“Pale Horse” concludes this week in a manner that attempts to bring together the various disparate elements of the story in a powerful, emotional payoff and doesn’t quite succeed. Beginning as a straight-forward tale of revenge and shifting to a story about a bounty hunter who has a bounty on his head and a young son in tow, “Pale Horse” ends with the end of the American Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and a conspiracy to ensure a Confederacy victory post-surrender. The ideas behind each of the parts of the series are interesting, but mashing them together in four issues and expecting a strong finale is an incredibly difficult thing to pull off, and it doesn’t happen here.
The issue begins with Cole finally coming face-to-face with Captain Shepherd, his former commanding officer when he was a spy for the Union and the man responsible for almost killing him. Their confrontation isn’t quite what you’d expect. Instead of a large, epic showdown, Shepherd rants and raves about a conspiracy he’s involved in to betray the Union and deliver victory to the Confederacy despite the war ending even as they speak. While hints of this have been dropped previously, it comes off as hamfisted and forced, an unnecessary distraction from a simple, direct story. The resolution of their conversation comes earlier than expected, but is handled perfectly.
The rest of the issue has Cole tracking down the assassin sent by Shepherd to kill him and gives a different interpretation of some historical events. Though closing all loose ends, it’s an oddly relaxed finish, one that doesn’t provide any true closure. It’s a testament to Cole’s determination that he pulls it all off in the end, but that doesn’t make any less empty and unsatisfying. Cole remains something of a cipher and his quest for revenge rather cliched despite some surprisingly historical figures thrown in.
The big surprise of this series is Christian Dibari’s art, a sketchy, bold style that needs some refinement, but brings an unsettling tension to the comic. His characters have a twisted look to them, especially Shepherd. The man looks unhinged, developing that aspect of his character that’s suggested in the writing into the defining characteristic, something that leaps off the page. Cole remains the stoic man of stone, but with a dark, evil look to him. There’s a page here where he smiles and it’s a creepy, disturbing smile that reminds us that however much we want to root for him, he’s a stone cold killer.
As the issue progresses, the coloring adds a strong dimension to the art, making some of the more picturesque panels look painted. Those panels are jarring in their differences from the rest of the comic, but meld well with the emotional focus of the scene featuring the train carrying Lincoln’s body through the country. That the coloring shifts somewhat reflects the way that that scene doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the comic altogether.
“Pale Horse” would have benefited from a larger, more expansive story, but there’s an appeal in focusing specifically on Cole’s quest for revenge. The price is that the larger story of a plot to overthrow the Union and its failure doesn’t cohere into the main narrative. However, the art is strong and suggests that Christian Dibari is a name to watch for in the future.