REVIEW: Undone by Blood or The Shadow of a Wanted Man #1-2

Undone by Blood or The Shadow of a Wanted Man #1-2
Written by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson
Art by Sami Kivelä
Colors by Jason Wordie
Letters by Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou
Published by Aftershock Comics

I’ve really enjoyed a number of Aftershock Comics recently), and I’m happy to add Undone by Blood or The Shadow of a Wanted Man (Undone by Blood for short). Two issues in, Undone by Blood is a really smart, intense revenge drama set in 1970’s Arizona that cleverly uses a “story within a story” to explore ideas of revenge and justice. Not to mention it’s got gorgeous, gritty and vivid art. It’s a highly entertaining read and I strongly recommend it for anyone looking for smart and ambitious comics.

Undone by Blood begins with slightly stilted narration, in the old west. It tells the story of a cowboy named Sol with a past, who’s settled down to a more domesticated life, but quickly finds tragedy when his wife has been shot and injured, and his son kidnapped. To get him back, Sol has to return to the life he abandoned a long time ago. Just a few pages into the story, we realize that we’ve been reading the book that’s being read by a mysterious short-haired girl who gets off the bus in the middle of what feels like nowhere.  It’s 1971, the girl's name is Ethel Lane, and she’s gotten off the bus in order to make her way into Sweetheart, Arizona. She heads into town and goes immediately into the taverns, hoping to ask questions and find out what people know about a family that was murdered in town a year before.

But Ethel has a bad temper, and the next thing you know she’s picked a fight with a bunch of angry, rowdy men who rob her and leave her beaten up behind the tavern. But she’s got reason to be upset as well; it was her family that was killed the year before, and she’s here to find and kill the man who did it. Ethel keeps digging as the story progresses. In parallel, we see Sol’s progress as he makes his way to Flagstone where his son is being held by a gang who thinks that Sol knows the way to some hidden gold. Along the way he picks up an ally and is tracked by many enemies. 

This is a terrifically engaging series so far. And there’s a lot to say about interesting and creative story choices. But any discussion of this comic needs to start with the art, because the team here of Sami Kivelä and Jason Wordie is a real revelation. Wordie has provided spectacular colors in other books I’ve read (like Wasted Space, God Country, and Protector) but I was not previously familiar with Kivelä’s work. But Kivelä and Wordie work seamlessly here and in a fantastically complementary manner. Kivelä has a grounded, fairly realistic (but not photo-realistic) style, reminiscent as a general matter of the work of Sean Phillips, David Aja, or Gabriel Hardman. Kivelä’s work reminds me most of that of Phillips, whose frequent collaborations with Ed Brubaker over the years have played in the genres of crime and revenge stories. Similar to Phillips, Kivelä has a style that is extremely effective at evoking a specific place and time. Backgrounds, and physical locations all evoke a sense of place without being overly detailed or rendered. In this case, the southwest. The landscapes presented both in the present day story and the old western story convincingly come across as arid, vast and barren landscapes.

Kivelä does wonderful work in bringing people to life. Kivelä's faces are incredibly expressive; Ethel’s expressions, whether conveying impatience, anger, or sadness, all very clearly come across. These exaggerated emotions play well across all of the various characters and really help sell the drama of the story. One specific choice that Kivelä makes in the story that works really well is that the characters depicted within the old west story whether it be Sol, his wife, or any of the antagonists, are all drawn in what feels like a slightly different, slightly more cartoonish and exaggerated style. This helps provide a meaningful distinction between the story within the story, and the more reality-based part of the story.

