Wednesday, December 23, 2009

High Moon: Werewolves. In the Old West. How Did I Not Like This??

I really, really wanted to enjoy Dave Gallaher and Steve Ellis' High Moon. I had been looking forward to it from back when I first reported on it. And yet, now that I've finished the bound first three chapters released in book form by DC's Zuda Comics, I am stunned to say that it held very little interest for me.

I fully realize I am in the small minority on this, and part of my excitement about it was due to the rave reviews. Gallaher and Ellis even won a Harvey Award for Best Web Comic with the series. And yet there I was, page after page, befuddled at my lack of engagement, until finally putting it down and trying to figure out what just happened.

Revolving around a former detective-turned-vigilante's investigations into a mysterious Texas town, High Moon gives us werewolves battling it out with cowboys and outlaws, plus some vampires thrown in for good measure. It has a certain Sergio Leone feel to it, which I'm guessing is what the creators were going for.

This sounds like a surefire recipe for success. And it isn't so much in the writing that the series falters. Gallaher has an interesting style, using a minimum of dialogue to convey a lot. He's also got a great concept on his hands, and takes some bold chances early on that impressed me. Rather, I think it's in Ellis' artwork that the book loses its way.

Some may blanch at this, but I've always felt that the artist has a lot more control over whether a comic works than the writer. The writer I equate with a screenwriter; but the artist, he's the director. He's the one that has to take a script and really sell it. And quite simply, Steve Ellis fails to do this.

Don't get me wrong, the man appears to be an excellent draftsman. His work is moody, visually stimulating, and he does a lot of interesting things with light and shading. His touch helps create an environment of Leone-esque Old West, with a kind of 1970s Heavy Metal sensibility weaved in.

Individually, his illustrations are great to look at, but here's where I turn into Curmudgeony Old-Scool Guy. There's a reason that Jack "King" Kirby is still considered by many to be the greatest comic book artist who ever lived. Certainly, there have been others since with a better grasp of realistic anatomy, a stronger sense of nuance and detail, a more evocative way with light and shade. But what sets Kirby ahead of the pack and always will are two things: His cleanness and purity of style, and most importantly, his impeccable sense of action and movement.

This is why I'll still take a Kirby, Steve Ditko, or Gil Kane over the Todd McFarlanes, Jim Lees and Rob Liefields of the world. A master like Kirby never forgot that comic books are illustrated narratives, and the most important thing is telling the story though the pictures, moving the story along in a dynamic way. He knew it wasn't about making a series of pretty individual pictures, especially if the story suffered because of it.

The problem with Ellis' work is that, taken as a whole, it does nothing but create total confusion. I'm a pretty bright guy, yet there were many points while reading High Moon where I couldn't have told you what the heck was even going on, where I had no grasp on the overarching story being told. And unfortunately, Gallaher's minimalist writing style gave all the leeway in the world to Ellis, putting the ball in his court to get the story across.

As part of DC's Zuda line of web comics, High Moon first came to life on the internet before being reprinted on paper. I can't be sure since I didn't see it in its original medium, but it's possible that something was somehow lost in translation. In short, this is a moody, evocative piece that looks great on the page and has some clever dialogue. Yet taken all together, read as a story, it fails.