Tony Fyler sides with the werewolf.
Anathema, Volume 1 from Titan Comics is a comic-book that blends a classic horror vibe with a grander gothic romantic vibe and creates something more than the sum of its parts.
It’s not a tale of modern wit and snappy comebacks. Rather, it’s a medieval story that depressingly still manages to resonate in the 21st century. Essentially, it tells the tale we know so well – girl meets girl, girl loves girl, girl gets burned to death by repressive male-dominated religious fucktards, girl’s soul gathered by demonic horde aiming to revive devilish douchebag with habit of torturing women. Living girl drinks potion, becomes werewolf, embarks on quest to defeat horde, reclaim four pieces of douchebag-soul to properly dispose of them and stop resurrection, thereby preventing lover’s soul being fed to chief of all douchebaggery.
Y’know, that old tale.
We’re in epic hero quest territory here, with a gothic tone to the characterization and the artwork – if this was a movie, you’d have to go Hammer in the first instance, simply because what this work is absolutely not full of is wise-ass smart-alecry. Nonononono – serious stuff, high emotions, proper old style comic-book artwork (more impressionistic that crystal clear high-definition), blending together in midnight colours to tell the tale of Anathema (Mercy Barlowe) and her lover Sarah. Sarah was torn from Mercy’s arms and burned as a sinner, the good men of God of their time not being keen supporters of equality between the sexualities. Her soul was apparently gathered by the followers of arch-douchebag, Count Aldric Karnstein, who went on a demented killing spree of women who cursed God after his mind went snap when he lost his wife and child to the Black Death. Demons loooove that kind of thing, and Karnstein the misogynist did a deal with them to feed the souls of his victims to the demons. Then the Inquisition boys decided they needed a word, Karnstein was terminated with extreme prejudice and his heart separated into four pieces, distributed at the four main compass points of the land.
Yyyyyep, you guessed it. Good douchebags never die when they can poison the land and raise an army of demented, raven-faced followers to harvest women’s souls for them, and so Karnstein’s sub-douchebags are collecting souls, including Sarah’s, to help reincarnate their all-time favourite woman-torturer.
Horrified by the loss of her love, Mercy looks for help from her sage friend Henrich, and he gives her the potion that will enable her to go questing, killing hench-ravens and Big Bosses, each of whom have a piece of the dark heart animating them. And so Anathema the werewolf is born and sets off on her mission to save the soul of her beloved – and coincidentally, lots of other women too – from the machinations of the evil one.
As you might expect, given the theme (lesbian werewolf on a mission of love in a world where more ordinary folk than you might imagine think like the Westboro Baptist Chapel), there’s a strong feminist theme here which is long overdue in the mainstream comic-book world. Deliciously, what it proves is that neither the world nor the hearts of comic-book fans explode if you have a strong, sincere, female lead character who’s neither cutesy nor especially ‘feisty,’ and who wears at least reasonably sensible clothes. There’s a little sex and nudity here, but they don’t feel cheap or salacious, they feel like natural moments given the scenarios in which Anathema finds herself. Ultimately, this is the story of a woman who’s lost her love and who’s consumed with guilt for not being strong enough to have saved her from the evil that men do.
Though the setting is historical, let us not be so naïve as to think the evil that men do, to women, to people of different sexualities to them, and to the world itself, is in any way a matter of pure history. We’re really not that cool yet. We still live in a world where the idea of gay marriage causes some people’s heads to spin around, where the idea of a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body is actively denied by a disturbing number of people, and where ‘God told me to seek power’ is a line trotted out by people applying for the greatest office in the world. So does the story of one woman on a quest of undying love in a world ruled by the tyranny of evil men have a greater social relevance than the kickass panels of a werewolf story?
Hmm – let’s think about that for a minute…
Volume 1 sees Anathema’s heavy backstory delivered – and yes, most of it is in Chapter 1, making that chapter feel like heavier weather than those that follow, when there’s a good amount of wolf-driven hack and slash evil-fighting to take care of – by writer Rachel Deering and artists Christopher Mooneyham and Wesley St Clare with an old school appreciation for storytelling. The panels have that classic, impressionistic horror-comic feel, and Anathema narrates much of the story as ‘voice-over’ – the opposite of good storytelling in more traditional media, where ‘show, don’t tell’ is the golden rule. But Deering manages to have her cake and eat it in these first three chapters – we need to know the hefty backstory that drives Mercy to become Anathema before we start, hence the stodgy weight of exposition in Chapter 1, but then the events are replayed in panels – ‘shown’ to us – from a different camera angle in Chapter 3, allowing any latecomers to catch up with the story.
Does the story engage? Tricky. The idea engages, certainly, as does the fact that Anathema’s greatest strength as she fights these relatively mindless hordes and Big Bads is her use of her brain in combat situations, which makes for more interesting battle sequences than many in horror or fantasy comic-books or movies. The actual quest itself is less engaging, because once you understand it, there’s a temptation to flip a few pages ahead to see how it all works out. Resist the urge though – you never know what you might miss, like the moment Anathema first takes self-professedly ‘innocent’ blood (the reader is dubious about the claim of the man consumed with fear who simply won’t let a wolf walk away), or the growing arc that shows us Anathema has a follower – a young girl whose life she shaved from the ravens.
Anathema is an unusual comic-book, very much at odds with the hip, flip, smart-alecry of modern superheroes. Get it anyway – learn something, feel something, and reflect from the pages of the ‘werewolf on a mission’ story back into our modern world, and the difficulties it forces on women, and people who don’t conform to its patriarchal norms. Chances are, you’ll side with Anathema in her quest. You might even begin your own retaliation against the evil that men do as a result, which can only be a good thing.
Anathema Book 1 is out now.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk