Thursday, January 31, 2008

Salem: Queen of Thorns #0

Salem: Queen of Thorns #0, January 2008, Boom! Studios
writers: Chris Morgan & Kevin Walsh
artist: Wilfredo Torres
colorist: Andrew Dalhouse
letterer: Marshall Dillon
editor: Mark Waid

Every Wednesday, A Comic A Day boldly diverts from the printed page to read and review a different webcomic, examining at least its first, previous, and current installments. If you have a webcomic you'd like A Comic A Day to review, please e-mail me with a link to and a synopsis of your work. Put "Review my webcomic!" in the subject line so I don't mistake your request for spam . . . unless your comic is really called "You've Just Won a Playstation -- Click Here to Find Out How," in which case, tell me more!

I’m cheating this week. Thanks to my review of 2 Guns #1, marketing director Chip Mosher has added me to Boom! Studios’ press release e-mail list, which recently included an advance copy of Salem: Queen of Thorns #1. Salem may not be a webcomic, but reading the issue as a PDF file provided an interesting insight into the potential of the medium’s future. Further, though this issue has since been released, when I received it, it was available exclusively on-line via e-mail for promotional purposes, a characteristic definitive to webcomics. So, in this case, I’m embracing the back door.

Our country’s history is unquestionably tainted by a multitude of civil, political, and religious discords. Few of these calamities manage to boast all three claims as much as the infamous Salem Witch Trials. I am by no means an expert on the subject; in fact, my knowledge of the subject is limited to an obligatory read of The Crucible in high school and a few supplement civics lessons. Still, considering the amount of skepticism a possible Texas UFO sighting elicits from America nowadays, the imagination runs wild with the thought that the fear of witchcraft so gripped a town that they began systematic executions of women with just the slightest penchant for frog’s leg soup. Indeed, our post Industrial Age skepticism deems that era of history as fantastic as those supernatural accusations, chalking up that brief era of madness to spiritual paranoia.

But what if the Salem Witch Trials, albeit false, were simply mankind’s hasty reactions to the machinations of real magic brewing at the time? Enter Salem: Queen of Thorns #0.

In this introductory issue, the darkly garbed Hooke, appropriately wielding a sickle and various other magical tools in his portable arsenal, prowls the Salem forests to both save innocent women from execution and uncover and defeat that real magic lurking behind the scenes. Deacon Wood, gripped by conviction, also attempts to shed spread some righteousness by confronting his superiors, whose investments in both the trials and Hooke’s involvement is obviously more personal than professional. When Hooke, Wood, and a rescued prostitute flee to the forest, they tussle with a few demonic arachnid crossbreeds before encountering the Queen of Thorns, a large, snarling tree that knows Hooke by name. If this is how #0 ends, I can only imagine how the first issue begins.

Salem: Queen of Thorns has the potential to become The Crucible for a new generation, teaching readers about the bitter reality of those dark days while still infusing history with an entertaining sense of supernatural adventure. Our hero Hooke is dressed like a moody Victorian bounty hunter, but his quick tongue is as sharp as his sickle, combating the theocratic hierarchy of his era with wit and bitterness. Handing mild-mannered Wood a pistol for protection, he counters the deacon’s whimpering with the smirk-worthy retort, “Just point it at the bad things and pull the trigger.” I hope Deacon comes of age in future issues, though, as his closeness to the church’s inner circle could prove our heroes a strategic advantage. Hooke might be slinging guns, but the issue of witch hunting surely isn’t just a physical one.

Fortunately, artist Wilfredo Torres seems capable of the dual task. His depictions of the supernatural don’t clash with the colonial backdrop of Salem, and in fact the Queen of Thorns and her demonic minions actually enhance the natural environment. The more text-intensive moments were well blocked, graced with a cinematic quality that paces dialogue, mood, and tension perfectly. In fact, Torres’ pencils and inks may actually be more crisp than material like this really needs; in other words, a little leniency with his rigid ink lines might have layered the tale with a sense of atmospheric spookiness. Nevertheless, his formulaic structure enhances the seriousness of the piece, and even if Salem doesn’t go the way of The Crucible, both script and illustration combine to create all the drama you need.

I may have received this issue via e-mail, but I think I’ll make the tangible purchase, too. If I’m going to buy the rest of the series, I might as well have a hardcopy of how it all began. Salem #0 exposes us to the harsh reality of embracing our humble beginnings, anyway. Those poor, hanging women may not have been witches, but their ghosts will haunt us for a long time to come.

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