Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dirty Dozen: Rachel Rising

Dirty Dozen is a semi-regular feature with twelve disconnected thoughts on the first twelve issues of a current ongoing series.

1. Rachel Rising is deceptively difficult to summarize. It doesn't feel like that vast an idea when you read it, but any boiled-down description feels like it detracts from it. If I try it in one sentence, the closest I can get is: In the present day in a small American town, a witch is taking her revenge on the descendants of the people that tried to kill her and successfully killed her witch friends, along with a bunch of innocent childless women, 300 years ago. But that doesn't even mention the title fucking character, except inasmuch as she's one of the witches. Only...she's also a totally normal non-witch living in the modern world. And this is where the summarizing hits a snag, because to be honest, I'm not even clear yet on exactly how that whole thing works. It seems like maybe Rachel's body is housing the spirit/soul of the murdered witch, but if that's the case, why does she have modern Rachel's memories and personality? And is that also true of the other resurrected witches? Does the woman with the snake in her throat remember her life from before in the same way Rachel does? And now I'm teetering on the edge of a rabbit hole, and there are still like five to ten major characters I've yet to mention. Maybe it's not difficult to summarize. It's impossible to summarize. It is too well-built and complex to be understood from a distance, and should instead be experienced firsthand. By everyone.

2. It is so, so easy to forget that, mixed in with everything else that's going on, there is still a murder mystery that needs solving. Rachel was strangled and buried by somebody, and it seems totally separate from all the witch trial stuff. Somebody killed modern-day Rachel, and that somebody hasn't been discovered yet or even talked about in a while. But he/she exists, and will have to turn up eventually.

3. There is an incredible balance between the violent climaxes and the gorgeous, deliberate scenes of total silence. The first issue opens with nine pages of silence, but it's captivating and significant stuff. The longest, loudest, most crowded conversations are often the least weighty or informative---they're used to show us who the characters are rather than drive the plot. When the important shit goes down, it is often wordless, and on top of that there are plenty of calm, almost mundane silences, too. Two rabbits casually munching on a fox corpse. Rachel walking through the heavy snow. Zoe hiding up in a tree. And so on. This back-and-forth between the dialogue-heavy scenes, violence-heavy scenes, and scenes which are just generally a bit lighter is perfectly calculated, and gives the book a unique and unsettling tone overall.

4. I did a bit of counting, and it looks like each issue is only 18 pages. Meaning these twelve issues have a total of 24 fewer pages than any twelve issues of any other current series. So if I wasn't thoroughly impressed with the size and scope of this book before (which I suspect I was) I sure as shit am now.

5. The way insanity is handled in Rachel Rising is atypical and admirable. Even the craziest characters are capable of functioning in the world, interacting with "normal" people, leading "regular" lives. And more to the point, their craziness is not all that defines them. Dr. Siemen may have meals and conversations with his long-dead wife, but that doesn't make him any less competent a medical professional. I trust him with fixing Jet's spine even though I don't buy any of his "Angel of Death" philosophy. It's not a treatment of madness I see very often in fiction, but it's true-to-life and I appreciate it tremendously.

6. So many badasses. Obviously the villains, meaning Lilith and Malus, have incredible power and use it for some crazy violence, but that's not what I mean. Or it's not the only thing I'm referring to. Rachel, of course, is a badass in her own right, if only because she takes everything in stride. She has several unthinkable situations and developments pop up, but never loses her level-headedness or rationality. Plus there's the end of issue #12 when she digs herself out of a grave for the second time and declares that Lilith made a big mistake, which I am guessing will lead to a pretty spectacular face-off between the two of them. And even Zoe, now free of Malus' possession, turns out to be a pretty badass little kid, able to laugh in the face of the demon who has controlled her for centuries and refuse to do his bidding any longer. Hell, the fact that she's the only person to ever survive his possession is a significant and impressive fact on its own. So yeah, there's a lot of that kind of thing in this book: tough-as-nails survivors who won't back down no matter how large the threat before them.

7. The covers may be my favorite artistic aspect of the series. Always using blacks and reds, but with a different "base" color for each set of (so far) six issues. So the first six are green, black, and red while the second six are orange, black, and red. It's a cool if simple way to tackle cover art, and makes for a seriously compelling visual if you lay them out next to each other. And of course, each image stands alone as an intriguing invite to look inside.

8. Somehow I have gotten this far without actually saying the name Terry Moore, which is just ridiculous, since he is the writer and artist for the entire series. It's amazing how complete the whole project seems to be already in Moore's mind. Every member of the vast and growing cast is fully-realized from their first appearance, and the shape and speed of the larger narrative is clearly under control. That's why we get hints about the witch trial from Johnny in Issue #2. It's why Zoe is convincingly both a brutal murderer and a scared little girl from the beginning. It's why Lilith doesn't even need to speak in order to introduce herself to the reader. Moore has thought all of this through to the end, you can tell, and is deliberately and carefully showing his readers only what we need to know at each stage in the game. It's rare to find that kind of consistent pacing, raising and answering questions at just the right times to keep the mystery alive without it growing overly confusing.

9. It's not often that the distinction needs to be made (especially in comicbooks where the majority of titles are superhero-based), but Rachel Rising has very little action and an awful lot of violence.

10. Earl's strange, sad, silent love for Jet is the single best detail in the book. He's the best character, I guess, in my opinion, although I wouldn't have said that until I just now thought it through. But he is. It would have been so easy for him to be a creep, but instead he is, as Jet says, a perfect gentleman, and I love that for several reasons. First of all, it was unexpected. In the initial scene where he pronounces his love to Jet's corpse I kept waiting for the creepy/inappropriate shoe to drop and instead he just got sweeter and more respectful. And as their relationship has advanced since Jet came back from the dead, Earl has only won me over more and more. His near-stoic admiration for Jet, his willingness to help out, his composition in the face of the impossible, his total honesty...he may be a bit left of center in appearance and mannerisms, but he's what all men should aspire to be like. All people, really. Let's not make this a gender thing.

11. There are definitely things that would be lost if this series were in color. In particular, I think of all the scenes with heavy falling snow. There is a sense that the snow takes over everything, washing out the rest of the world, and somehow that effect would be diminished if the rest of the book were fully colored. Having it already be in black and white makes the addition of even more white seem all the more significant. Also, I think that if the blood were red it would pull the focus in some of the death scenes. I am thinking specifically of Jet's death right now, but there are doubtlessly others where having a lack of color means the gore is easier to ignore in favor of the emotional weight of what's happening. And that's important. I'm sure that if Moore had chosen to work in color he would have adjusted accordingly and the series would still have the right look, but he didn't. He chose black and white, and therefore he plays to the strengths of that decision.

12. Having a snake that lives inside you and jumps out of your throat to kill people is the coolest goddamn power I've ever seen. I guess that's the teenage boy inside of me, maybe even younger, but I don't care. I love that shit. I eat it right up.

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