Thursday, October 19, 2006

Route 666 #3

Route 666 #3, September 2002, CrossGen Entertainment
writer: Tony Bedard
penciller: Karl Moline
inker: John Dell
colorist: Nick Bell
letterer: Troy Peteri

When you think about it, doctors can be pretty scary people. Their intimate knowledge of the human body gives them an upper hand over the common man’s sense of their own well-being, and society’s general acceptance of their wherewithal to tamper with our health and physique places them in a rather powerful position. Who can say that the several years of education a doctor must endure truly qualifies an individual as one with the moral compass or grasp of responsibility required to comprehensively fulfill the oath to preserve life? In other words, book learnin’ doesn’t guarantee that any given doctor isn’t a nut ready to crack and wreak havoc on their fellow man through the privilege bestowed them as a physician. From what station did this train of thought chug, you ask? Well, since yesterday’s review of Supernatural Freak Machine was completed so haphazardly, I wanted to compare the issue with today’s read, Route 666 #3, and coincidentally, both have a deranged doctor character in common. Go figure.

Route 666 #3 opens with a startling scene, as one Doctor Waterman falls prey to a nasty vampire bite. Our shock-stick wielding hero/ghost-seeing asylum patient Cassie bursts onto the scene seconds too late to save the good doctor but in time to put a pen through his assailant’s eye, a fellow doctor (turned vampire) with ties to a demonic underworld hell bent on swiping innocent souls at death. The introductory scene, which actually consumes the entire first half of the issue, is superbly suspenseful, drawing in a new reader like me with action, intrigue, and most importantly, sympathy for the lead character. In Supernatural Freak Machine #1, writer Steve Niles uses a similar technique kicking off the issue with a suspenseful scene that demands your attention and empathy, in this case for a prison warden back from vacation only to find the medical lab transformed into an experimental breeding ground for Frankenstein-like monstrosities at the hands of the eerie Dr. Polynice. Both of these scenes are darkly colored and rapidly paced for dramatic effect. It works. In both cases, I was affected.

Then, both writers offer a twist, a dramatic scene change that further establishes the stories’ major players while maintaining an edge-of-your-seat sensibility for the involved reader. In Cal McDonald’s case, the supernatural detective of the Niles/Kelly Jones tale, he and his friend are literally on the edge – of the “H” in the Hollywood sign. Jones shows off his chops as an artist here; his run on Batman involved many urban backdrops and tight action sequences, but McDonald lets him take a step back and let his work breath a bit. Kelly can draw monsters, but he can also masterfully reflect the environments that breed them. 666 scribe Tony Bedard takes a similar approach, as Cassie flees the asylum by bus and disembarks in a rural area, where the local sheriff quickly recognizes her from the rapidly released news reports of the doctors’ murders. Unlike the intro pages, these panels are wider, earth-toned images, giving us solid environment shots of the country and diner in which Cassie seeks refuge. From a bloody lab to the American landscape, these artists can capture true horror in any cranny of the country.

I can imagine that comics are difficult venues for true horror fiction. In any scary story, the element surprise is key to its success, but when the eye can scan seven or eight panels’ worth of information on any given page, a sense of shock can easily be lost. Pacing is critical, particularly in page transitions. The reader’s interaction with the comic as a book of sequential art is truly put to the test; without the mystery of what the next page might bring, offering something really scary would be a great feat for any author and artist. Route 666 accomplishes this with its last pages, as Cassie’s stolen cop car and the Sheriff’s son’s truck collide in a two-page spread surprisingly detailed with shattered glass, fiery engines, and characters crashing through windows into the open air. Full force, pure action, as if someone pressed pause at that critical moment in the movie when the explosion means everything. Two page spreads rarely conclude an issue, since most comics end on an even page, but the artists sacrificed that last page for their credits, utilizing the inside front cover for supplemental material (an insightful letter from Cass to Waterman) to catch up the reader to current events. Well played, I say. Now if someone could press the fast forward button to next issue . . .

Interestingly, Cal McDonald’s story ends similarly, with a haunted car running him down in a dead-end alley. McDonald takes a leap toward the barreling vehicle, then . . . to be continued? The suspense from one issue to the next is definitely more exhilarating (and irritating) than the mere seconds that pass in a movie.

So, I doctored this review to make up for yesterday’s phone-in. I’m pleased with the results. Both issues had more in common than I thought. Perhaps the horror genre depends on certain character types or plot elements to thrive, or certain horror stories have parallel points upon which success is assured. Perhaps I’m dissecting this idea too much, like any mad doctor would. Who knows if doctors are mentally qualified? Who knows if comic book reviewers are? Therein lies another commonality. If both types of person aren’t careful, their self-imposed sense of power and importance could consume them.

Bwah ha ha ha ha ha ha!

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