Ritual Three: Vile Decay by Malachi Ward

Written and Illustrated by Malachi Ward
Published by Revival House
Distributed by Alternative Comics

An old woman's memories are the focus of this two-tone comic that mixes perception, programming, and reality into a whole that leaves the reader guessing as to the nature of the truth.

Opening with strange, incomplete panels of a landscape that develops into a place for the woman to discuss the harsh nature of life, Ward walks his characters across the harsh rocks while telling a truly horrific story. There's some great use of perspective here, as the characters move in and out of the reader's immediate perspective. Sometimes we are close enough to see the bitter looks on the woman's face. In other cases, the pair of people are mere dots on the horizon--or not even visible at all.

It's an ambitious decision artistically, but it works so well to sell the reader on what appears to be going on. I say appears, because there's more to the story than two people and rocky cliffs, as you discover when the story is finished.

Abruptly working backwards, Ward takes us into the past, when the woman was much younger and full of revolutionary ambition. She takes part in a political riot, in which Ward once again shows great artistic skill, moving from close-up medium shots of the woman and her perspective of the proceedings, then slowly scales outward until the massive mob is nothing but humanoid shapes struggling against one another. It's a great way to have the art serve as metaphor, and Ward allows the visuals to tell the story as it moves forward. A trio of panels are particularly powerful, when the heavily shaded security forces contrast sharply with the light pink of the protesters. When the two mix, there's struggle, hurt, pain, and determination.

What's really awesome are the little details in these crowd scenes, like the woman's struggle to gain a shield from the oppressors, tear gas being sprayed, bodies shoved and abused, and other elements of the impromptu battle. This is all covered in just a few pages, too, with Ward telling so much in a small amount of space. There's no need to go on at length to portray the action--we get it easily thanks to the details shown.

The final third is a meeting of some of the protesters and their friends, which begins after the reader's understanding of what is going on has been shifted for a second time. They are just people hanging out now, talking about their lives and wondering what comes next. Our focal character says some key words about the nature of protest, and we end with the idea of her wanting to remember everything about the day, symbolized by a hyper-focus on the moon.

Vile Decay is one of those comics where the depth of the material is something you don't capture on first reading. It requires stopping to think about the meaning of the images chosen, the organization of the panels, and how it all ties together. Being honest, I'm not sure I have the right interpretation, but I also think that's okay. This is a work that allows for multiple impressions. Ward's pink color palate keeps the whole thing just a bit hazy, which is appropriate, and his linework is a very soft touch. The characters and their surroundings are drawn to be realistic, which contrasts with the doubt seeded throughout about how much of these events actually take place.

This is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. It requires an appreciation for stories that do not have clear-cut beginnings and endings. If that's you, definitely seek this one out. Vile Decay has a lovely sense of ambiguity across its pages that will stay with you, just like that image of the moon.