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Sunday Slugfest: Pigeons from Hell #1

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2008
By: Thom Young

Joe R. Lansdale
Nathan Fox
Dark Horse Comics
"Part One: The Land of Shadows"

Steven M. Bari:
Matthew J. Brady:
Paul Brian McCoy:

Steven M. Bari:

Surrounded by darkness and desolation that only years of neglect could sow, Janet and Claire step into the house their grandmother bequeathed them. With their friends in tow, the Blassenville sisters take another step towards their doom.

“Janet, Do you remember what grandma used to say about pigeons?” Claire inquires, wondering if those old wives tales and superstitions could be true. Could pigeons truly be harbingers of death? Janet turns to her sister, without respite: “Was it . . . four of them and a potato make a good lunch?”

Lansdale, Fox, and Stewart’s skillful adaptation of the classic horror story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard is filled with humor, beauty, and, most of all, terrific storytelling.

Lansdale’s writing is superb, developing these five friends with naturalistic conversation that underscores the tension with sarcasm and humor. Even with the clichéd “didn’t someone say this was haunted” premise of the story, Lansdale is able to make the narrative compelling and realistic. The friends don’t don dramatic personae and spout the stereotypical verbiage of fear and accusation that’s as subtle as a brick.

Instead, they relate to the haunted plantation home with an awed sense of discovery--hoping to find something cool and exciting amongst the rubble, though ever conscious of the emerging danger that is present. Moreover, Lansdale makes the characters the focus of the story rather than the horror itself--investing the reader’s interest and thus making the supernatural elements all the more real.

Similarly, Fox brings these characters and this creepy, creepy house to life with expressive body language and subtle gestures. Immediately, the first shot of our cast provides pages of subtext and information.

The Blassenville sisters view their new estate with a mixture of stunned disbelief and curiosity on how a dilapidated piece of crap could be theirs to own. Their friend, Sally, smirks as she coquettishly tugs the tall stoner guy behind her closer, revealing a subtle sexual connection between the two. Finally, Bill, whose fate rests upon a rickety stair, examines his new surroundings unimpressed.

Fox’s art is, however, impressive and worth reexamining for layers upon layers of nuance.

Lastly, Dave Stewart’s colors are really outstanding here. He paints the house’s eerily in shadows of light grays and deep blues--and, in some places, a dark blood red. Each of the characters are distinctly donned in bright colors, but as the story gets inevitably darker, this brightness begins to fade and become muted against the shadows of the night.

Pigeons from Hell is a ridiculous title for a story, but it’s definitely a great piece of horror for anyone looking for good fright and some fun, too.

Final Word: And here I thought pigeons were just flying rats!

Matthew J. Brady

I’m not too familiar with either Robert E. Howard or Joe R. Lansdale, but I was certain I wanted to pick up this comic for one reason: Nathan Fox. Ever since I first saw his work when he did some guest art for Vertigo’s DMZ, I’ve really liked his Paul Pope-like style, so I’m planning on checking out whatever he does.

Happily, Fox doesn’t disappoint with this first issue of Pigeons from Hell, a new four-issue miniseries adapting a story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard. It’s basically a haunted house mystery, and Fox does an amazing job of creating a moody, dank, creepy atmosphere with colorful characters to fill it. It’s beautiful just to look at, and the story’s even pretty enjoyable too!

Not that it’s especially original or anything; the characters are right out of a teen horror movie, a group of kids who have traveled to the Louisiana bayou to check out a house that two of them have inherited--but it’s not what they expected. The house is decrepit and broken down, and they find a room full of dead pigeons that have fallen through a hole in the roof.

It’s really weird and creepy, but before they can leave, one of them gets badly injured, and they get into a car accident while trying to drive back to civilization to get him to a hospital--so now they’re forced to stay in the house until they can go for help. What horrors will befall them as they wait for morning?

However, while it doesn’t seem too groundbreaking on the plot front (the original story is over 70 years old, after all), it’s well told and nicely atmospheric. Lansdale (who wrote this adaptation of Howard’s original story) and Fox do a great job of defining the various characters--especially the sisters who, even before they see it, aren’t sure they want the house due to the plantation having belonged to the family that originally enslaved their ancestors.

Lansdale does an excellent job of presenting the tension between the sisters as they ponder the reasons why they are the ones who now own the plantation as they discuss the voodoo beliefs of their grandmother, and Fox details their interactions beautifully. The other friends get a bit less panel-time, but they are allowed plenty of personality--and we grow to like them even though we’re pretty sure some horrible things are going to happen to them.

But, yes, the real star here is Fox’s art. His swamps seem dank and oppressive, and the house at the center of the action is a perfectly creepy locale that is full of rubble, peeling wallpaper, rotten floorboards, and, of course, a huge pile of dead pigeons. And when things go south, they’re effectively detailed--especially the injury that prompts the panicked (and doomed) flight to safety.

