Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I am legion 2: Vlad

Humanoids publishing's "Vlad" is the middle part of the "I am legion" trilogy of albums, all done by Fabien Nury and John Cassaday. Having previously went to great lengths to introduce the story, the creators are content to treating it's central part as a showcase for their styles, while solidifying what was previously largely hinted upon. The resulting tale is much more concentrated on action, while admittedly constantly switching through various subplots, as they start to converge. Ultimately, the plot hinges on the story's central villain identified as a familiar fictional culture bogeyman, albeit with a twist that manages to ground him into Third Reich mysticism.

By now, the use of the seminal horror icon Dracula has been filtered through various pop culture sensibilities, making Nury and Humanoids adamant at sticking to the historical facts as much as possible. Yet, to justify the supernatural thriller at the heart of the plot, the writer reworks the vampire legend, by using the myth to provide a set up that doesn't stand too much at odds with the 1942 setting. These elements were present from the very first volume, but, somehow, tying them much more decisively to the legend of Dracula runs the risk of turning "I am legion" to a series existing on the outskirts of a much better known phenomenon. After all, the reader was invited to a spy tale tinged with strange happenings taking their inspiration from the Bible, and having the story midstream stand revealed as a follow-up to "Dracula" brings in the reader's feelings about the horror icon. Such a high concept could even derive of their enjoyment of the work at hand, considering the reader's previous experiences with some of the many takes on the vampire concept.

From their standpoint, Nury and Cassaday treat the villain as a completely new character, covering the ground in presenting the real world Tepes' medieval past, and ignoring the tropes of Bram Stoker's novel that popularized him. After all, Vlad is not the book's only antagonist, as most of the "I am legion" story hinges on him reacting to Nazi activity regarding a related phenomena in his native Romania. And for all of his manipulations seeming too byzantine in the story's first volume, there is little cause for concern on the part of the reader this time around. And not only does "Vlad" clearly delineates between the hostiles, as they are set up for the climax in the finale, it significantly advances the plot on it's own. Taking this into account, it's all the more impressive how the creative team manage to cover three separate plots in different countries, while still providing a heavily action oriented story.

Considering the cohesiveness of the whole "I am legion" project, it would be unfair to complain about the second part lacking the novelty of the debut. Once the story was introduced though, it paradoxically raised the stakes for this middle outing, thus making the rare Cassaday panel done in a slightly looser style stand out, and some of the dialogue feeling a little extraneous and overworked. Once again, the scope of the project makes for a slight confusion, as the artist simply didn't create enough body types to support Nury's numerous players, leading to a potential confusion, when it comes to a couple of minor characters. On the other hand, his talent for body language seems much more natural this time around, with the awkwardness and bordering on caricature finding more place among his realist backdrops.

Laura Martin's colors somehow manage to turn this chapter of the story even darker and moodier, which is fitting considering the number of casualties as all sides start making direct attacks. Still, for all the advantage the forces gain by operating under the cover of the night, the artist doesn't use this excuse to skip out on the background detail, with even the darkest shadows hiding reasonably detailed layers of shacks and shrubs, growing among the snow. From the start, the artist has taken to his French assignment with a level of commitment that makes a rare repeated panel or a photographic detail in the background a completely harmless detail on amid over sized pages used to convey the highest possible amount of information.

With the change of pace, a slightly more dynamic layout peers in, with pages rarely sporting more than five panels, making every departure stand out like a double page spread in the more traditionally formatted American comic book. The long set up commando operation is undoubtedly the central action motive in the book, and unexpectedly, it feels the most artificial. Seeing the unit's highly unlikely plan working from step to step regardless of the timetable gives curiously seems like typical World War 2 entertainment package until it's unsettling climax. Interestingly, scripting this key sequence in such a way, Nury enables the book to spotlight the human tragedy of two smaller violent acts, with much more visceral and realistic consequences.

Likewise, in a book presenting a key German general as a highly malevolent and power-hungry monster of a man, it's refreshing to find a different point in one of the key cast members. Among so many cold-hearted people, it's perhaps slightly unexpected to suddenly find alternate sexuality casually dropped in as a subject, especially considering the material covered, but it still works to help define a character that was thus far used even more economically than most. Divested from their personal feelings, the cast of "Vlad" is once again constantly reminded that it is simply neither the time nor the place to show their emotions, as some of the rare ones that did before end up paying a bitter price during unexpected circumstances.

In the end, "I am legion" is still in many ways the same book it was in it's debut volume. "Vlad" continues the same sense of nuanced story that the reader has to both try their best to follow, and then trust the creators to make sense of at a future point, with a rare real World War 2 player playing a small, yet crucial role in it. The heavily researched period is once again presented with utmost care yet expanded even more so that the superstition preys upon it even more fiercely. The rich, over sized pages provide for enough room that the scene shifts regularly occur in the last panel, before reconnecting with another strand of the grim narrative, showing ordinary people trying to get a grip on the world gone indigo dark, under the Nazi reign.

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