Undertaker v2 The Dance of the Vultures by Ralph Meyer cover detail

Undertaker v2: “The Dance of the Vultures”

I really liked the first volume of “Undertaker.”

With the second volume of the series, I now love it.  This is an impressive western story.  The second volume is a gigantic chase scene loaded with anti-heroes, good people caught in very bad situations that change them, shades of grey, and a constant tension that drives the reader through every scene, nervously turning each page to see what might happen next.

It’s edge of your seat comics entertainment, drawn and colored beautifully.  Can’t ask for much more.

 

The Story So Far

Read my review of volume 1 for fewer spoilers.

Now, a quick recap:

Rich guy that runs the town dies.  He swallows all the gold and requests a burial far away.  He’s taking the gold with him, the hard way.  If he doesn’t make it to that burial in time, a hostage dies.

Jonas Crow, the undertaker and a man with a good shot and questionable ethics, takes the rich guy and two of his associates, Lin and Rose, with him.

All the townspeople chase after them to get the gold back.

Things go bad.  A gun fires.  Fade to back.

Onto Volume Two:

 

The Chase Is On

The bulk of this issue is an action/chase scene, done almost as a cat-and-mouse thing.  Through the desert goes the Undertaker and his new friends, followed mere hours behind by the faster riding soldiers/sheriffs/townsfolk who want the gold he has in the wagon.

It’s a series of tense events, one after the other. The creators don’t waste a page.  They milk every moment for maximum drama, from the wagon getting caught in a flood to driving through an uncomfortably narrow pass to a fight against sleep to keep ahead.

This would be a slow, relatively spoiler-free, part of the chase.

Even a panel with the wagon working its way through a flooded out road looks cool and adds suspenseful character moments.

The bulk of the tension comes not from the various set pieces that happen along the way, but from the characters at the heart of this drama.  They’re all conflicted and none are pure.  They each keep secrets and then they lie to each other.  The lies are usually transparent.  Often, they’re told as a gun is pointing at their heads.

At the end, when all is revealed, you can see why they made those decisions in the first place.  You’ll want to go back and follow the character arcs that are now obvious.  You can see the key points and their consequences.  It’s great storytelling.

Xavier Dorison’s script balances the characters and the action so well in this book.  When there’s no action, the disparate group of characters just talking creates sparks.  When there’s action, you feel like you never know whose side everyone will wind up on.  Dorison keeps the reader off balance throughout the book, giving the reader something to chew on with each page.

We don’t really know much about these characters at the beginning, particularly the three that we follow closest.  They’re all ashamed of some parts of their past.  The two women with Crow are oddly loyal to their old boss, a man who made them utterly miserable.  It plays out in different ways for different reasons, but seeing how they behave is an interesting show of their characters.

They’re all willing to do different things to make it through this situation.  You never know what’s going to happen next.

We learn about their histories as the story continues, through conversations happening in the heat of the tensest moments.  Dorison doesn’t kill the pacing with show-stopping flashbacks.  The volumes opens with a flashback, but that serves as a nice break in the action between the end of the first volume and the start of the action in the second.  It draws things out just a little bit for the hungry reader.

Jonas Crow, the star of the book, is a great anti-hero.  He’s completely selfish, willing to cut anyone down to get the job done and himself out of harm’s way.  He’s murdered before and he’ll do it again. It’s the way the world works, and he’s not afraid to tackle it.  He still has a small soft side of him, but it doesn’t show very much and he’d never admit to it. He just wants to do his job and be left alone.  Fate conspires against him.

 

The Colors

Blue and gold are great storytelling contrast colors, as seen in this Undertaker v2 book done by Caroline Delabie and Ralph Meyer

You know how far too many movies go for that blue and gold look? It’s the whole “amber and teal” look.

“Undertaker” pulls it off beautifully.  Credit to colorists, Caroline Delabie and (series artist) Ralph Meyer, for using the two colors together so effectively.  There’s a great sense of where the light source is in these images, and then how it makes the orange areas pop right off the blue nighttime backgrounds. They choose the colors well, and use them in even better ways. The oranges help separate planes in the image, keeping the well-lit characters and wagon front and center in this scene.

When night turns to day, the color scheme flips. The scenes in the desert turn orange, and the characters become blue.

It’s tough to pick a completely non-spoiler panel sample to show the color scheme flip…

The funny thing is near the end, when the scene shifts from night to day, and the color scheme flip flips. The predominant color becomes the orange of the desert, the dirty, and the mountains.  The blues are worn by the characters, the cool colors offset by the hot environment.

Delabie and Meyer combine to do three things well in this series:

  • Showcase the art
  • Choose strong colors that work well against each other
  • Use Photoshop effectively, with small textures that don’t fight against the lines

It’s amazing how often a colorist works too hard with the tools in Photoshop, as if the artist’s lines aren’t to be trusted to tell the story.  When the inks give the image a strong texture and the colorist comes in over top of that to add more texture effects, it’s a mess.  It ruins the art.

That doesn’t happen here, thankfully.

 

The Storytelling

Ralph Meyer uses a lot of storytelling tricks in this two panel sequence.

Can we just focus on these two panels for a moment?  They seem so simple, but they say and show so much.

It starts with an establishing shot of the Undertaker’s wagon crossing the way, moving straight from left to right.  This is a flat panel.  It sets the scene.  It’s not trying to be super-dramatic.  It’s just about setting up where the characters are and what’s going on around them:

It’s night. Cliffs surround them, with more mountains waiting in the background. And, in that first panel, you see the cast of characters through a gap in the hills in the extreme foreground.

That bit of nature helps to frame the image.  Your eye is drawn immediately to the wagon by way of the glow of the lantern creating an area of most contract, but also from the way it’s framed inside the frame by that bit of the landscape surrounding it.

Subtly, it’s also a freeing image.  The wagon moves out of a dark, cramped area (left side of the panel with all the inks) out to a wide open area (right side of the panel with the negative space).  It leaves the walled-in areas and heads for a spot where you can see the open sky and mountains in the far background

Then you move to the second panel, which is basically the same image from a different angle.  Now we’re behind the action, with the hostage walking behind the wagon showing up in the extreme foreground.  Keeping with the 180 degree rule, he still stands on the far left side of the panel with the wagon on the right.

This time, Meyer draws your eye in from the hostage to the wagon in a couple of ways.  First of all, there’s the color.  There are only two non-blue things on this panel — the hostage and the wagon.  Since you read from left to right, you’ll see him first, but then your eye takes you to the wagon via the rope he’s tied to it with.

Also, check out the explicit leading lines on the rock format to the left.  They are practically speed lines originating at the wagon. Ditto the rocks on the right side, pointing to the same vanishing point.  Meyer compresses the panel, stuffing it full of things on the sides to push your eye towards the events happening in the middle.

There’s a lot of subtle craft work happening in these two panels, and Meyer makes them work.

 

Recommended?

Yes.  Just read volume 1 first so everything makes sense.  Volume 2 finishes the first story and resets the playing board for a new story with a slightly new set-up in volume 3.

If you’re an aspiring comics writer, I’d recommend studying this book to see how Dorison’s script pulls things out of the characters.  Once you know the full histories of the characters, re-read the book to see what each is holding back and how they reveal it.  They don’t reveal themselves because they want to.  It’s always because they have to. They’re decisions have led to situations where they must tell another character something about themselves.  That leads to even more tense moments and new drama.  It’s an impressive book.

Undertaker v2 The Dance of the Vultures by Ralph Meyer

(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #58.)

 

Watch Meyer In Action

Found this on YouTube the other day. If you want to see the magician doing his work, here’s your chance.

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