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A review a day: It Tolls For Thee

by  in Comic News Comment
A review a day: <i>It Tolls For Thee</i>

I’m a bit puzzled by the name of this comic. The cover proudly proclaims that it’s called It Tolls For Thee, but the indicia claims it’s really Bring Out Your Dead volume 1: It Tolls For Thee. It tells a complete story, however, so I’m not sure what any theoretical “volume 2” would include. Oh well.

Let’s get the boilerplate out of the way: Written and drawn by James Heffron, with finished art by Manuel Martin Peniche, colors by Jason Millet, and letters by J. Matthew Crawley. Published by Law Dog Comics (which means it’s basically self-published), with a cost to you of nine dollars and ninety-five cents. For 144 pages of medieval action!

Heffron was nice enough to give this to me when I met him in San Diego this year, so I’d like to thank him. I mentioned it was right up my alley – it’s a story set in Cyprus in A.D. 1208, and as I’m a bit in love with medieval European history, I was jazzed to read this. Heffron mentioned that he hoped I wouldn’t bash him on the details too much, so I’ll stay away from that.

Actually, Heffron does a decent job with the details. I’m not terribly sure there would be Japanese merchants wandering around the eastern Mediterranean in the early 13th century, but I’m also not willing to say there wouldn’t be! Anyway, we begin as the plague is ravaging Cyprus. The dead are being collected and chucked over a cliff into a shallow stream. Several story threads and characters come together over the course of the book: the blacksmith with a secret who has buried his wife and son; the girl who loses her parents and has apparently contracted the plague but hasn’t died yet; the Japanese merchants who have been shipwrecked; the Templar who bursts into a convent looking for sanctuary; the nun who helps him but also has a secret past; the ruler of the town of Kryenia, who isn’t a very nice fellow and takes extreme measures to stop the plague from spreading. And then there’s the problem of the dead. Who won’t stay dead. Yeah, that has to suck.

Although this seems at first glance like a thirteenth-century zombie story (and, well, it is), the reason Haffron sets it in the 1200s in the eastern Mediterranean is only slowly revealed, and it’s a very good reason (and no, I’m not giving it away). On the one hand, this is simply a zombie comic where the characters don’t have access to modern weapons and are therefore much more vulnerable than we might be if, you know, we were attacked by zombies. But Haffron does some nice work in making sure that the characters are truly of the 13th century, and this becomes a book about faith and how people can hold onto it in the middle of horror. These characters, who are Christians (whether they’re Catholic or Orthodox is not addressed, but that’s fine, as Cyprus at this time was a prize of both sides, so it was probably a good mix in the population), must come to terms with what has happened and why God has seemingly abandoned them (or has he?). Haffron doesn’t beat us over the head with it, but he does a good job showing how entwined faith is with these characters, and how it helps them through the problem they’re facing. There’s also some nice technological touches (the Japanese know about gunpowder, for instance) and a good use of the Templars. It’s truly a horrifying comic, and Heffron does a fine job with the terror these characters feel but also, strangely, their acceptance of the situation. This goes back to faith – they believe in the resurrection of the body, so the fact that the dead are coming back doesn’t freak them out as much as it might us. But their terror is still palpable, and it drives the book nicely.

The art is also quite good. Heffron creates a very nice, claustrophobic world, and he makes it foul and dirty and messy and everything we associate with the Middle Ages. He and Peniche make this a rough world, and the zombies that inhabit it are, ironically, not as out of place as we might expect. Millet’s coloring helps, too, as this world is much darker than our modern world, and even though we can see everything that happens, it’s still a very dark place that becomes only darker when the monsters enter the picture.

I really enjoyed this comic. Heffron does a good job with the story, making it believable (as far as it goes) and, by setting it in a distant time, giving us an interesting twist on a zombie story, not only from the pure plot perspective but also by making the characters much different from the regular folk in a monster story. It works very well as a zombie story, but it also works very well as a medieval story. Ultimately, it’s a horror comic, but it’s nice that Heffron gets a bit deeper with it. Head over to the web site and check out a bunch of preview pages!

Tomorrow at noon: A comic from the future!

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