Halloween has long been my favorite holiday, so I’ve decided to return to reviewing comic books with some regularity this month. Every week this month, I’ll post at least one special Halloween-oriented review, criticizing the issue based on its reverence for this hallowed holiday season through four distinct categories worth up to five points each. The comic that earns the total possible 20 points could be one of the best Halloween issues ever!
Death, Jr. #1, April 2005, Image Comics
writer: Gary Whitta
illustrator: Ted Naifeh
editor: Terri Selting
PREMISE: The Grim Reaper has a family. If that isn’t a strong enough pitch for a comic book, television series, or movie, I don’t know what is. In this case, Death, Jr. is a cute little skeleton boy, ignorant of his father’s gritty work and taught to appreciate people for what’s on the inside. This contrast makes for some great conflict in the future, and this initial issue establishes the story’s premise with sharp wit and charm. As an all-ages Halloween concept, I’m giving Death, Jr. a full five points.
STORY: This inaugural issue is Death, Jr.’s first day of school, and, boy, is he excited! I was initially curious how writer Gary Whitta would establish such a strange little character like Death, Jr. in a supposedly “real” world, but at school D.J. meets other odd children, like Pandora, the hollow-eyed girl with a penchant for opening things, Smith and Weston, the conjoined twins that share a brain, and Stigmartha, who bleeds from her hands when she gets nervous. Over half of this first issue is pure character-building and clever wordplay, as D.J. steps out of his comfort zone and learns to “live a little.” Sure, his touch kills the classroom goldfish and withers a bold bully’s good punching hand, but that’s life -- or in this case the life of Death, I suppose! Anyway, I was satisfied with D.J.’s first week of school as the plot, but Whitta kicks it up a notch when the kids go on a field trip to the Museum of Supernatural History and Pandora opens the Necronomicube, a box that releases Moloch, an old nemesis of Death himself. When Moloch discovers his old foe has a child, he hatches a revenge scheme. While I understand the need for a cliffhanger ending, this issue had the potential to be a charming one-shot/teaser for more, so I grant it four out of five points.
ART: In a word, Naifeh’s art is perfect for this issue. His character designs are simple (and would easily translate into animation, which may have been the point) and expressive, reflecting the writer’s both wry and tender tones. Further, he balances the nuances of a regular world with this tale’s more macabre aspects most effectively, from D.J.’s blissful Mrs. Cleaver-ish mother, to a basketball game at the school playground, to Pandora’s visit to Death’s house, which isn’t nearly as “Munsteresque” as she thought. Kids would dig it, and I was enthralled by it. Naifeh’s art earns four points.
PACKAGING: Death, Jr. #1 is a prestige format book (if they still call them that), with a whopping 48 ad-free pages of pure comics goodness, so its original $4.99 price tag isn’t outrageous, especially since some standard singles push that now. The issue definitely didn’t seem to take longer to read than most, either, because the story is so entertaining, especially in the beginning as well paced, more episodic moments establish D.J.’s character and the world around him. However, I take issue (no pun intended) with the cover art. I don’t know if Naifeh is responsible, but for some reason the characters on the cover look more like concept pieces or colored excerpts from a sketchbook, in no way reflecting the charm of the interiors. I wonder if these minimalist images were meant to attract a younger audience; if so, it’s a disservice, because Naifeh’s regular style is surely all age-friendly. Anyway, this discontinuity compels me to award this issue only three points . . .
TOTAL: . . . giving Death, Jr. #1 a total of 17 points! That’s my highest ranked issue so far! Considering the Halloween holiday celebrates kids dressing up in creepy costumes for candy, Death, Jr. just cuts out the costume part, featuring strange little kids that really act no differently than your average brutal youngster. Still, the fact that Death, Jr. must’ve inherited his father’s ability to affect humanity’s mortality . . . its subtly spine-chilling. Uh, just don’t tell his dad I said that.