‘Victoria Addair’s near-death experience gifted her the ability to slay the undead with but a touch. When the Order of the Black Hand sends her north to vanquish a ghost, she uncovers a multi-generational tie to one of the most powerful undead in the world. Assisted by an irritable nobleman and his upstart son, Victoria must unravel their family’s hidden connections to the undead and save them from the sins of their forefathers.’
Written by: Erica J Heflin
Art by: Fares Maese, additional by Edson Alves, Fabian Covos
Publisher: Inverse Press
Released: 7 February 2018
The first thing you’re probably thinking is ‘It has a zombie head on he cover, it’s pretty close to a skull and I bet that’s why she picked this comic for this weeks review’ but you’re only sort of right! I’ll admit it, I like stories about the undead. There are many different types if you want to get technical (and I usually do!), but most stories stick to one type in general. This one appeared to focus on zombies – always a popular choice, though I do like things that examine less popular undead like ghouls – and specifically about a knighthood of people with zombie-destroying powers. Will it examine issues of destroying creatures that used to be people? Being caught in a dire situation? Being the champion of a small village that needs help? The undead not being what they seem? There are a lot of different aspects for interesting storytelling going on with this concept, though I can already see a niggling problem with some of the artwork – I hope it’s not a gamebreaker.
I was pleasantly surprised at how much this story managed to fit in; not only are there both zombies and ghosts, but there are carefully categorized kinds of ghosts for example, as would be expected from an organization dealing with them. While zombies are generally the same, knights examine details like their clothes to figure out where they’re from and how long they’ve likely been dead, especially in the freezing climes the story is set. Details like this really add realism and solidity to the worldbuilding, rather than making it seem like the plot is a thinly veiled excuse for a bunch of fight scenes. The ‘Black Hand’ of the title refers to the power of the knights to destroy undead with a touch, which sounds like a pretty overpowered ability, but can only do so much when surrounded by a horde or against a powerful and cunning ghost, something which the plot makes clear. These knights may be powerful, but that sure doesn’t make them invulnerable, which is good to see because a protagonist that can have nothing happen to them will have a tough time bringing the tension and high stakes to a story.
Speaking of the plot, this one wasn’t just for zombie-fighting (though here was plenty of it); a mystery to solve, some intrigue, and a good old ‘rethink what you were assuming’ reveal showed some definite mystery story influences, which made a good mix with it’s good old fantasy action base to make a much more interesting story. If all you were after was sword-through-zombie action and don’t care about storytelling, you’ll do better elsewhere. Our protagonist is pretty well written as flawed but smart (well demonstrated with the world-building I mentioned, with an organised and procedural way of approaching undead slaying), which thankfully avoids a common trope of the angsty lone wolf operative that makes moves that cause the reader to think ‘Why would you do that?! That’s so stupid!’ (I hate moments like that). While most of the other characters are one-note, they’re not totally flat, though I think a bit more time could have been spent making us care about them more, because I didn’t really care what happened to the kid that’s supposedly in danger.
So what is that problem with the artwork I mentioned? You might not mind at all, but I hate clothes – and especially something as stiff and bulky as armour – drawn as though it’s painted on the character (I know superhero stuff is one of the worst for this). Please, if you’re drawing armour, look at some references of how armour sits on a body. I won’t even talk at length about whether the design is practical or not because in a fantasy story you can design it how you like, although quite frankly if you want it to feel real it’s something you should think about (take the well-known twitter thread treatise on how the armour design in the Wonder Woman movie relates to real life armour for example). But no matter what, if your armour isn’t body paint, then it should express that. No conforming to abdominal muscle that’s supposedly buried under a layer of padding and metal, no having the same size as the legs supposedly encased under padding and metal too, you get the idea. Armour takes up space and obscures body shape, and if I’m meant to take it seriously as something that could protect a body in a fight, it needs to show it. In a sci-fi setting we can take futuristic thin and flexible skin-tight armour as a given, but not in a standard medievalish fantasy setting.
Outside of that bugbear about the armour – and I did think the conceptual design of it was interesting even if not impressed by the execution of it – the artwork was decent. There seemed to be an anime influence around the hair sometimes (like big flyaway fringe) which I wasn’t fond of, as it didn’t suit the rest of the style, but clothing seemed to have some thought put into it, and the background snowy mountains always looked impressive. ‘Snow everywhere’ sounds like an excuse to not draw scenery but is actually tricky to express well, and Maese and co. do a good job. I really enjoyed how the undead were drawn, rotting and with an unearthly light to them, although the story is not particularly gory (heads up for a bunch of swearing though). I would have expected more detail and realism from seeing Maese’s portfolio, but I do know sequential art often demands sacrificing some quality to the demands of quantity.
I liked the solidity of the world-building, but showing muscle contours (and boob plate, and unusual flexibility) through armour let it down some. I honestly would have liked to see this with a more realistic or dramatic style (I admit I kept thinking of if someone like Russell Dauterman had drawn this), but Maese’s work wasn’t bad, and I loved the looming cold mountain settings. A good mix of mystery and action kept me interested, though the dialogue could be a little tighter. Letterer Wes Locher does some cool sound effects, it should be noted, green horror style for zombies scratching at the walls.
Thanks to Comixology.com for providing this copy of ‘The Black Hand’ for review.