COMIC REVIEW: Who On Earth Was Thaddeus Mist?

Thaddeus-MistThaddeus Mist is truly a name to conjure with, redolent with authority and an atmosphere of mystery.  Independent publisher Accent UK have outdone themselves with this anthology of stories, spinning a web of intrigue across a multitude of writing and artistic styles to tackle the question posed on the front cover.

As his friends and relations come together for his funeral, we begin to hear bizarre tales of the man, revealing him to be something of an adventurer: a stage magician; detective; lover; artist; and wild raconteur. Pulled together, they form a tapestry of contradictions and skewed perspectives, full of anger, horror and rose-tinted grief.

Griselda Mist is determined at last to understand the enigma that was her husband.  The truth lurks there, somewhere between memory and perception, outrage and deception.  She will hunt it out.  I wasn’t, I confess, particularly attracted by the cover of this book (which is why I’ve posted a different picture.)  It seemed altogether too darksome and difficult to decipher.  Flicking through the pages at Thought Bubble last year, I found the mish-mash of artistic styles jarring and the monochromatic inks a bit of a depressing sight.  I wouldn’t ordinarily have looked further, but the man on the stall is a salesman born.

His name is Conor Boyle, and I’ve been acquainted with him for a couple of years now.  He’s a shrewd fellow, with a strong sense of artistic integrity and a passion for the tale well-told.  Essentially then, I bought the book on trust.  His recommendation, coupled with the fact that it comes from the same stable as the Eagle Award-winning one-shot Whatever Happened To The World’s Fastest Man? was enough to persuade me to give it a go.  Why has it taken me so long to read?  Well, I’m an idiot.  (You should know this by now.)  Join me after the jump to see what I made of the contents.

Conor’s artwork book-ends the volume and also wends its way between the tales, tying the whole together.  The narrative it accompanies represents the here-and-now of the funeral and the wake: introducing the characters, teasing out the questions and (upon occasion) interrupting the stories to comment upon them.  There is something of Agatha Christie in the set up – near strangers brought together by a death and a mystery – but the tone is gothic, more akin to The (original) Cat And The Canary.

The writer, Owen Michael Johnson, sets up each of the key characters and plants exposition in their dialogue with some panache. You’ll find yourself referring back to the early scenes again and again as each new tale unfolds and the puzzle pieces are revealed.  The first tale is that of the young widow, Griselda Mist.  It is integral to driving the plot of the volume as a whole, and gives us the heart of her pain.

Through it, we come to care deeply for the woman and her need for closure.  Boyle’s art is primarily line-work with black or white spaces to give a sense of shadow and space.  He is economical, with some panels seeming almost unfinished, yet he still captures the complexity of Victorian design and decoration.  His layouts are the most free within the volume, sprawling across pages to overwhelming the senses, as Griselda is herself overwhelmed.  While her memories swirl, so to do images, blending together in montage and mystery.

As Zelda fulfils her hostly duty, passing from guest to guest, a new writer takes over, along with a new artist to illustrate their tale.  It is a fascinating way to construct a project – part anthology, part ongoing drama – and I doubt any main-stream publisher out there would have the balls to try the same.  Independents have to take chances though, and make the most of their resources.  This method has allowed Accent to spread the workload across a wider pool of creative talent – each of whom most likely hold down a full-time job elsewhere, and so have limited time to spare – but it also gives the benefit of providing truly separate perspectives for each story.

Each life that Thaddeus has touched, he did in a different way, and the artistic approaches mirror the tone of each script beautifully.  The breakneck pulp thrills of Thaddeus Mist And The Drums Of A’Kra, for instance, are drawn is a slightly cartoonish style, boxed by sketchy panels and unfolding in a cinematic fashion.  Oils, by contrast, is intensely emotional and oblique: blending angular fashion design sensibilities with impressionistic close-ups.

As you may have gathered, the type of story changes from person to person as well.  We have a detective story, a romance, something of a penny dreadful here, a pastoral tale filled with wonder there.  It makes for an incredibly dense book, filled with rich layers that each deserve your time.

It also, unfortunately, makes it difficult to take everything in one sitting.  The schlocky stories that make up the first half of the book are the most enjoyable to read, in terms of mystery and dark delight, but my personal favourites are probably Grey Britain and The Butterfly – both sentimental, uplifting and beautiful stories that nevertheless manage to remain faithful to all we have seen before.  The Butterfly contains particularly effective artwork, evoking intimacy, horror and the rural idyll with equal delicacy.  Old Wounds, meanwhile, has one of the most chilling images, but is also filled with some of the sketchiest.  A Modest Proposal balances the two sides of the anthology neatly, with its hideous conceit and underlying streak of sentiment.  It stands out for me as the most memorable of the narratives, even if it is not the most original.

Overall impressions, then – I think this book is a grower.  It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes a bit of attention.  When I started reading it I really didn’t think I was going to like it.  I had preconceptions about the production values and the artwork, and I felt more obliged than excited at the prospect of ploughing through it.  The more I read though, the more I was drawn in to Thaddeus’ world.  Mist comes from the Byronic mould: full of brooding intensity, blinding charisma and a passion for life in all its shades and textures.  He strides across the book like a colossus and you can’t help but wonder at the mysteries that surround him.

As I continued, I found myself admiring the format more and more: the sheer gumption involved in pulling such a thing together and the artistry with which the team manages to forge a whole, complex, believable human being out of such a diverse collection of stories.  The joy comes as much from the questions asked, as any answers received, but don’t worry, it wraps up perfectly.  It is well recorded that the stage magician’s art is in making the mundane appear impossibly dramatic.

This anthology takes things a step farther, when it finally gives up its answer to the original question posed.  Not perhaps the answer we imagined, I’ll grant you, but one that is far more emotionally satisfying, uplifting and inspirational than any magic trick could provide.  The whole team should take a bow.

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak 

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