April 6, 2020

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"A sorcerer, a vampire, and a werewolf get on a boat" - Dark Ark by Bunn and Doe

Dark Ark
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Juan Doe
Letters by Ryane Hill and Dave Sharpe
Published by Aftershock Comics

Remember the story of the two Arks from the Bible? One filled with animals of the natural world, and the other one filled with all manner of unnatural monsters? No? Well, then you need to broaden your horizons and read Dark Ark, a fantastic horror/drama series from writer Cullen Bunn and artist Juan Doe.

The world is a dark, cruel, and wicked place, and it is not worth saving. That is the verdict of God. So, God will send a flood to destroy the world, but has commanded Noah (a righteous man of his time) to build an Ark and fill it with two of every animal of the natural world and to bring his family with him. They will begin a new world after God has destroyed the old one. The thing is, unbeknownst to Noah (and possibly God, we’ll get to that later), Noah is not the only one tasked with building an Ark and saving creatures of the world. Shrae is a powerful sorcerer, whose mastery of dark magic has tainted his blood and soul, but has also made him feared among the people. He is tasked by the dark demons that he serves (we don’t learn their names, but they seem pretty evil) to build an ark of his own, and to populate it with all manner of creatures of the unnatural world (e.g., vampires, werewolves, nagas, manticores, yetis, etc.). Shrae’s mandate is not only to keep these creatures alive, but to also make sure that Noah’s Ark safely makes it through the flood and to the new world. After all, in this new world, the monsters are going to need food (in the form of animals and people). 


Shrae builds his Ark, but does it through deceit. He promises people that if they help him build the Ark, they will have a place on the Ark and will be safe. But his mission (just like Noah) is not to save the people. The people are beyond saving. Shrae does bring some people on board his Ark, but they’re not being saved. They’re the food supply for the true passengers on board. 


Throughout the series, Shrae and his family face a number of challenges. Those include challenges to his authority from his passengers (he does, after all, have a ship full of monsters not necessarily known for their kindness), and from external threats. The monsters are a fascinating goup, as there are alliances, scheming and treachery - all (or most) of the monsters seem to be sentient in a way that the dogs and sheep and gorillas aboard Noah's Ark are not. We get to know some of Shrae's family, mostly his older son Avner whose wife is expecting, and his younger son Orin, and his daughter Khalee. Khalee is a caring, empathetic person, who doesn’t truly understand (at least at the outset) what kind of a man her father truly is. And eventually Shrae and his Ark do make it to dry land, but not without terrible consequences, and even once they reach land, their problems are far from over.

For a book full of evil, darkness, violence and deceit, Dark Ark is a joy to look at. I was mostly unfamiliar with Doe's work prior to this series but he's an absolute master at work from the very beginning of the series. This is the end of the world - the world-that-was has already been destroyed, and Noah, Shrae, and their respective Arks are floating around in the water that destroyed that world. And the art of the story makes you feel that sense of ending, of hopelessness, of darkness, but it does so in a way that's different than one might expect. Doe's has very detailed linework, and provides a high degree of verisimilitude (as much as one can have in a story with vampires).

What I mean is that Doe's style really effectively conveys the reality of the story in a way that makes sense within the story. The design and shape of the respective Arks make sense; it really feels like the layout of everything has been well thought-out. Doe's style of drawing people doesn't have an immediate comparison to me, which is actually really great. I love to read a book that doesn't look like anything else. Doe's depiction of human beings is stylized and slightly "cartoony" in the way that features are exaggerated. Shrae is a big, strong man, and so he comes across as looking enormous. Nex, the leader of the vampires aboard the ship, is tall and thin, so he's all sharp angles and very stretched out. Doe is a master at conveying size and scope; we see the vastness of the Ark compared to its inhabitants, but Doe also really conveys the fragility of the fact that it's just a boat out there in seemingly endless waters.