The coloring, by ace talent Dave Stewart, really adds a lot to the proceedings. He adds a lot of dark greens and browns to the swamp and house, and a great contrast to these dim tones with the orange streaks of their car’s headlights as it races through the woods. It’s beautiful stuff that definitely makes the comic worth reading.

Lansdale is putting together a creepy and enjoyable story, and Fox is going all out on the artwork. I can’t wait to see what freaky business they deliver over the course of the series.

Paul Brian McCoy:

When I was a child, I had a mad love for Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Back in the days before the Internet, I hit every flea market, yard sale, and resale shop that crossed my path--collecting all of the old (then) out-of-print paperback anthologies of his adventures. Every family vacation meant keeping a sharp eye out for used book stores, which, when spotted, would trigger a round of pleading to pull over and let me search the shelves for those one or two last books I needed to complete the series.

And then, before I knew it, I was done with them (although not before the wave of Sword and Sorcery films co-opted my obsession, and ultimately, helped kill it). Yet, in all that time, I never really knew about anything else Howard wrote, except for what I saw in the comics: Kull and Solomon Kane. I had no idea that he wrote horror or anything else.

Then in 1988 Scott Hampton published a fully painted adaptation of the Howard story, "Pigeons from Hell." I never really knew what to make of that title. It was so goofy-sounding that I never gave the story a shot. Even though Hampton had spent two years of his life working on that painted comic, I ignored it (or, more embarrassingly, mocked the stupid name).

Time passed.

Over the past ten years or so, I discovered the work of Joe R. Lansdale. His Jonah Hex mini-series were notorious for their fairly warped stories and the lawsuits they inspired (Google it). He also did a pretty good run telling Lone Ranger stories.

However, it really wasn't until I saw the film Bubba Ho-Tep that I really fell in love with the worlds of Joe R. Lansdale. I've read a few of his novels (all of which were extremely disturbed), and I completely enjoyed his adaptation of The Drive-In published by Avatar in 2005.

Then I found out that he was doing the adaptation of "Pigeons from Hell" for Dark Horse, so I decided it was time to read Howard’s original story, at last. And it is an exceptional little horror tale. I was a fool for mocking it all these years. When H.P. Lovecraft praises the "stark living fear" and the "brooding horror and impending doom" of Howard's work, I should have paid attention.

So it was with great anticipation that I opened this comic, even though I was a little worried by the "Howard's shocking tale--retold by a master of modern horror!" tag on the cover. After reading it a couple of times, I'm really not sure what to make of this book.

First, the art.

Nathan Fox's art is interesting. I like it. It's very detailed and each character has a distinctive and consistent look throughout the story. There's a strange angularity to the people that is a little jarring, as these characters and this style don't really look like your typical comic creations.

The backgrounds and the set designs are very impressive, although they’re a little hard to make out in detail--which really helps set the tone of oppressive anxiety that builds throughout the story. This trait is especially noticeable while the sun is going down and then after dark.

Fox's work is very moody and it makes you uneasy--and that's a good thing.

Fox's job is made all the more successful by Dave Stewart's colors. I don't know when this guy sleeps. It seems like he colors every book that Dark Horse releases. Is he some sort of collective that operates under the heading "Dave Stewart" or what?

However he does it, he does it well. Almost single-handedly, Stewart has given a uniform and easily identifiable color palette to Dark Horse Horror.

Here, the use of light and dark shades creates a sense of time gradually passing as the daylight fades and night sets in. Also, while Stewart contributes to making Fox’s detailed work difficult to see, you can't help but feel there's something lurking in the shadows--and that's well before there actually are creepies lurking in those shadows.

Finally, Lansdale's story isn't bad. The characters are well defined--although in broad strokes so as to just introduce them before plunging them into the horror where we'll really get to see what they're made of.

The opening scenario is one drawn from classic horror films, most notably the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (since both Howard and Lansdale are Texans, I would guess that this is intentional), with maybe a little bit of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things thrown in (but without the mock Satanism and zombies).

However classic the intention, it is still a bit of a clichéd start. I should emphasize, though, that this shouldn't put readers off. If there's one thing that Lansdale excels at, it's taking a reader's expectations, flipping them, putting his boot in its ass, and then freaking the reader out with something there was just no way of knowing was going to happen--and that's why I'm giving this issue a favorable review and will stick around for the rest of the story (because if I was looking for a faithful adaptation, or updating, I don't think this would be it).

The original story is fairly simple, but it does a very good job of creating dread and suspense with a little bit of gore and splatter. It also ties directly into the Southern Gothic Tradition in literature--playing with cultural and social anxieties of the time it was written (1938).

This story, while giving nods to the original story, is taking another, more pop-culture-influenced approach. It works, but it's very different from the source materials--especially with the last page. I don't know where that comes from. I'm not going to spoil it, but something strange and new is happening in the old Blassenville manor house.

Or is that something ancient and evil?



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