Review: 'The Arcs' is scary as hell and smartly createdA comic review article by: Justin Giampaoli
As attractive as that color cover is by Carlos Badilla, it was a wise decision to render this 80-page book in heavy black and white. It grounds the spiritual elements of the story in an Earth-y tone, allowing the full weight of the gravitas of the proceedings to come across in an accessible way. Dropping on November 6th from the good folks at Fanboy Comics, writer Michael D. Poisson and artist Matt Jacobs posit a plane of existence with an Earthly battleground for angels and demons. God has abdicated the throne, his palace is in ruins, as crumbled as humanity’s collective belief system. Heavenly forces led by seven companies of appointed Archangels are all that’s left to defend humanity from the hellish horde. It is an unrelenting mission to keep the forces of evil at bay, from grand battles over the skies of Mumbai, to small-scale incursions of infidelity and suicidal souls, demonic creatures just seem to seep up into our world through the floor, the grass, or the street. It’s scary as, well… it’s scary as hell. The horror elements of the story fit right in with the burgeoning Fanboy Comics line, a loose tonal fit with books like Identity Thief or Something Animal, but with an ostensible story that’s quite unlike anything they’ve ever published. Sheesh, how’d they pull that off? Diversity and consistency. They’re such smart publishers.
Artist Matt Jacobs uses a brilliant split pane page early on that reveals both the seen and the unseen. The existence of angels is secretly confirmed for the engaged audience, but depicted in such a way that keeps them hidden from the perception of the human characters inhabiting the story. It’s so damn easy to be immediately impressed by Jacobs’ art, with his liberal use of good ol’ thick black ink, cross-hatched texture and generous stippling, and ink-washed mascara running down frantic crying faces in dimly-lit alleys. From the very first page, the emotive, full-bodied, grainy details just shout from the urban rooftops for the attention that the art so rightfully deserves. The art of Matt Jacobs is like an arcane mix of the raw excess of Simon Bisley, but with the refined erudite eye of craftsmen like Brian Bolland or Dave Gibbons. It’s not all just style, though. Jacobs gets the details right, from basic action choreography like screaming angels being feverishly pulled down into the pit against their will, down to the way a bullet actually looks in mid-trajectory once fired, without the shell casing. It might sound like a trivial detail, but you’d be surprised how many supposed A-list artists still get that wrong.
Writers and (if the reviewer is worth their salt) artists get the bulk of the glory in comic book reviews. I’ve been consciously doing a better job of lavishing praise on colorists in recent years. I think that I rarely give shouts to letterers unless something strikes me as particularly noteworthy or something goes horrifically wrong in that department. The work of Oceano Ransford definitely belongs in the former category. Nearly every character, particularly the seven Archangels at the core of the story, comes with their own custom font that’s tailored to their function and personality. It not only helps readers identify who they are in a somewhat large cast purely as a functional conceit, but this approach also lends some great opportunities for visual style. For example, Azrael, the guardian who can never quite guard everyone, speaks with a resigned sense of duty. Michael, the steward left in charge, has an air of authority about him. While Uriel, the messenger, becomes an early stand-out, full of spunky attitude, not only because the dialogue is tonally correct, but it visually looks the part as well. Pair that with Jacobs’ raw and forceful aesthetic and it’s an irresistible combination of style and substance. One great example of this distinct pairing of art and letters involves dual story threads running vertically down the page as filaments of tapestry; it’s a really slick use of layouts.
Maybe it’s not surprising that the opening teaser sequence plays like a high octane cinematic prologue, the kind that rolls pre-credits and establishes the world so effectively, considering that the publishers and most of the creators are LA-based film and TV people. The bleak world of The Arcs really shines, giving you a sense of the weariness of these angels, trudging along for dozens, hundreds, thousands of years even, with thankless jobs, hopelessly outnumbered, while they protect a population of unknowing creatures, some of whom doubt their very existence. I enjoyed the sarcasm of these “paradigms of grace,” who will behead each other over even perceived slights. It’s a quick moment that showcases the understanding the creators have of the visual and the verbal in the realm of sequential art, the strengths and weaknesses of this particular storytelling medium, and the tertiary understanding that occurs when you force readers to reconcile words and pictures simultaneously. Essentially, they’ve created a universe where hope is fading, where it’s more difficult to accept a belief system without any empirical evidence, and this divergence of faith begins to impact even the highest orders of angels.
