June 13, 2012

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Valen the Outcast #6 and #7

Written by Michael Alan Nelson
Illustrated by Matteo Scalera
Boom! Studios

Valen and his two companions move closer to their goal, but to reach the evil necromancer, they have to go through a band of Skulks out for Zjanna's flesh and avoid the dangers of the road.  But once they arrive, can Valen possibly accept an offer from Korrus Null himself? It's the end of the journey and possibly the end of the line for Valen the Outcast.

Though I am enjoying reading Valen the Outcast primarily because it is unabashedly a pulp-novel story, I can't imagine trying to read these two issues without reading the first five.  Without knowing that Zjanna and Valen were lovers, the conflict that drives these two issues really doesn't work, as the things that happen go far beyond friendship.  And while I do understand that Nelson tries to work these details into the story organically, I think he could have done a better job.  You're in a pulp story, why not embrace a little purple prose between them to establish it in the reader's mind a bit more solidly?

That being said, it's hard to argue with the action here.  The Skulks are absolutely terrifying, wearing bright red and tattoos and flying all over the page.  While I wish Scalera's artwork was clearer most of the time, his rough style and casual disregard for anatomy works well in this case, because it makes the Skulks feel more like monstrous nightmares than women.  There is an absolutely visceral nature to the pages that feature Valen and the others against the Skulks that might not have worked had the art been of a more refined nature.  The confusion on the part of the reader by incomplete visuals actually helps, rather than hurts, the story.

I really liked the way that Nelson sets up an entire civilization and honor code in this issue all with a few pages of dialog.  It's great storytelling and helps build up the dark, punishing world that Valen lives in.  It's not going to win any awards for feminism and probably could generate a few college essays about its allusions, but given that he's writing in the style of the pulps, I can tolerate it.

What I can tolerate less, however, is that Zjanna's primary role seems to be the victim.  Issue six was not the first time she was used as the damsel in distress and her role in issue seven is even worse.  This is our big scene, where Valen faces off against his nemesis and is tempted to join the side of the enemy.  It should be a test of wills, and for a time, it really is.

Then Zjanna's a victim again (second time in two issues!) and Valen collapses like a house of cards.  We're left with a setup that can't be sustained, unless Nelson is going for a very unhappy ending, which means that this particular victimization makes even less sense.  While I loved the plan of Null and his reason for revenge on Valen and his family, I don't really care for the way Nelson sets up the big climax.  There has to be a better way to do it than to literally dehumanize Zjanna.

I will say, however, that this issue ends with one heck of a status quo change.  It's going to be fun seeing how Nelson works his way out of this corner or if he allows it to play out.  Either way should be a good read, but I really hope we can be done with the "women as victims" subplots that keep showing up.  Right now, Valen the Outcast is a book that I'd keep reading if you started, but it's not one to pick up in the middle.  There's just too much going on for this latest issue to be a jumping-on point.

Valen the Outcast #7 is out today from Boom! Studios in print and digital.