November 13, 2010

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Mysterius the Unfathomable

Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Tom Fowler
Wildstorm

I'll miss Wildstorm as an imprint, if only because while it had no real cohesion line-wide, you can often find cool books like this one making it into print and even a trade collection.

Mysterius is a magician in the true sense of the word, one of the few who knows the secrets lurking within the world of the ordinary. Unfortunately, he's also a total jerk who abuses his powers for personal gain. He'll kite a check or skip out on a tab to avoid actually working for a living.

Mysterius will also manipulate others in order to get them to work for him, which is how Ella becomes Delfi, his assistant. They start working on cases that don't immediately seem to mesh but soon come together in the fine Jeff Parker tradition.

Ella is not the first Delfi Mysterius has had, but she may end up being the most important. A small-time cultist returns to make himself the God he'd always dreamed of, and only Mysterius can stop him. Given all we've seen from this lecherous leech, things don't look good. Can Delfi help him save the day, when all sorts of evil magic (including childrens books) are against them? You'll just have to read to find out!

Most people would be sold on this one just by the name Jeff Parker, and I can't blame them. Just about every time out, Parker gives you entertaining characters, an intricate and linking plot, and dialog that's up there with the best of today's comic book writers. Mysterius is no exception. The main character is as fun to read about as he is unlikeable and Delfi's unlikely casting as the magician's assistant (she is not blond and stacked) gives a great dynamic between the two of them. There's quite a bit of banter, as you might expect, and even the side characters get in some good lines, particularly of the snarky variety.

Parker's high point, however, is in the middle of the book, where we meet a thinly-veiled representation of an extremely popular childrens book author who liked to work in rhyme. Rhyme's the way we conjure demons, of course, leading to an amazing sequence that makes me want Parker to solicit a mini from DC for Etrigan. Not since Alan Grant have I seen verse used so well to be horrifying and hilarious at the same time. Even if the rest of the story was just okay, I'd tell you to read this one just for Parker's demented take on a certain doctor.

And best of all? Like all good things Parker, the entire sequence matters in the climax of the book. Mysterius is plotted so tightly, not even a microbe can slip through. Things that we see in the first issue are used in the latter parts of the story. Seemingly useless bits of Mysterius' life become relevant later. Small ideas turn into larger concepts, building on each other. By the time we reach the end, everything makes logical sense. It's this kind of skill that separates Parker from most folks working in mainstream comics today.

There are a lot of nice touches in here. Mysterius is reviled by his fellow magicians, many of whom use stage acts to disguise their true talents. Those in the know take things deadly seriously while treating non-magicians like idiots. There are references to cults and magical practices that have the air of reality, if you know a bit about the rites and rituals. Parker clearly took the time to do his legwork, and it makes this comic more credible--if you can give credulity to anything involving demons, pocket dimensions, and a reference to Burning Man. If nothing else, give the man credit for weaving mature content into the book without making it sensationalized or exploitative. That's a talent I wish more creators shared!

Tom Fowler definitely deserves a lot of credit for putting together the world that Parker writes. He reminded me a lot of Mike Ploog here, with characters that look just a bit too exaggerated to be normal, but don't fall into the realm of cartoon. Things are all just a bit off-center on every panel, making the work look not quite normal, which works perfectly with this world. He's able to create menace without it seeming too scary, which is both a bonus and a negative for me. His demons don't quite feel as demonic as they could and some of the terrorizing moments look more cartoonish than cadaverous. There's definitely a desire to look like a goofy horror comic, and I think Fowler nails that dynamic well. I just think maybe in a few places, to heighten the tension, we could have gotten things looking a bit darker.

Set up as a loving parody of the pulps, Mysterius shows the demented imagination of Jeff Parker. It's a fun, fast read that makes me wish he'd do more work in the same vein. I'm not sure if the plan was for this to be longer than six issues, but either way, it wraps up in a manner that makes sense and does not look rushed at all. There are hints of potential future stories, and should that ever happen, I'd be all over it. Despite the claim of the title, this book is not Unfathomable at all--it's something I'd fathom any day, and you should, too.