December 16, 2011

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Pale Horse

Story by Andrew Cosby
Written by Michael Alan Nelson
Illustrated by Christian Dibari
Boom! Studios

Cole was part of the Union Army in the early days of the Civil War.  But something caused him to go out west, into the Indian Territories.  When racism combines with violence against women, Cole takes revenge on those who killed his wife.  As a fugitive he's even more deadly, however, with knowledge that could turn the tide of the war.  As Cole fights his own personal war, will certain figures from history change his life forever?  How long can you live on revenge?  Find out in the story of Pale Horse.

This is another of those short series Boom! puts out on a regular basis that do not get a lot of discussion but are quietly quite good.  Usually written by someone with ties to the publisher (I've read Nelson's work before in other Boom! books), they tell all sorts of short fiction, in a variety of genres.  In an era where character branding is so important to the industry, I find it refreshing that a mid-level publisher like Boom! is willing to take chances with stories like these that are not likely to become household names but can find an audience that appreciates them.

In the case of Pale Horse, this book might as well been written for adult Rob, based on child Rob's long-standing interests that have stuck with him.  Cole weaves his way in and out of the Civil War and the American West, two things that I have a continued fascination with.  But instead of telling a tale of gallantry, as might have been given to child Rob, we have a more nuanced story that features the grim reality that an African American man might face in the 1860s.  Cole is rejected because of his race no matter where he goes.  His wife is treated like garbage and ultimately abused and killed because she's a Native American.  He tries to do the right thing, and if he were white, there would be no issue with any of his actions.  But since he's black, he's supposed to take it.

Cole does not, and that drives the narrative.  Operating not unlike Lone Wolf and Cub, Cole takes his child with him against the protests of a bigoted minister and raises him to understand the ways of the world.  Things go fine for awhile, but Nelson ensures that the peace does not last, which gives him the opportunity to work two very important historical figures into the narrative.  (I won't use the name of either, because I think finding out is a nice surprise for the reader that I don't want to spoil.)  From this point, the book shifts focus a bit, as Cole's recent past comes back and he has one last chance to impact on the events of the Civil War.

This is where I think the book has a particularly key moment.  I'm not sure if it's Cosby's plot or Nelson's writing, but the book has an excellent mirror effect, because at the beginning and end of the book, Cole is unable to prevent the death of someone he considers to be worthy of life and must do the best he can to avenge the wrong.  It's a nice touch, and I thought it was great storytelling.

Christian Dibari's artwork isn't bad, but I can't say that I loved it.  It's rough, which fits with the gritty feel of the narrative, but the characters are often sketchier than they need to be and seem posed at odd angles just because, rather than for dramatic effect.  Or rather, because they're all posed at odd angles, the dramatic effect is lost to the reader.  I also feel like he missed out on nailing the setting.  We get a few props to indicate the time and place, but so many of the backgrounds are sparse.  This is the American West!  Show us more about what it looks like!  Again, the art doesn't hurt the story, but neither does it link up with the writing in the way that other books I've read recently do.

By the end of the book, Cole moves on, trying to live his life as best he can in a world that's far from perfect.  That's so true for all of us, though hopefully no one will have as much tragedy as Cole gets in this book.  Nelson had crafted a quality modern western, and fans of the genre (especially Jonah Hex) should look this up.  I think they'll be happy with the results.