Oct 16, 2014

Review: Desperadoes Omnibus

I started 2014 out by watching, and getting addicted, to Tombstone, the 1993 film in which Kurt Russell starred as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer stole the show as Doc Holliday. In terms of comics, I also started 2014 out by reading Planetary, that wondrous arrangement of worlds and archetypes by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday.

So, of course, eventually, I was going to read Desperadoes, a supernatural Western that debuted in 1997, written by Jeff Mariotte and initially drawn by Cassaday. The Omnibus was a birthday gift to myself, costing the local equivalent of approximately 25 dollars, and has five storylines, which were published over the course of 10 years:

  • "A Moment's Sunlight," drawn by Cassaday
  • "Epidemic!", laid out by Cassaday and finished by John Lucas
  • "Quiet of the Grave," drawn by John Severin
  • "Banners of Gold," drawn by Jeremy Haun
  • "Buffalo Dreams," drawn by Alberto Dose

Because of the different artistic teams, the Omnibus is a visual mixed bag. Dose is good on his own, but he's got a cartoony style that didn't really fit in well with the best of the series. Haun's work, in general, looks pretty sloppy and rushed (and he does what may be my most hated technique in all of comics — blatantly being obvious about using a celebrity as a model; that always takes me out of a story almost immediately). "Epidemic!" looks only slightly less rushed than Haun's work, and sandwiched in between Cassaday and Severin, it's tough to read without wanting to skip through.

So, basically, I'm just gonna talk about "A Moment's Sunlight" and "Quiet of the Grave." They're both as long as "Banners of Gold," so if you get the book, it's like getting two full arcs for 12 dollars each, plus three extra stories. That makes sense, yes? Yes? Okay.

The thing with Desperadoes is that I'd been meaning to read it since its debut. Its reviews back in Wizard (ahhh, Wizard) were intriguing, and Cassaday seemed like an artist I'd really take a shine to. I just never got around to it, so reading Desperadoes now, after I've read Cassaday at his peak in Planetary, is a bit weird, since I have to take his evolution into account. But Cassaday was always good at what he did. His grimy, dynamic style is built, if it had to be built for any specific genre, for a Western. Here's the first splash page we get of the core of the gang. Gideon Brood, the leader, stands confident in the gunfight despite knowing he's a target. Jerome Alexander Betts holds two weapons, ready to fight hand to hand if he runs out of bullets. Abby DeGrazia shows enough leg to show that her looks are what prompted the fight in the first place, but is confident enough with her firearm that you know not to mess with her.

One thing I noticed about Cassaday is that he can block group shots really well. Here's an establishing shot from the first issue, seen from the point of view of Race Kennedy, investigative journalist from the big city who's out of his element in the Old West.

Every single character in that shot is accounted for in the eventual riot that follows. Everyone's sitting exactly where they need to be sitting, walking to exactly where they need to be walking. That's a level of detail most artists would just neglect, trusting on the exposition to carry them and for the readers to fill in the blanks. I found out later on that Cassaday has a background in filmmaking, which made sense.

There's a lot of detail involved in Desperadoes, including little tidbits like what to do during a gunfight. I'm not sure if this is actually a legitimate tip, but it does make sense.

Here's another one, just visually shown. I assume it's to prevent the horses from galloping away while the riders sleep.

That above panel is by John Severin, who drew the "Quiet of the Grave" storyline. Severin was a legend, especially when it came to Western comics, and his detailed, grainy style is even more fit for the genre than Cassaday's. In "Quiet of the Grave," the core gang is split up while both criminal and supernatural events threaten the safety of the gang and the town they're in. By this point, the characters are engaging enough that you worry about them and root for them — and people actually die, so your worries are not unfounded.

The one thing all the Desperadoes stories have in common is that they all seem really rushed towards the end, as if Mariotte writes a build-up for four issues then realizes he doesn't have enough space in the fifth to wrap it up. At first, knowing it's still early in both his and Cassaday's careers, it's understandable. But years later, with Severin, that's still the case, and it's a shame.

Still, Desperadoes is full of atmosphere, of grit and blood, of unrequited love and of honorable men and women who do the best they can in a dirty world. For 25 bucks, that's a good deal. And a good read.

(And seriously, the Severin art is pretty. Buy it just for that, if you must.)

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