The Unknown. Mark Waid (writer), Minck Oosterveer (art). Boom! Studios. $24.99. Hardback,
Mark Waid and Minck Oosterveer’s The Unknown starts very strong. Strong enough that by the second page I knew that unless things really went off the rails at some point, that I would be reading straight through until the end. And I did. Even though I was sitting at my desk and totally uncomfortable, rather than curled up on the sofa. It’s a pretty good book that can keep me reading the whole way through without moving to a more comfortable location.
But then again, I’m a sucker for a good detective story, especially one with a strong female protagonist.
The plot, sans spoilers, is simply that Catherine Allingham is the world’s greatest detective, and she has a new case. Catherine quickly (and pretty cleverly) finds herself a good right hand man in James Doyle and they set off to Vienna to solve the case of, and recover if possible, a missing box. Catherine takes the case because she believes it will put her on a path to solving the only mystery she has yet to solve – The Unknown (i.e. what comes after death, if anything). Catherine is correct that the case is more than it seems and what follows is a madcap deadly chase for Catherine and James that involves everything from mysterious faceless killer bodyguards to high speed train fights to potentially the very door to the afterlife itself.
Waid accomplishes a lot very quickly in The Unknown introducing us to Catherine, her mission, her sidekick, and why she has this particular fascination with what comes after death, beyond the sheer challenge of it, and also why she hallucinates (or why we should all believe she does). Yet as a reader you don’t feel like you’re being fed “the set up” because it’s so enjoyable and flowing and flawless and interesting.
The book is like that in its entirety, with the exception of one blip in issue #3 when ‘the villain’ monologues his role in ‘all of this’ and of course his plan. It’s a trope we all see, and expect, and it’s forgivable here, but given the quality of the book as a whole I expected a bit more nuance and subtlety from Waid.
Overall Catherine is a great female character to me in that although she feels very three dimensional, she also feels like she could be a man just as easily as a woman – which is a style I tend to like when used well in fiction. The idea that Catherine and a male character will act differently based on their individual skills and knowledge, but not so much based on their gender. Used incorrectly of course, as we’ve all seen it done numerous times, you end up with a paper thin character that you can’t understand or get behind. But a character built as Waid has built Catherine, serves to help you question what gender is and what makes men and women so different and so not different both within fiction and in the real world. In the end, I like that Catherine’s dialogue (and behaviors) could generally just as easily come from a man as a woman, and yet Catherine still feels entirely specific and personal as a character.
these are the first two pages of issue #1, a nice set up for the character and the overall tone of the book.
James Doyle is also well rendered and I thought they worked well as a team – as a hero and sidekick of sorts, or perhaps more accurately as a modern day Holmes and Watson. I particularly loved that Doyle looks like a big dumb jock and is anything but, further confounding expectations. I also thought that in four short issues Waid really managed to not only make me care about the characters but to make me believe completely that they care about each other. The affection on the page between the two is palpable, without ever becoming romantic or cloying.
My only real complaint with the writing and characterizations (other than the villain monologue in #3 previously mentioned) is that both Catherine and James feel a little too strongly like Mary Sue/Marty Stu tropes. Each being a little too perfect and badass and flawless. I mean, even Batman has a flaw (he’s a dick). I would have liked just a little more depth in that regard. Nobody is adventurous, and brilliant, and beautiful, and thin, and rich, and athletic, and not a complete pain in the ass to be around etc. It’s a bit much, for both of the characters to be so perfect. I ended up loving them anyway, but in a perfect (no pun intended there) world, I'd like them both to show just a little more reality, humanity, and fallibility.
Oosterveer’s art overall, is wonderful. Any given page is beautiful, but more importantly the storytelling is solid and clear. I’m one of those people that gets a bit sick of the beautiful drawings for beautiful drawings sake alone. I’m much more interested in the writing and art working together to tell a great story, and for real clarity in that endeavor. Waid and Oosterveer absolutely succeed in that, and as a bonus there’s a lot of beauty along the way as well. In Gail Simone’s intro to this edition (the hardcover edition complete with built in bookmark) she makes a specific mention of Oosterveer’s ability to convincingly and dynamically render a fight with a monster aboard a train hurtling through the Austrian countryside. And she's right to point it out, I think this is the kind of storytelling that sometimes gets lost in even good mainstream comics these day, the subtlety of storytelling sacrificed for the ‘big moments’ and I was excited to see Oosterveer manage both here without losing anything. Most impressive to me however is Oosterveer’s ability to juggle the very real world feel of the book with Catherine’s hallucinations and the more otherworldly aspects, mixing them together nicely into a fluid cohesive world.
The lights and darks in the book are great, giving the book real depth and showing off Oosterveer as a talented inker as well as penciler. The color palette by Fellipe Martins (with Renato Faccini and Andres Lozano helping out on the fourth issue) is strong and well suited to the dark tone of the book.
My one complaint about the art – and anyone that has read this book and knows anything about this column, knows exactly what is coming – why do I have to constantly be staring at Catherine’s boobs? I don’t get it, and I don’t like it. It tells me nothing specific about Catherine (I guess I can make the leap that deep down she’s really insecure and needs to show off her tits to get attention) but that leap flies in the face of everything Waid has shown me about the character, so I’m not certain he wants me leaping to that conclusion. I personally found it distracting and a trick that is quite frankly well below this book’s caliber. It doesn't help that the other minor female characters in the book also display heavy boobage and extremely low cut outfits whenever they show up, which tells me that this is less about the characters and more about how the artist likes to draw women. And I'm not really a fan of that, as many here might guess. It's certainly not over the top in a way that prevents me from being able to enjoy the book and overall I'd say the female body types presented are more interesting and realistic than the way your average plastic superheroines are drawn these days, which counts for something. However, I can admit to being a little frustrated by it, and if I'm completely honest, I almost didn’t buy this book because of the rampant boobs and clothing choices (in part because I didn’t want to have to have this exact paragraph if I ended up writing about the book for my column). It’s also the reason The Unknown sat on my shelf unread for so long even after I committed and bought it...nearly four months ago.
Is it a deal breaker? Of course not, the book is good and I’m choosing to overlook it, and I'm glad I overlooked it long enough to finally start reading it, but I can’t help but wonder about the why. Why does a book this good really need that?
Regardless of unnecessary low cut tops and boobs run a bit rampant, I definitely recommend the The Unknown to anyone that likes detective tales, adventure tales, strong layered female lead characters, or anyone just looking for good comics.
The Unknown by Mark Waid and Minck Oosterveer from Boom! Studios is available in hardcover format only at $24.99. It’s a beautiful edition – with an illustrated slipcover and a silver embossed hardcover, but considering that the only extras beyond the collected four issues are an intro by Gail Simone, a covers gallery, and a ribbon bookmark, it’s a bit steep.
The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh also by Mark Waid and Minck Oosterveer from Boom! Studios (which I have not yet read) is scheduled to be released in similar hardback format in June 2010, and the last issue of that second miniseries (#4 of 4) came out January 27th, 2010, and individual issues, if not still available at your local comic book shops, issues are available directly from Boom! Studios.