Stern volume 1 cover

Stern v1: “The Undertaker, the Vagrant & The Assassin”

(Special editor’s note: The title for the book comes directly from the front cover.  This writer takes none of the blame for the lack of an Oxford comma in it.)

Stern volume 1 cover

 

Stern: Another Undertaker?

Stern in his cemetery

They acknowledge it in the afterwards to this book, but yes, this is the second series about an undertaker in the American Old West currently running in France.  As they also mention, things diverge pretty quickly.  Both books are about loners with wagons, but their situations, goals, and personalities are wildly different.

In “The Undertaker“, the title character is a traveling gruff man with a shady past and a pet vulture.  In “Stern,” the undertaker is a younger guy, gangly and awkward, working in the local cemetery; He keeps quiet, does his job, and likes to read a lot. They’re both loners obsessed by their jobs, but their backgrounds as far as violence goes are worlds apart.  And their attitudes towards their jobs are wildly different.  Undertaker is a mercenary with a heart of gold. For Stern, it’s just a job to pay the bills and he’ll trudge along and do what needs doing, day to day.

Then, there’s a death that changes everything.  Well, it changes everything more for Undertaker.  For Stern, it’s just another body to be towed, and if he chances into something bigger, he’ll grudgingly do the right thing. He’s not looking for trouble or mysteries to solve or anything like that. In this book, he accidentally gets caught in the middle of something bigger, which brings him to confront his own past — and that of the town’s.

“Stern” is created by the Maffre brothers. Frederic is the writer and Julien is the artist.  It’s a solid read with spectacular art. Most importantly, it’s not redundant to “The Undertaker.”  It goes its own way, using just the profession as its focus.

 

A Quick Civil War Lesson

Lawrence Kansas Civil War massacre

The state of Kansas was caught in the middle during the Civil War.  The process of becoming a state meant deciding whether it would be a free state or a slave state.  The people had to vote on which way the state would go. That did nothing to lessen tensions. There was, to put it mildly, considerable debate about this.  Geographically, Kansas is right in the middle, and so was its people.

Needless to say, this led to some tensions and strife.  Google “Bleeding Kansas.”

Lawrence, Kansas is the site of a famous battle.  Lawrence was pro-Union.  A group of Confederate-friendly folks swooped in and attacked the city when it had its defenses down. They came in at 5:00 a.m., raided the town for four hours, burned half of it down, killed 150 people, and scattered afterwards so they wouldn’t be caught.

It was brutal and ugly and only got worse.  (There were retaliations, though the raiders would say their raid was in retaliation of previous offenses.  And so it always goes in war….)

stern depicts the raid on Lawrence, Kansas in 1863

For the purposes of this story, that’s all you need to know. That raid is depicted in the first couple pages of “Stern”.

For more details, see the Wikipedia entry.

 

 

The Story

Stern rides into town on his wagon to pick up a body

It’s thirty years now after the battle of Lawrence.

The focus of this story is set in a saloon/brothel, where one of their regular patrons has died in bed.  This opens up a can of ugly worms.  His wife wants his organs preserved to show future generations how sinning can kill them.  His brother-in-law hates his guts and comes to town to “pay his respects.”  The Sheriff just wants this all to be over with. The brothel owners is doing her best to keep things together and keep her girls working.

And Stern just responds to calls, carts bodies out, and buries them on his own.

This one gets a little more complicated when the wife’s request leads Stern to suspect something more happened than just sudden myocardial infarction.  Dominoes begin to fall quickly, people land in jail under suspect circumstances, another murder happens, and Stern’s past puts him under suspicion and in trouble.

Stern is an interesting star for this book, just because his type seems to go against every writing precept you might ever learn in a creative writing course.  He’s quiet. He’s shy. He’s awkward.  He’s contemplative. He’s not a gruff man of action who curses like a sailor and shoots tin cans off fence posts from 500 feet away.

This shouldn’t work, and yet it does.  He becomes an interesting character because of the differences between him and all the other crazy characters in town. When you compare him to the crazy widow or the driven brothel owner or the pompous sheriff, his put upon nature makes him a vulnerable underdog type.  You root for him because he’s not crazy. You can see a piece of yourself in him, in that you don’t want to get caught up in murder mysteries or fist fights or violent disagreements between others.  You’ll do what’s right, but not because you want “action.”

People try to tag Stern and try to paint him in a corner, but he doesn’t fit in those places.  He’s a fascinating character who’s worth watching because he isn’t a nut job.  I like that.

 

The Big Revelation Misfire

There is one plot point that almost made me laugh, though.  It’s a huge misfire.

