by Justin Jordan, Patrick Zircher
Although it’s certainly competent, the first volume of Shadowman is best described by how incredibly unremarkable it is. There’s definitely some interesting ideas at play here, and the writers make good use of the New Orleans setting and the supernatural elements; however, the story is never able to rise up its formula, and the characters have almost no depth to them. Regardless, there’s enough promising elements to give the read hope for the second volume.
In spite of a rather cliché initial scene, Birth Rites quickly starts with a bang (special mention should be made of Patrick Zircher’s gorgeous double splash panel on the second and third pages) with the Abettors and Shadowman fending off undead spirits. Their nemesis, Master Darque, has opened a portal between the New Orleans and Deadside, the land of the dead. Ultimately, Shadowman is forced to sacrifice himself to close the portal, leaving his wife and unborn son without a father. Twenty years later, Jack Boniface is searching for information on his parents while Darque sends his agent, Mr. Twist, to open up a new pathway between the two worlds.
New Orleans has always been evocative of the supernatural, and writers Justin Jordan and Patrick Zircher make good use of that in this comic, playing up the atmosphere. There’s even some genuinely creepy moments; however, once you strip the story of this (admittedly, interesting) window dressing, what’s left is a fairly generic plot. Granted, a lot of good books have been built on a generic plot—two of the Bloodshot trades have revolved around assaulting a base, a plot which was singlehandedly run into the ground by 1990’s Image comics—but in this case, the writing is never able to rise above workmanlike. Part of the problem is the lack of characterization, especially in regards to Jack, who is little more than a cipher. There’s a scene where he is given the choice whether to accept or reject his destiny as Shadowman, and what should have been a pivotal moment in Birth Rites is simply cliché, because the reader has been given no reason to care about the protagonist.
Unfortunately, the other characters are lacking as well. None of them is even decently fleshed-out, meaning that there isn’t anyone who rises above the level of a stereotype. The book is also not particularly subtle. There’s a group of wealthy power-brokers called “The Brethern” who have allied themselves with Darque in exchange for the promise of greater power once he takes control of the world. Obviously, a comic where the antagonist is named “Darque” is not going to have a lot of subtlety (to be fair, the character was created during the original Valiant comics), but CEOs’ and politicians making deals with the devil seems excessively on-the-nose.
One final weakness of the book that’s worth mentioning is the dialogue, much of which is rather clumsy and awkward. Unfortunately, there’s also an overreliance on what I refer to as “exposition dumps,” long and unnatural speeches whose only purpose is to provide exposition. This is somewhat forgivable, because it’s the first volume and the writers have to do a lot of world-building in a fairly limited space, but it will be disappointing if it continues to regularly occur in future issues.
Fortunately for Birth Rites, many of the problems in the story are redeemed by the art. Having done a great deal of work for the “Big 2,” and his experience shows in the way that he draws the book’s fight scenes; however, he also does an exceptional good of depicting the atmospheric qualities of New Orleans and the Deadside. Zircher also included several occult “Easter eggs” for his readers (Jaunty the monkey, for instance, wears a Baron Samedi mask and hat). If there is a weakness to his art, it’s that the faces of his characters are sometimes a bit stiff. Colorist Brian Reber is equally up to the task, and his colors, especially in Deadside, really make Zircher’s art jump off the page.
In spite of its problems, Birth Rites is kind of a fun read. There’s an almost pulp-ish quality to the material (or it simply be that I associate poor characterization and clumsy dialogue with pulp fiction) that makes for a reasonably entertaining story, and the art alone is strong enough to be a selling point unto itself. It’s not the worst first outing for a Valiant series—that distinction go to Eternal Warrior vol. 1—but it does lag far behind every other title. Hopefully, now that the writers have established the world, they can began to devote more time to exploring the characters and telling an interesting story. There’s enough promise here to recommend buying this trade, but the next installment will need to demonstrate a lot of improvement.