By Das Petrou and John Watkiss
Patience is a virtue. Chin up, stiff upper lip, trust that each step forward is going to lead you somewhere. Granted, things are a little murky (both intentionally and unintentionally) but there’s certainly comfortably familiar elements to be found along the way and one must have faith that what the tedium is more misdirection that missed direction. This is what it’s like to read Ring of Roses; a vividly imagined world rife with conspiracy and intrigue that begs you to pay attention to each breadcrumb it drops, only to reveal that it lacks confidence in its own narrative ability. It’s difficult not to enjoy the anachronistic alternative reality and once the carefully laid pieces start to come together it wonderfully employs the thematic, tonal and aesthetic elements of From Hell (good!), Watchmen (also a good thing!) and The Da Vinci Code (uh-oh) while crafting a tale of intrigue, corruption, and heaps of cockney.
Co-Created by Trevor Goring, an advertising studio head and brought to life by advertising copywriter Das Petrou and illustrator John Watkiss, Ring of Roses was originally published by Dark Horse Comics as a four issue series in the early 90’s and it absolutely looks like it in all the best ways. Immediately upon opening the book, that ‘Vertigo in its prime’ ambience hits with abundance. The palette and shadowing, the tense pacing, the slow reveal into establishing shots; it’s all about setting a sickly, otherworldly mood. Petrou and Watkiss pace this all beautifully, allowing for an electric hum of the Catholic prayer to hang in the air before slowly revealing the threat lurking amongst the foggy ripples on the Thames and having it come to a crescendo of violence before slowly settling back in to a new kind of silent horror. The opening is unquestionably effective in introducing the themes and overall tone to be found ahead; Catholicism, a secret army, conspiracy, literal and figurative obscurities, and murder. It’s well done, despite the repeated dialogue of the prayer, and both Petrou and Watkiss instill a small scale cinematic frame to their narrative. Sadly, the next thirty odd pages are far departure from this level of pacing and interest.
In weaving together a complex conspiracy involving religious and global politics, social class structure, and good old fashioned Sherlock-ing meets modern noir, Petrou’s script is layered but not compelling. In fact, it often feels like a chore. By far the most fascinating aspect early on is the slow, subtle introduction of this alternate realty where strict religious rule has slowed progress and created an intriguing anachronistic world akin to the Gotham of the Batman animated series. There’s a bevy of characters introduced in far too casual fashion and when combined with Watkiss’ penchant for crosshatched shadows on faces, it requires considerable effort to identify and remember exactly who they each are. This sorts itself out in time, of course, but so much of the early portion of the story is dedicated to setting up the multitude of twines in the larger web, that the need to create a John Nash styled chart is damning.
The far worse crime the script commits at this crucial part is its inability to provide an “in” of any sort through anyone among the sea of players. Presumably, it’s meant to be Sam Waterhouse, our original narrator, hence the inclusion of his flashbacks to childhood wherein he was…kind of bullied his big brother? Suffice to say that Sam is a successful upper middle class barrister whose just been told that his jerk turned super religious jerk of a brother may have been murdered, thus giving the reader glimpses into Sam’s psyche which conjures virtually no levels of empathy whatsoever. Sam’s not actually meant to be liked, as Petrou uses him much more to highlight the societal structure of this Dickensian world. Then it falls on our Frank Castle by way of Jason Statham tough guy, William Barnett, to be the easier point of entry into this stunted world. Barnett’s simplicity is his most endearing feature and though he serves as an undeniable anti-hero, the charm of his resigned acceptance of who he is and where he fits in the structure of it all is infectious. It also doesn’t hurt that he can lay a smack down when needed on some hypocritical pious blokes. Sadly, this is a male-driven affair with most, if not all, the female characters serving little purpose than to tease, tempt, scold, or just otherwise window dress the events.
We have our Lennie Small in Barnett and our George Milton in Waterhouse and we have an ever increasing mystery involving seemingly unrelated events all geared around the Pope’s visit to England in a world where the machinations of a covert sect is looking to ensure its stranglehold on power. These elements, once it finds its footing around the halfway mark, are the reason to stick with the book and the Watchmen-esque incorporation of mixed media (in the form of newspaper articles, public notices, and handwritten letters) provide the extra depth necessary to really engage with the work. There are nuances to the way the threads are play off each other and the unknowns are vague enough to let the mind relish in trying to make sure it picked up all the pieces along the way to make them connect. And then Act III goes and spells it all out for you in frustratingly hang dog fashion.
There’s a lot to like in Petrou’s script once it can start progressing plot after a hearty amount of putting all the pieces on the board, although the quirk of constantly linking scene transitions by thematic keyword grows quickly tiresome. The script can be sharp and is at its best when establishing mood via succinct dialogue and blending genres, but the ending reveals a lack of faith in itself which is a shame considering how all the work that Petrou and, in turn, the reader symbiotically put into carrying all the information to that point.
There are far fewer complaints to be made regarding the artwork from John Watkiss. There’s an Eddie Campbell quality to his line work; busy and sharp, but more than capable of developing a range of conveyable emotions. Watkiss’ bizarro London is alive and a character unto itself, with virtually every panel teeming with new information and details regarding its histories and secrets, and those of the lives of its inhabitants. More impressive and engrossing still is Watkiss’ use of shadow, especially in the black and white flashbacks, to allow for the ominous and mysterious elements to slink their way into every crevice of the story. Paired with his keen eye for framing and angles, his storytelling prowess is evident and allows for some semblance of temporal perspective of the unfolding events. The panels flow together with the suspenseful confidence of a Hitchcock film and any moments of confusion are the result of Watkiss’ busy crosshatching that occasionally overwhelms the page. The style is sharp and rough, but simultaneously provide texture, a fishnet-laden frenzy of a world, and reinforce the lack of control our protagonists have over the seemingly chaotic events around them. It’s a controlled expressionism when paired with the meticulous attention to the ease of scene transitions provides the driving motivation to continue on to its conclusion.
The coloring in this latest edition from Titan is almost assuredly digitally remastered, but it’s thankfully restrained. The work itself is so reminiscent of the era in which it was produced that keeping it even more pallid might have further stoked some genre nostalgia, but for the most part the colors serve the art well and ensconce the world in a rich, chiaroscuro suspense.
Ring of Roses asks a lot of the reader; to persevere under the weight of dozens of characters, plot points and illusive exposition, only to turn around and spell it all out for you right when its’ reached a moment of palpable intrigue. With so much going on for so long, it never really has much to say about any of the topics it makes use of; the villainous sect inside of this realities’ Roman Catholic Church is near mustache-twirling and their scheme doesn’t speak to the real life devastation of the bubonic plague. The societal dichotomy is interesting, with the evident cultural gaps in speech, dress, and visited locales, but most importantly with the lack of deference disease gives to rich or poor. In many ways, Ring of Roses is far more action thriller film than it is art house film and even then it’s hardly paced in a way to ensnare you’re attention throughout. There’s enjoyment to be had along the way and fans of Millenium or From Hell might take to this more than others, but ultimately the story’s lack of faith in its own mystery tale of faithlessness makes for a mixed experience that had the potential to be far better.