this mini-series had a serious hiatus. Unfortunately in the Indie world that happens. In this case, in between when the series started and when it finished the creators had to get a new artist and made the switch to publishing the series in color as opposed to black and white as they had been doing. The series began with the awesome Francesco Francavilla who has since gone on to doing work for Dynamite Entertainment among others. Francavilla was therefore replaced by Dean Kotz. The good news is that, in the collected trade edition, while the difference between Francavilla and Kotz is noticeable it is not extremely jarring. Kotz's style goes along well with Francavilla's in that both have a style that tends to favor realism rather than being abstract or cartoony. And I've heard artists say that one of the hardest things to draw and get right are horses and if this is true then both Francavilla and Kotz are quite skilled because they do horses well.
If I have one reservation here it is that, during the hiatus, the creators made the decision to switch from black and white to color. In the issue-to-issue format this wasn't as noticeable but in putting the issues together for the collected trade edition the decision was made to not go back and color the black and white issues. I imagine this decision was based on things like time and cost and technical details but it leads to the jarring change that the switch in artist did not produce. You're reading along and suddenly it's like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything is in black and white and Dorothy opens the door and steps into a world of color. It just seems.... strange. The good news is that you get over it quickly.
So, if you're looking for some comic books which are outside the mainstream, if you're tired of the same old superhero fare, and if you're looking for something where the creators took the rule book, threw it into the food processor and hit 'puree' then look no further. Pick up the first mini-series first (obviously), then read the second and if you're still looking for more there have been a couple of specials and one-shots produced as well. All are (or should be) available on the Ape Entertainment website.