It's funny. Last month I reviewed this title, and talked a lot about how much I loved the bizarre romance between Saul and Ashley. This month, the cover of Ex Sanguine #3 actually advertises that romance explicitly, yet the story of the issue pays it the least amount of attention. Luckily, and somewhat surprisingly, putting the theoretically central relationship on the back burner for one issue doesn't detract from the series whatsoever. As a matter of fact, it strengthens it in more ways than one.
The goal of this issue is more to build character than advance plot. The agents (whose names I guiltily admit I still don't know) who are trying to catch Saul and Ashley are given some much-needed depth. The man agent doesn't get much in terms of history, but we see him in the role of genuinely concerned partner, and learn a bit more about his approach to detective work. The lady agent (god I need to go back and commit their names to memory) has her history filled in with more detail, all in a single and powerful page, and it both gives her a personal investment in this case and shows us what a badass she can be if necessary. Before now, these two characters were feeling a bit empty to me, and while their scene in this issue doesn't exactly fill them up, they're much more real and interesting with a bit of backstory and some well-done development of their dynamic.
The world of Ex Sanguine is expanded as well, mostly just by showing us that, along with vampires like Saul, there are apparently shapeshifting man-rats of some kind, too. Not sure if this is another vampire breed or a lyncanthropy thing or what, but I like the idea that there are all different kinds of monsters in this series. It opens up the future a bit more if we don't know exactly what horrible creature(s) might show up, and I loved that the rat man spoke in plural pronouns. Plus he was used to add a new plot element and further complicate the budding love between Saul and Ashley, so that ain't bad, neither.
It's Ashley who gets the full-scale origin story treatment, though, and once again this book pulls out some nice surprises. Even though the bullies of her childhood are a tad cliched, the hint that her father may be a vampire (possibly even the same one who kidnapped our lady agent...?) was an unexpected and disturbing moment that added a whole lot to her as a character, a killer, and a woman with a vampire lover. Still not clear what her plans for the pen are, long-term, but her personal connection to it is now firmly cemented through her terrifying writer dad, which makes me all the more curious to see what she intends to use it for.
In general, Ex Sanguine #3 just pulled me further into its narrative. I was already enthusiastic about it, but that feeling has been amplified by all the new info discovered here. Joshua Scott Emmons and Tim Seeley have clearly put a great deal of work into fine-tuning their story. The levels of detail they've put into their cast and world are impressive, and even more impressive is the careful pace and structure through which they share those details with us.
Seeley's art, assisted by Carlos Badilla's coloring, is right at the same level as the script, if not a step higher. Particularly the flashback scenes, with their muted colors and sloppier, thicker panel borders. Memories fade and warp over time, and the art here represents that. It also highlights the sadness of Ashley's childhood, and the creepiness. And that's the great thing about Seeley's work on this book overall---he can play up the horror elements when needed, drawing graphic murders and terrifying monsters, but he's just as capable of capturing the calmer, more playful, human moments.
Which brings me to the single best thing about Ex Sanguine #3: Julius the fish's funeral. Saul's pet yellow tang dies, and as the vampire dumps his companion out into larger waters, he gives a pitch perfect and poignantly hilarious little eulogy that I adored. And Saul's deep, genuine sadness at the loss of his tiny friend is rendered expertly, most of all in the panel where he notices the fish has passed. It's touching and funny and a tiny bit discomforting, which is a pretty good description of the series as a whole.
Here at the 3/5 mark, Ex Sanguine is shaping up to be one of my favorite current titles, and the only thing that upsets me about it is that there are only two chapters left. With all the balls in the air after the end of this installment, it's hard for me to even take a stab at how everything will resolve, but this book has yet to do anything I expect of it, anyway. That's why I like it so damn much.