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The second of three books from Gestalt Comics that I want to write about is The Eldritch Kid: Whisky & Hate, which is written by Christian Read and drawn by Michael Maier, with letters by Nathan Martella. It will set you back eleven dollars and ninety-five cents.
I really enjoyed The Eldritch Kid, and I wasn’t sure I was going to. People tend to think I’m really into horror, but I’m really not, so a horror comic has to work on other levels for me to enjoy it. Of course, I enjoy a good horror comic, but I don’t buy every single horror comic out there just because. The same thing applies with Westerns – I like a good Western, but I’m not simply going to buy a Western just because it’s a Western. So the fact that this is a horror Western doesn’t necessarily make it something I’d like. As I’ve often said, it’s all in the execution. Luckily for me, Read and Maier execute this comic very well.
In the grand tradition of Westerns, we get a point of view character and we get the title character, who is the epitome of the Silent Gunfighter Guy. The POV character is Wicasa Waken – Ten Shoes Dancing – a shaman of the Oglala Lakota, who for some unexplained reason was driven from his band years earlier and ended up in Oxford before returning to the States. Now he acts as a guide for settlers moving west to California, because, as he puts it, he feels a need to help people. On the way, Ten Shoes rescues a mysterious stranger from spirits, and said stranger turns out to be the Eldritch Kid, a legendary gunslinger. So off they go!
Read posits a world where spirits and monsters lurk around every corner – unlike some horror Westerns I’ve read, everyone knows the monsters are there, so it’s all about avoiding them if you can. Ten Shoes hires himself out because he knows how to avoid monsters if he’s able and how to deal with them if he can’t. It’s a nice conceit, because Read doesn’t waste time showing peope shocked that nasty beasties lurk in the darkness – this world is full of them, and we see brief glimpses of how it has affected history – the Civil War appears to have been fought differently, for instance, because of the presence of the monsters. Read keeps enough historical events the same to make it familiar, and he manages to strike an interesting balance. Meanwhile, he tells a good story. Ten Shoes and the Kid have a good relationship – as with many relationships in Westerns, it’s tense but not antagonistic. Ten Shoes, having been educated at Oxford, is more talkative, while the Kid, naturally, wants him to shut up. The Kid doesn’t even seem interested in working with Ten Shoes – the wagon train hires the Kid when they find out who he is, because he has such a reputation – but of course, he eventually respects Ten Shoes because of Ten Shoes’s actions. The two of them fight the spirits who are about to sacrifice the Kid when Ten Shoes first comes across him, and later they end up in a town that seems to have sprung up overnight, and neither of them trust that. Finally, the Kid tells Ten Shoes his “origin,” and it’s fairly unexpected, which is always nice. Read does a good job not only with the plot of the story – we get the vignettes of horror but there’s also the overarching plot of the two leading the wagon train to California, which comes to a head rather cleverly and brutally – but also with the two characters. Ten Shoes is erudite, eloquent, and silently angry because all his education can’t overcome the white settlers’ prejudices about natives. The Kid is quiet, smarter than he seems, and hilariously insists on good manners even in the middle of a fight with demons. The characters are established quickly and well, which is trickier than Read makes it look. Read also makes Ten Shoes a good character – despite his education he’s still the target of racism. We think he’s “civilized,” to use a loaded term, but he also shows that he can be as rough-and-tumble as the Kid. Both he and the Kid adhere to a code of ethics, and Read is able to keep from going too far with that until the right moment, when we’ve gotten to know the two characters and their proclamations won’t feel forced. Finally, there’s an interesting element of religion that runs throughout the book. Ten Shoes is a shaman, so he’s dealing with his spirits, but the Kid is religious as well, and Read does a good job incorporating both characters’ beliefs into the book. I don’t want to get into the Kid’s religion too much, because there’s a great scene toward the end of the book that deals with it, but it’s neat that Read chose to emphasize that, in a world overrun by demons and monsters, perhaps the good guys would appeal to spirits to help fight them.
Maier’s art is solid, too. He uses a very limited color palette, so everything is sepia-toned, but unlike movies that do this to look “aged,” the coloring in this book makes everything look dusty, which is a good look for the Old West (and the new West, believe me). The look makes everything eerie, and provides a good setting for the weirdness that’s occurring in the comic. Meanwhile, some of the scenes are a bit clunky, but mostly the choreography works quite well. When the action ramps up, there’s a lot of blood and guts flying around, but we’re never confused as to who’s getting shot. Maier does a good job creating the characters – everyone looks like a real person; Ten Shoes, for instance, sports a traditional hair cut even as he wears “white man’s clothing” and small glasses. The monsters and demons that run amok throughout the book are very well designed and horrific – Maier takes some time to create different-looking monsters for each situation, and even the undead people are drawn nicely. Maier has some problems with perspective, but not to the point where the art is incomprehensible. I imagine he’ll get better at that, and in the meantime, his strong figure work makes up for it. He gives the book a creepy look, but even through that, he has a wry sense of humor about the book – some of the ways the Kid kills demons is blackly humorous, and it keeps the book from being too horrible. Stories like this need a soupçon of humor or they run the risk of being depressingly morbid. Read’s script provides some humor, while Maier does the rest.
I don’t know if Read and Maier have more books planned about Ten Shoes and the Eldritch Kid, as this comic tells a pretty complete story even though there are plenty of ways to tell more. I’d certainly be interested if they had more stories to tell about these two companions. This is a good comic that takes some nice conventions of both genres and twists them well to tell a compelling story. I don’t know if you can find it at your local comic book shoppe, but I know you can get it at Gestalt’s web site! Give it a look!
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