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Westward is the latest comic by Ken Krekeler, whose work so far has been impressive (his graphic novel from last year, Dry Spell, was one of the best of the year, even if hardly anyone read it). Now he’s trying to get a serial off the ground (this book is planned for 10 issues), and the first issue is in this month’s Previews. Krekeler needs people to pre-order it by next week (the 26th of June) so it can show up in stores. He was nice enough to send this off to me so I could review it and get the word out about it. As usual, I’m just one guy, so perhaps my opinion doesn’t mean much, but if this sounds like something you’d like and maybe you haven’t heard of it, tell your retailer to order it for you. It won’t kill you! It’s only $2.99 and it’s 47 pages long, so why wouldn’t you give it a look?
Happily for me, Westward is a very good comic, a first issue that is packed with plot and interesting characters, and one that ends on a wonderfully horrifying image. The story is set in a steampunk (yet modern) New York, and Krekeler does a nice job making it obvious that we’re not in Kansas anymore without overwhelming the story with it. There’s one splash page that shows a New York street scene with all sorts of steampunky mechanical marvels, but other than that, Krekeler places the signposts in the background and lets us discover them as we read. Older people dress in suits and top hats, but younger people are more modern, and the big difference in the world is the prevalence of mechanized prosthetics – people walk around with robotic arms and eyes, and it’s all very normal. Krekeler puts some large, gear-driven machines in some panels, but he does such a nice job integrating them into the overall scene that it doesn’t feel intrusive. Perhaps the fact that the book is in black and white makes it less noticeable and therefore more effective.
The story concerns a young man named Victor West, whose father built a great corporation called Westward from nothing. Early on in the book, Victor wakes up from a ten-year-long coma with very little memory of his former life. He meets his sister, Annabelle, and his niece, Penelope, and eventually his father comes to see him. In the meantime, Krekeler flashes back ten years to Victor’s former life as a model and actor. He was a vapid, rather dim young man, concerned only with his image and disappointing his father in every way. He was in an “accident,” although in this issue we don’t know anything about what happened, and now he’s woken up. His doctor tells him that his brain was fine but they needed to rebuild his body, which is meant to sound (and does sound) ominous. When he sees his father, the old man collapses and dies (he had a heart condition), meaning that Annabelle is now in charge of the business. It’s obvious there’s something unusual about Victor, and Krekeler does a nice job hinting at things before ending the issue with a cliffhanger that clears up some things but opens up a whole different can of worms. Meanwhile, a man in a bar, upset over the dominance of corporations in the world, meets a mysterious stranger who says he can help “take down” Westward. What does it all mean? Well, beats me, but it’s certainly intriguing.
Krekeler has a pretty good plot, and he does a nice job with the characters. Victor is obviously as the center of the book, and Krekeler writes him very well – a pretty boy who doesn’t listen to anyone unless it concerns him. When he comes out of the coma, Krekeler does a clever thing – Victor has the same speech pattern, but it seems like he’s matured a bit. What this means is also hinted at throughout the book, but I don’t want to speculate. Is it just that he’s older, or is it something more sinister? Well, it’s a genre-driven comic book, so I think the latter, but Krekeler does a good job with it. Annabelle seems like a vicious businesswoman, but we discover that she has hidden depths, too, and Penelope is an interesting character – on one hand, a typical teenager, but also the one person who seems to relate to Victor. Krekeler’s dialogue is expository in many places but never labored, and he is able to do different speech patterns for different people, which is often hard for comic book writers.
I’ve mentioned the fact that Krekeler uses models in his art, and it definitely has an Alex Maleev vibe to it, but it’s also all his own and is getting better all the time. I loved the coloring on Dry Spell, which this lacks, of course, but he also seems more confident in his figure work, which is getting more fluid and dynamic. He translates facial expressions very well to print, allowing the characters to express their emotions wordlessly more often than in his previous comics. In the flashbacks, he uses more tones to create a richer palette, so that there are more shades of gray rather than the black and white of the present. His design sense is very good – the people wear regular clothing, and Krekeler spends a lot of time making sure it’s stylish and fits into his steampunk world. He uses some art clichés to good effect – a page of shattered panels implying Victor’s accident; a television interview running across the top of the page, separate from the action below but showing Victor’s insipidness. Each character not only has a unique voice but a unique look, so that they’re fairly memorable, which is always nice. Art-wise, the book feels like something different but familiar, which helps us accept the outlandish parts of the story.
I urge you to ask your retailer to order this book for you (or go to the book’s web site, which links to various on-line retailers who will order it for you), because it’s very good and I, for one, would love to read the whole thing. I think you would too if you happened to read the first issue. It’s a bit different but still well within a good genre tradition, and I expect that Krekeler, who’s a good creator right now, will just get better as it goes along. If you’re feeling the least bit skeevy about the state of creators’ rights in comics right now, do something about it! I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with this comic at all. It’s excellent.
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