Get in a “Weird West” state of mind with our latest trade paperback/hardcover review feature as we take a look at The Guns of Shadow Valley, Sergio Toppi’s The Collector, and Six-Gun Gorilla.
[Reviewer’s note: Unless otherwise specified, all reviewed titles were provided free-of-charge by their respective publishers or creative team personnel, or sourced from public lending libraries. Click here to read more of our trade paperback and hardcover reviews.]
The Guns of Shadow Valley (Dark Horse Books)
- Story: Dave Wachter, James Andrew Clark
- Art: Dave Wachter
- Format: 240 pages, full color, hardcover
- List price: $24.99
- Sale date: 13 August 2014
- Publisher’s description: Somewhere in Shadow Valley lies a secret that could forever change the frontier. Only a posse of gunmen with special abilities can defend that secret from a tribe of ghostly warriors, an advancing army led by a deranged colonel, and the perils of the valley itself.
Artist and co-writer Dave Wachter describes The Guns of Shadow Valley as “a western mixed with superheroes” but that might be selling the book’s concept and execution short a bit. Those wary that it’s nothing more than a conventional superhero comic dressed up in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats can leave their concerns at the swinging saloon doors—the book is an excellent contemporary example of a comic in the Weird West vein, and it has more in common with something like Mark Sumner’s Weird West novel Devil’s Tower than, say, DC Comics’ superheroes-as-gunfighters one-shot Justice Riders. Oh, there are what can be described as superhuman characters in major roles, but there are no costumes here and little by way of the narrative and character conventions long-time comics readers have come to associate with superhero fiction.
What The Guns of Shadow Valley does have is the grit and atmosphere of a fictionalized Old West. There is a classic pulp western at the heart of The Guns of Shadow Valley, one that is about desperate and dangerous men and women at the crossroads of the frontier era, thrown together by circumstance and design, thrust into a conflict where they will have to trust in each other and their six-shooters to come out on top against nigh-insurmountable odds. Replace its more fantastical story and design elements—the sci-fi MacGuffin at the heart of the conflict, the superpowers, the touches of the supernatural—with more mundane substitutes, and it would be perfectly serviceable as an action-adventure frontier period piece.
It is those fantastical elements that really give the work its unique character and appeal, though. Especially powerful is the book’s fifth chapter (“The Crow, the Coyote, and the Eagle”), which effectively uses an imagined (and quite lyrical) Native American myth as an expository metaphor for the science-fiction aspects of the overarching story’s background.
Wachter’s art is outstanding as well. The linework and rendering is vaguely reminiscent of that of 1970s western comics artist Tony DeZuniga (Weird Western Tales, Jonah Hex), but what it really reminds me of is Sam Glanzman’s inks over Tim Truman’s pencils in Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo and Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such: there’s a similar energy and dynamic looseness to the line, but it’s also tight enough that it never looks sloppy. Worth mentioning, too, is Wachter’s facility with illustrating animals, an underrated but absolutely essential skill in any comic set in the Old West. Everything from horses to coyotes to eagles to crows and even a mastodon figure prominently in key scenes in the book, and Wachter does a solid job each and every time. And while it’s almost a certainty that the book was colored digitally—what comic isn’t, these days—the more organic coloring style, the restraint applied to the use of stock digital coloring and texturing effects and filters, and Wachter’s use of a slightly muted palette all perfectly complement the setting and atmosphere of the book.
The Guns of Shadow Valley is, of course, available to read for free as a webcomic (it was nominated in 2010 for the Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic and was again nominated the following year at the Harveys for its version of the award) but it’s a comic that is really deserving of direct support from readers, crafted as it is with an elevated level of technique that belies its humble origins. It’s a truly enjoyable work of hybrid pulp genre graphic fiction, right up there with Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt’s The Sixth Gun and Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts’ Manifest Destiny as among the best titles in the minor Weird West comics revival we’ve been seeing these past few years. Very highly recommended.
The Collector (BOOM!/Archaia)
- Story & art: Sergio Toppi
- Translation by: Edward Gauvin
- Format: 252 pages, black & white, hardcover
- List price: $29.99
- Sale date: 15 October 2014
- Publisher’s description: Far from the auction halls of the elite, The Collector seeks out rare and mysterious artifacts across the world. He is at home in the salons of Paris as he is in the jungles of Borneo. Set against the backdrop of late 19th century colonialism, The Collector is a delightful, swashbuckling adventure!
- Click here to read our review of Sergio Toppi’s Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights.
The Collector is Archaia’s second English-language edition of the late Sergio Toppi’s work after 2012’s Sharaz-De: Tales From the Arabian Night hardcover. As with that volume, The Collector, originally published in Italy in 1984, features a series of related vignettes framed by a larger narrative, although this book does have a stronger sense of theme and internal continuity.
The eponymous protagonist is, as his name says, a 19th century collector of artifacts, traveling to remote parts of the world in search of items that he deems to be of significant value for the role they’ve played in some obscure, tragic historical sequence or event. There’s a sinister and mystical cast to the mysterious Collector, and his little forays often end up as horror-tinged exercises in poetic justice. These little adventures are quite entertaining in and of themselves as stories in the mold of the best DC horror anthology comics of the 1970s, but they also offer a pointed criticism of the history of Western colonialism and imperialism. This is especially pronounced in the book’s first story (“The Red Rock Peace Pipe”), which veers into a brief digression on the tribulations suffered by the Native American tribes as they were displaced by encroaching elements of the growing United States. Still, while the subject of the stories are often grim, there is a sly, ironic sense of humor to Toppi’s treatment.
The main draw of this work, however, is Toppi’s meticulously rendered, finely detailed line art. Toppi was one of comics’ preeminent draftsman during his prime, and his masterful use of hatching, spotting blacks, and negative space results in some of the most striking black & white landscapes readers will see in comics (or in fine art, for that matter). The plains of the American Midwest, the African desert, the mountains of Tibet, the jungles of Southeast Asia—all are vividly realized by Toppi’s brush and pen.
The Collector also offers readers the opportunity to see Toppi demonstrate his visual storytelling chops in a more conventional comic book fashion, with panels and such, as Sharaz-De: Tales From the Arabian Night was constructed almost more like an illustrated story book in parts. The common rule of thumb in comics art is that there is an almost inverse relationship between illustration detail and dynamism in sequential art, but The Collector might well be the proverbial “exception that proves that rule.” While some of Toppi’s figures do look unnaturally posed for the benefit of some unseen audience, these instances aren’t nearly as common as one might expect and the characters, for the most part, look very much like they’ve been captured by Toppi in mid-motion instead of looking like stiff, static models. It helps, too, that Toppi isn’t content to use typical perspectives and panel arrangements whilst still maintaining storytelling clarity.
A work definitely worth seeking out for any serious student of comics history and illustration.
Six-Gun Gorilla (BOOM! Studios)
- Story: Simon Spurrier
- Illustrations: Jeff Stokely
- Colors: André May
- Cover: Ramon Pérez
- Format: 160 pages, full color, trade paperback
- List price: $19.99
- Sale date: 25 June 2014
- Publisher’s description: Welcome to “the Blister,” a bizarre other-world colonized by humans sometime in the 22nd century, which quickly became a hotly contested source of fertile land and natural resources long ago exhausted on Earth. In this new frontier, a rogue gunslinger and his companion wander across a wilderness in the grips of a civil war, encountering lawlessness, natives, and perversions of civilization in a world at the crossroads between the past and the future. The fact that said gunslinger is a bio-surgically modified silverback gorilla toting a pair of enormous revolvers is neither here nor there…
- Click here to read our review of Six-Gun Gorilla #1.
In its early going, writer Simon Spurrier and artist Jeff Stokely’s Six-Gun Gorilla—loosely based on an obscure, anonymously penned 1930s Weird West pulp serial that has since fallen into the public domain—might have some readers thinking it is actually a stealth tribute to Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons’ early 1980s sci-fi serial Rogue Trooper as much as it is inspired by the original Six-Gun Gorilla. Certain story elements such as the far-future approximation of the Cold War couched in fighting between rival military factions on a hostile planet, a lone super-soldier type caught between the two sides, and the way the whole affair is viewed almost like a spectator sport by Earth-based civilians all seemingly point to this being the case. In a rather brilliant example of nested intertextuality, however, Spurrier actually uses these deliberate similarities to comment on the notions of escapism, authorship, and the repetitive and cyclical nature of long-running serial fiction.
This isn’t to say that the book is less enjoyable when considered in isolation, because it also works well as standalone entertainment. Between the space western setting, the over-the-top fight scenes, the frequently hilarious dialogue, the sympathetic characters, and the military-industrial-media complex conspiracy plot, there is a lot to keep readers engaged even without them considering the work’s larger themes. Add to all that Stokely’s engrossing art and Six-Gun Gorilla is a work that stirs and satisfies on multiple levels.