The “National Comics” series of one-shots at DC Comics is starting to feel like Top Cow’s “Pilot Season” comics, where one-shots are released to gauge reader interest with the idea that some of them could eventually become a full series. With “National Comics: Rose & Thorn,” Tom Taylor and Neil Googe provide the latest update to this DC Comics character with two personalities. While it’s not a bad beginning, it hits its conclusion just as things start moving.
For those who haven’t encountered the property before, Rose is the base personality, an often-meek and quiet girl. Thorn is her alter ego that comes out to do the tough things that Rose can’t handle. In this incarnation, we get side mentions of Rose having recently been in a mental institution and she’s living with her aunt because her parents are deceased. It’s that combination that provides the jumping off point for the story, as Rose finds she can’t remember what happened the night before, but she’s covered in someone else’s blood, has a tattoo on her back, and all sorts of crazy pictures and stories about the evening are startling to trickle in.
Taylor’s script is fine; he quickly draws the dividing line between the good girl Rose and the bad girl Thorn, although it seems to dip a little too readily into the “bad girl = slutty” well. There’s definitely a wide gulf between the two personalities, though, and I liked that we never directly see Thorn in action. The entire comic is from Rose’s perspective (although some hazy flashbacks of Thorn’s wild night eventually emerge), and I can see an ongoing “Rose & Thorn” series using the idea of Thorn being forever off-panel with success up to a point. But even more so than “National Comics: Eternity” or “National Comics: Looker,” this one-shot is by no means a stand-alone story. While the mystery of the blood and tattoo is eventually revealed, it feels like little is actually resolved. His issue is even more blatantly a #1 for a series that might never proceed, and that sudden stopping point just doesn’t quite work here. (To be fair, “National Comics: Eternity” ended on a cliffhanger but the rest of the issue was much more satisfying and felt like we’d gotten a complete story otherwise.)
Googe’s expressive art is one that loves to over-exaggerate people’s faces and poses. That’s not a bad thing; the art greatly increases the story’s anxious nature, creating tension throughout the comic to keep the reader’s attention up. Rose’s wide-eyed expression of terror helps bring Taylor’s ideas to life, and Mel’s look of glee when she says, “We have science!” made me laugh. There are a lot of little touches that jumped out at me too; the great backgrounds in the school and at home are all richly drawn, bringing those locations to life. Google also does a great job with some of the viewpoints within the panels. When Rose passes out in science class, I love how her body stays upright but it’s the world that dips and twists around her as she falls. Even something as simple as a confrontation with the queen bees works well; when Rose flashes back to a single panel of staring down at her hands in the shower with blood dripping off of them, we then twist back up so that Rose is looking up at an angle at Skye and her friends, almost as if they’re looming over her. It puts Skye in a position of power over Rose at that moment, and the look is deliberately unsettling.
If “National Comics: Rose & Thorn” was the first issue in an ongoing series with the next installment a month away, I think I’d be a little more enthusiastic about this one-shot. It’s a solid opening move, but of the “National Comics” one-shots so far, it’s also the one that works the least-well within a vacuum. This has a lot of potential, and if Taylor and Googe go to a full series I’ll be back. For now, though? On its own, with no more in sight, it’s just a middle-of-the-road final verdict.