I mentioned that Kivelä and Wordie are doing seamless and complementary work, and I really think this is some of the best work I’ve ever seen from Wordie (which is saying a lot). First, the entire comic is portrayed with a slightly faded quality giving the comic a vintage and timeless look. Wordie's colors are relatively flat and not overly rendered, making this look more like a pulpy crime story, rather than in modern-day superhero comic. It’s a good choice that works well in the story.  In the 1970's part of the story, the colors are bright and occasionally atmospheric or exaggerated, such as the use of red in intense or violent situations. In the parts of the story set in the old west, the color choices are slightly more muted and more grounded in sepia or earth tones. This is a choice that works well to distinguish the two settings. Wordie and Kivelä make some additionally thoughtful artistic choices in the second issue; when we are shown a brief flashback to the night of the murders, Kivelä  draws jagged, broken panel borders, and Wordie uses a different coloring style where most everything is monochromatic, except for certain key objects such as a soda machine, or a biag, or cowboy boots. Those objects are given distinctive colors. It's really effective work, and it shows how thoughtfully the entire creative team is approaching this story. 

Speaking of the creative team, I specifically wanted to highlight the fantastic lettering choices made by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou in this comic. If you've read my reviews, you'll know I'm a big fan of Otsmane-Elhaou's work, both with regard to comic lettering, and to the fact that I think he has great taste in projects (not to mention that he's the creator and editor of the terrific PanelxPanel). If he's involved, it's a project I'll want to check out. In Undone by Blood, Otsmane-Elhaou makes excellent use of lettering styles to convey the different places and times. The scenes set in 1971 contain standard lettering and word balloons, whereas the scenes set in Sol's story use an entirely different font,  Those scenes use a font that looks much more like the font you'd see in a novel. So we are to understand that the text we are seeing on those pages is the actual text of the novel, whereas the art is (probably) entirely in the mind of Ethel as she envisions what the old west novel would look like. So, when people speak, the font is still the book font.

One particularly inspired choice on these pages is when Sol comes home to find his injured wife Amma. Sol's word balloons are rounded squares, which convey stability and strength, whereas the word balloons of his wife are much more wavy circles, which makes sense given that she's been shot and is injured, not to mention suffering the trauma of seeing her son kidnapped. In the second issue of the comic, I mentioned that a different color palate and different panel border style were used to depict Ethel's flashbacks. Well, the creative has made a great choice for lettering as well, as Otsmane-Elhaou uses jagged word baloons that match the jagged panel borders, really conveying the sense of trauma in these words. And he uses a more typed font, which conveys that the words we are seeing may be from the typed police report from that tragic night the year before.

Both stories (Ethel’s and Sol’s) are quite compelling, and I always enjoy a “story within the story”.  More broadly, I really like comics that have in-world reading material, such as Watchmen (which has tons of it), Nowhere Men, Lazarus and others. It’s a sign that the creators of the story have really put a lot of thought and care in thinking through the world of the story. More specifically, I appreciate a story within the story. In Watchmen, you probably remember the Black Freighter - the descent of one man into savagery and madness was an allegory for the irrational movement of society towards Armageddon, and the descent of one man into his brilliant and insane plan. Similarly in Undone by Blood, the story of Sol on a mission of revenge and redemption is a pretty direct parallel for Ethel and her investigations into the death of her family, and her quest to find and exact vengeance against the man that killed her family.

The first two issues of Undone by Blood also include whole pages of The Shadow of a Wanted Man novel, so we can read about more of Sol's quest to find his son. I really found this additive, as it's enlightening to be able to read more of the story that Ethel is reading as she seeks her revenge. It makes the reader wonder what insights and ideas she's drawing from the novel. Does it inspire her to persevere?

Another recent Nadler comic that I really enjoyed also included a number of pages of text within the story. In Black Stars Above, a horror series set in the desolate 19th-century Canadian wilderness, one character finds the journal of another character which effectively conveys their descent into madness. Here it's a little different, in that it's an exaggerated, slightly stilted story of revenge. But the idea is similar, as the main character can potentially see where they might be headed on their quest, for good or for ill. I really enjoy how more comics are providing these sorts of supplementary materials, as they very much contribute to a broader enjoyment of the story.

As you may have determined, I really enjoy this comic. If you're looking for a smart, engaging, crime-revenge story with a pulpy western feel, then Undone by Blood is the perfect comic for you. Even if you're not looking for those really specific things - seriously, it's great, give it a read.