There’s an obvious link between the flashback in the first two pages and the rest of the story.  In the last third of the book or so, the writer tears down the curtain to give the big reveal and — I didn’t realize this was supposed to be a revelation.  It was so obvious from the start that I just thought he was assuming the readers were smart enough to “get it.”  Making it a revelation seems cheap.

I suppose the people who figured out “The Sixth Sense” or “The Usual Suspects” ahead of time felt the same way.  (I’m glad I didn’t, in those cases.)

Maybe I just ruined it for myself?  If you read the book, please let me know what you think.

 

The Art

The Maffres include a lot of breathing room in this book.  There are silent moments that track small movements.  It’s a very cinematic touch, and not one that feels wasted.  They’re not done just to show the art off.  These aren’t big splashy images.  They’re often detailed, but they’re showing specific things across multiple panels. They capture brief moments and feelings.

As for Maffre’s style: Remember how Scott Kolins drew during his memorable “The Flash” run with Geoff Johns?  You know how Dustin Nguyen colors “Descender”?  Put those two together and you get the visual style of this book.

Stern at the local bar

Maffre doesn’t skimp on details, either.  After he establishes the backgrounds, he also has a tendency to simplify them in closer shots.  Sometimes, he can use the textures from the watercoloring to mimic the lighting patterns in the backgrounds and make you feel like he’s spared no detail.  Mostly, he uses thinner, incomplete lines that stop before the characters in front.  It adds up to help separate the layers in the art, but also to keep the activity in the foreground better in focus.

 

The Letters of “Stern”

To top if off, the lettering regularly breaks the panel borders, a technique I like a whole lot.  It makes the whole page look more open.  Whether by design or by the vagaries of translation, the lettering inside the balloons have a healthy amount of breathing room.

Lettering example from Stern by the Maffre brothers

The font has a nice, hand-lettered look to it.  It’s a little thin in some way I can’t exactly explain, and maybe just a tad too squished together.  It’s perfectly readable, but you do have to pay attention. If they could have increased it in size by a point, that might have helped. You also have to accept the lowercase “I” using the dot above it.  Normally, that bothers me, but I got used to it quickly and didn’t think twice about it again.

The tails are a little wonky, too.  I don’t like their fat shape.  Thankfully, I stopped seeing them pretty quickly into reading the book.

 

Dappled Light

I talked in my “The Campbells” v4 review about the way colorists are playing with depicting dappled light. That’s the way light streams through trees, usually, that breaks it up into a lot of dots of light intermixed with the shadows.

There are more examples of that here in “Stern.”  Here’s the biggest one:

Dappled Light by Julien Maffre in Stern

There’s a fine line between dappling and “lots of smudges.”  This one almost goes too far for me, but I think it works well out of this isolation.  Look at this panel on the page, as a whole, and it looks great. Isolating it like this for this review — and effectively blowing it up at the same time — exaggerates some of the effect.

In other words: It’s better than it looks.  Again, the dappling hits across all levels. It’s not just the rim of a character’s shoulders and the top of their head.  It’s also on the ground and other trees and everywhere the light would fall in that area. Smart stuff.

 

Recommended?

Yes.  Compared to “The Undertaker,” it might not be as humorous or as tense.  It is, however, an agreeable book with a story that’s told well and looks beautiful.

A second volume is out already in France, but has yet to be translated to English. I’ll be jumping on that as soon as it does.

(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #75.)

“The Undertaker” versus “Stern”

 

Undertaker versus Stern

I think I’d go with “The Undertaker,” to be honest.

Both books have beautiful art in completely different styles.  I like them both, though “The Undertaker” hearkens back to a certain inker-heavy old-school Marvel Comics artist look that I appreciate.

Story-wise, I think the lead character in “The Undertaker” is slightly more interesting and more fascinating to watch work. The main character has a wicked sense of humor, and an arc that shows up over the first two books well.

Storywise, I think “The Undertaker” is more tense and surprising.  The second book, in particular, pays everything off well in a way that keeps you turning pages as fast as you can.  I know it’s not completely fair to judge one book versus two, but “Stern” v1 is complete in one volume, and it’s all I’ve read so far.

 

Buy Now

Buy this book on Izneo   Buy this book on Amazon

 

 

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1 Comment

  • Arcturus October 12, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    This is watercolor(you mention it only once), right, not just my eyed deceiving me? Also the lettering in the book looks really nice for some reason.
    Congratulations on 75% of the way through

    Just to pull your leg, in the “the let me google that for you” link you wrote kanasa instead of kansas 😛

    Reply

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