Europeans enjoy comics set in the American west more than Americans do. Don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t. It just is. I’ve covered a few Lucky Luke comics here (“Daisy Town“, “Seven Stories, “The Man Who Shot Lucky Luke“), but there are also more serious westerns.
“Undertaker” is a gorgeous series, showing off the best of what European comics can be, visually. Ralph Meyer’s artwork is impressive, a combination of the storytelling in the Franco-Belgian tradition with some line work straight out of classic American comics and finished off by a modern coloring job that accents the art without hiding the line work.
Before we dive deep into those details, though, let’s discuss the story.
Death Is a Funny Thing
Jonas Crow is a traveling undertaker. He roams from town to town in his wagon, helping to bury, embalm, and take care of the dead. He dreams of opening his own place in Boston someday — a “parlor,” as they call them, where he might settle down and let the dead people come to him.
Crow starts the book with a certain roguish charm. There’s a dark sense of humor to him with a sparkle in his eye that captures the reader instantly. As the book goes on, he thinks his way out of a lot of tricky situations, and shows a steely nerve in dealing with people who might just be trouble.
The story begins when he receives a letter from a tycoon a couple towns over looking for an undertaker. A plum assignment, he immediately treks out to Anoki City to take the job.
He’s slightly surprised to find out that the tycoon, Joe Cusco, is planning his own funeral. For tomorrow.
Cusco doesn’t have many friends in town. He has all the money. He runs the local mine, which he rules with an iron fist, and he treats the people around him poorly.
Crow finds himself in a new town that has a world of troubles. And, as it turns out, he has a softer heart than you might originally think, and Xavier Dorison’s script includes a couple of sequences to show that. Dorison works hard to make Crow likable, and it pays off handsomely. You can’t not like the guy.
In the end, he’s in Anoki City to do a straightforward job, but that’s complicated by the people and the politics that surround Cusco, which ultimately lead to — well, action/adventure/trouble.
Did I mention he also has a pet vulture?
Funny guy, this Crow.
Then Ralph Meyer Steals the Show
— or —
Ralph Meyer’s Many Dimensions
The art by Ralph Meyer is beautiful. And the publishers know it’s the draw of the book. The back of this album contains an eight page bonus section filled with Meyer’s painted portraits, design sketches, and more.
The final comic art looks like something you’d have seen Joe Kubert draw in his prime. It very much feels like a comic book, complete with feathered lines and every old skill trick in the book to draw better comics. Meyer is not relying on the computer to fill the gaps of his art, or for the colors to model his characters for him.
He looks to come from the school of the classic Sunday comic strip adventures or 1960s Marvel. His character designs would fit in well with that early Marvel aesthetic.
His biggest skill is likely with his sense of light, and how it can define a scene. He “lights” these scenes in specific ways. Again, he’s not relying on Photoshop to light the scene for him. He’s doing all that work, to the point where I think this book would read beautifully in black and white, as well as in full color. You can see the brush marks he uses to add feathered lines and textures and inky black areas that contrast with the highlighted parts.
On top of that, his storytelling is perfect, and he knows how to lay out a scene. His “camera” never sticks on one angle. He can go all over the place — in and out, high and low (see the first image earlier). He uses them to his advantage to lay out the most dramatic scenes. There are some panel compositions that stick with me now as I write this review. He makes things pop with his compositions, pushing the eye exactly where he needs it to go with every trick in the book, from line weights to areas of greater contrast to leading lines and more.
Take a look at this panel:
The light from the lightning is executed and used well. It draws the eye immediately over to the right half of the panel where the wagon is racing away from the reader. The wagon kicks up a dirt cloud behind it that helps to push it back also.
Meyer also pushes that further into the background with the added layer of the side of the mountain and the beginning of the road up close to the reader on the left hand side. It’s not completely silhouetted out, either. There’s some intricate line work to indicate the texture and darkness of that area, once you look at it.
All the detail in the panel works from the lower left to the upper right, to the point where Meyer silhouettes some cacti against a bright break in the sky off to the right.
He really guides your eye through the panel, and I’m sure there’s another half dozen ways he does it here, but this is a great composition. (It even follows the rule of thirds.)
Here’s an establishing shot inside a bar, where Meyer spares no detail, adding in layers of customers at the front of the scene and little architectural details in the back. The lighting works out so that the bar and the Undertaker are where the eye is drawn straight to. Oh, and don’t forget the vulture standing on the bar…
The book is filled with examples like these two. Each page is a treat.
The Colors are Spectacular, As Well
I know it might sound like I’m being dismissive about the coloring, but I’m not. The coloring in this book is a major factor in how well it works. That’s mostly because it doesn’t fight with the art. The colors aren’t overpowering any of the line work, nor do they try to hard to “help” the black lines. Heck, there’s not even any color holds in this book. That’s a good sign of amazing restraint for a book originally published in the 20-teens.
Meyer is credited secondarily with the coloring to Caroline Delabie.
The fascinating part about it is the way the color drifts back and forth from flat to textured and gradated.
Lots of textures are used in this book to add grit to the dirt roads or the worker’s dirty skin or the exteriors of buildings. That’s as far as the Photoshopping goes, though. A remarkable majority of this book is relatively flat. In the final scene in the book — which is a cliffhanger, fair warning — I was surprised to see how simply everything was colored. The drama of the scene didn’t require the same veritas that earlier scenes in the book needed, when things were moving a little more smoothly and the storytelling needed to set up situations and the environments a little more.
In that final scene, set on a rainy night, most of the skin tones on the characters are flat. There’s the occasional rim light highlighting and a bit of almost airbrushed-highlighting to the cheekbones, but in other panels the faces are flat colors. I didn’t even notice it as I read the book. It all fits together, and the story carries you through it. The restraint is noble.
Elsewhere in the book, as you’ll see in an example in the next section, the patterns and the textures from the coloring are very subtle. It’s just small brush textures dabbed into the shadows that add interest without hiding anything in the art.
OK, It’s Not All Perfect
It’s pretty good, though, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to show this awkward tangent:
Check out the way the carpet comes off the stair on the left panel to spread flat out across the floor in the second. Look about a third of the way up from the bottom. It made the two characters on the left panel look tiny compared to how they look in the right one, where they look like giants.
It’s also breaking the 180 degree rule, but I don’t think that’s such an evil thing. Sometimes, you want to flip over 180 degrees.
I’m picking at nits here. 99.9% of this book is impressive looking.
Absolutely, positively yes. No hesitation, no qualifications. I bought the next volume immediately after reading this one. I’m in. It’s a beautiful book with dramatic storytelling.
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #37.)