From a narrative standpoint, I loved how the angels are portrayed as paramilitary soldiers, with casts bearing different specialties. So, let’s run down the team like a G.I. Joe roster; the soldiers are led by Gabriel, the miracle workers by Raphael, and Metatron is the herald (just like Dogma taught us). Jacobs is quick to slightly switch up the aesthetics for these characters, so that they are alternately envisioned as either brutal, ethereal, or full-bodied respectively. There’s also Uriel the messenger, Azrael the guardian, Michael the head angel and keeper of the gateway to heaven, along with Barachiel the record keeper. Barachiel weaves a literal tapestry of events, and that tapestry is darkening. Each of the seven Archangels has been granted a point of God’s crown as a helm of power. It’s a side note, but I started to reminisce about Neil Gaiman’s seminal Sandman series while reading The Arcs, how the two mine small areas of the same overlapping territory. From a structural standpoint, it made me wonder if you could map The Arcs seven Archangels to Gaiman’s seven Endless. Barachiel is similar to Destiny, Gabriel is obviously Destruction, etc. It’s interesting, the different manifestations you see when smart writers use religious mythology as inspiration for modern interpretations.
There are a few subplots (angels developing free will, the desire for physicality, and the complications that ensue being a lovely one), but things really come to a head with the Battle of Mumbai. Artistically, it’s easy to get lost in the exquisite detail of these images. I found myself staring at the pages for a few lingering moments trying to take it all in. We see demons actually possessing humans. “It was a fucking bloodbath” one of the angels reports. That’s not hyperbole. I could not imagine a more accurate, more straightforward, more perfect line. Jacobs sells the scene by cramming in so much action in the foreground, filling the sky with gory combat, but also a level of exhaustive urban detail that reminded me of James Stokoe in the backgrounds. Mumbai is a tipping point because it causes the Archangels to do a forced prioritization of their areas of protection. The main point of contention is that they vote to abandon Mumbai and Chicago, both hot spots they can no longer successfully defend. There’s a real sense, with the globetrotting sets, of the enormous scope of their responsibilities, of how overwhelmed and outnumbered they are. They may win a few isolated battles occasionally, but overall they are losing the war.
The decision to relegate Chicago and Mumbai to their inevitable dark fate leads down a path of division within the Archangel ranks. Different characters react differently to this mandate and strike off on their own with crafting solutions. Metatron is gleefully depicted as a cantankerous combat medic, performing battlefield triage in an angelic graveyard. Stuck in a war of attrition, where demons easily outnumber them at a ratio of what feels like 100 to 1, when they can’t make more pure angels without God’s presence, the question arises as to what last-ditch efforts they can think of to even the odds, and the efficacy of that. Meanwhile, we learn of a plot to abduct angels from each of the casts, all while Azrael is sucked into another secret plot involving God’s apparent return. This last thread is perhaps a little too telegraphed as a possible feint, but the end result yields a lot of interesting ideas, from secret weapons to the transformation of characters like Hael, second-in-command of Azrael’s host. As we see, even powerful and committed angels can have their faith shaken, which is obviously one of the recurring themes of the book.
That said, The Arcs offers a very frank, a very direct, a very unflinching discussion of belief, all wrapped up in what might best be described as a visceral war movie. Imagine the immersive realism of the dirt and blood and desperation of the Omaha Beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, but with angels and demons at war instead of Allied Forces and Nazis. The Arcs is a compelling combination, encapsulating classic biblical struggle and codifying it with a modernized presence on the page. It pulls no punches with the ideas it brings to the table, or in the way the art depicts those heartfelt events. I’m so anxious to see more from what I hope is a series with future installments, and more from these creators in general. It’s a great book. With the end of the year looming and several titles already slotted in as placeholders, I won’t lie, The Arcs is fighting hard for a place on my annual best-of-the-year list. We’ll see if it can manage to claw its way out of the pit and vanquish one of the fallen in order to claim its rightful place in the throne room.
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