Doe has a real knack for drawing something else that's absolutely essential to the story, and that is monsters. Most pages of the book feature one or more monsters, and many pages of the book (those taking place in the cargo hold) feature many different kinds of monsters, constantly interacting. There are numerous different kinds of monsters on the ship, from the aforementioned vampires, to werewolves, to manticores, to other kinds of monsters that I've never even heard of. But Doe brings them all to gloriously frightening life. They're all frightening in their own way, but they're also distinctive, and to the extent that we get a chance to see the personalities of the monsters, Doe does a great job providing a personality (through design and expression) that suits the portrayal of the monster. There are some particularly memorable ones, as the story focuses a great deal on Nex the vampire, whose intelligence and cuning clearly come across in facial and body acting. And Kruul the surly but caring and protective manticore, whose humanity shines through in key moments (even though he has wings and the body of a lion) thanks to Doe's expressive lines (Kruul is a fascinating character throughout the series, as he seems to be far more interested in Janris, a woman being held prisoner aboard the ship, than he is in his fellow manticore mate). The monsters feel very real, and often quite terrifying, such as in the scene of rioting below, or in the depiction of the ancient giant elder god creature that is following Noah's Ark around.

Doe linework is spectacular throughout the series, but it’s really the coloring that puts the art over the top for me. I mentioned earlier that there are some unexpected art choices in the story. Specifically I was thinking of the coloring choices. In what essentially amounts to an apocalyptic survival story, one might expect to see dark, faded, grimy colors (The Goddamned is an exceptional example of this). But Doe goes completely the other way. There's plenty of darkness to go around in Dark Ark, but Doe's colors are bright and clear and distinctive, and they pop off of the page. Doe also thankfully doesn't go for realism, the color choices are far more atmospheric. Much of the series is bathed in sort of a warm glow, which is an interesting choice given the monsters aboard and the dark purposes for which they still exist.

I think the coloring choices bring to life an interesting contrast between that darkness, and the light that is aboard the ship. For all of the talk about the dark deeds that Shrae has done, we see him as a loving and patient father, and we see warmth and love amongst all of his family members. Most of these pages have this slightly fuzzy sort of glow to them. It enhances the art, and actually gives each page a feel almost looking at an animation cel; I also remember this sort of feeling in Isola (which also has gorgeous, but very different, animation-style art). That overlay or sheen also gives the entire story a mythic quality (which suits the subject matter very well).


I also want to point out the terific lettering in the series, done by Ryane Hill and Dave Sharpe. What's fun about the lettering here is that a number of different fonts are used to bring to life the voices of the many different monsters aboard the Dark Ark. Hill and Sharpe do a great job in matching font to monster - for example, a serpent creature has a font that I can only describe as "slithery". It's great work from them and it really adds to the storytelling. 

The Biblical Noah's Ark story is one of my favorites, so any time there's a comic adaptation of the story (or a story adjacent to that story), I'll be there (see my reviews of Noah and The Goddamned). But this is not Noah's story, this is Shrae's story. And Shrae, by his own admission, is himself a monster, and profoundly unrighteous. But the position that Bunn puts Shrae in is a fascinating one; Shrae must be a caretaker and savior to other monsters to make sure they make it to the new world, and he must also make sure that Noah's Ark survives to the new world as well. To be clear, he has been tasked with this work by evil demons (or dark lords, it's not really clear). That the demons want these monsters to survive and continue to thrive is enough to question whether this action is something that should happen. This is an immoral man, saving immoral creatures at the behest of immoral dark forces. And yet, he is a savior, and a caretaker. What's more, Shrae must also ensure the safety and survival of Noah and his precious cargo. Why? Because the monsters are going to need to feed once they all reach the new world, and if there are no more people and no more animals, then there is no more food.

One question I've been wrestling with in regards to Dark Ark is whether Shrae is a *good* man. I'm not even sure that it's a useful question, but it's a question that, nonetheless, pokes at my brain. So I want to think it through. A simple answer might be that no, he's not good, he serves dark forces and seeks to preserve life only for utilitarian ends. But I think there's more to it than that. Shrae is feared among the people for his power as a dark sorcerer. He's so steeped in, and corrupted by, dark magic, that his blood is too toxic for vampires to consume. But consider the actions he takes throughout the story. He follows the orders of his dark masters in preserving the monsters of the world. It's reasonable to argue that a more "moral" action might have been to refuse this request and to let these monsters die off. For the most part, they seem petty and cruel and prone to violence and, well, monstrous behavior. But on the other hand, Shrae wants to live (and presumably not be destroyed by his dark masters). Shrae also knows that, wicked and monstrous as they seem, these creatures are still living creatures with the desire to survive, who still care for one another in their own way.


While aboard the ship, Shrae preserves order and whenever he can attempts to stop the monsters from fighting with one another. Certainly his motivation is fear of his dark masters, but he does try to see to their survival as best he can. Granted, one of the ways that he does this is that he has taken human prisoners aboard the ship (some of the people who helped him build the Ark, who he promised he would save), and these prisoners are intended to periodically serve as food for the monsters. Feeding people to monsters is a profoundly immoral act. But the way Shrae rationalizes this is that all of these people have been judged by God as not worth saving. None of them are *meant* to survive anyway. Since they are judged to be wicked and not worthy, they might as well serve a purpose.  

A really striking example of Shrae's sense of morality is when, before the flood, he is confronting crowds of people that are begging to come aboard his Ark. There is a mother and young son, and the mother begs for passage aboard the ship for them. Shrae coldly refuses. He tells them that his decisions is not cruelty, but mercy. Shrae knows that the only reason that he is bringing people (other than his family) aboard the Ark is to serve as food. As the rains begin to fall, there is commotion and clamor, and the woman puts down her child and begs Shrae to take her alone. Shrae asks if she would abandon her child, and when he realizes that she would, he says "you...belong amongst us". So in this way he believes he making the right choice from a series of terrible options; an innocent child deserves the mercy of a quick death, but a woman who would abandon her child to save herself does not deserve any mercy whatsoever and belongs on a ship of monsters. It's harsh, but it makes sense to him (and these were harsh times).


It's not easy to get a handle on the morality of Shrae's situation. As I said, to save lives (both those of the monsters and those of the passengers of Noah's Ark) is an act we'd typically consider to be moral; but these are monsters that mostly exist to prey on people or on each other. Isn't this ostensible good act in fact making the new world worse? Might these monsters possibly serve some other function?  It's hard to say - God only told Noah to save the animals of the natural world. These animals are of the unnatural world and arguably something that shouldn't exist at all.  But they do.

The moral questions raised in the story go beyond Shrae, and a lot is asked of him, but it's worth questioning the character and idea of God in this story. We know the basics - God is unhappy with humanity and as a result is going to destroy the world in a flood, cleanse the wickedness, and start over. But what does God see? What does God know?  Does this God have an awareness of the creatures of the unnatural world as well, or is God somehow blind to them? More broadly, the dark forces such as demons and ancient creatures that might even predate God (if that's possible). It's easier to imagine that the God of this story is not omnipotent at all, as it would hardly make sense for God to compel Noah to save the animals and his family so that they could just serve as dinner for the inhabitants of Shrae's Ark. And there's evidence to support this idea in the story.


We see during the story that there is an ancient giant creature (sort of a Cthulhu-type elder god) that has been following Noah's Ark and demanding sacrifice of animals from the ship.  Noah prays to God, and God sends angels, only the angels go to the wrong ship. They come to Shrae's Ark and, with lot of disdainful attitude towards humanity, ask him what the problem is that they need to fix. They think this is Noah's Ark, and therefore don't know about Shrae's existence. Meaning either God doesn't know, or God didn't tell the angels. Our sense from these actions and from other dialogue throughout the story is that this God is something of an absentee landlord (to quote The Devil's Advocate); it seems like as long as Shrae and his passengers don't cause too much of a ruckus, they may proceed with their plans without getting God's attention. Almost like finding bugs in your home - you know there are probably bugs all around in places you can't see, but only when one pops up right in front of you are the bugs really even worth thinking about. Are we bugs to God? It's not a comforting thought, but it does make for fascinating storytelling as the characters of Dark Ark plot and scheme without God's knowledge (or maybe without God really caring). 

While the story wrestles with the morality of the actions taken by Shrae, it is clear that nothing is without consequences. There is always a price to be paid, and the darkness in which Shrae works ultimately affects all of the people around him, in one way or another. I don't want to say too much about this, except to note that even after they do reach land, their troubles are far from over. Thankfully, the story is also far from over. Dark Ark: After the Flood continues this tale.

Dark Ark is a smart, thought-provoking fantasy-drama-horror story full of interesting ideas, and I can't recommend it highly enough.