Titan Comics: RIVERS OF LONDON - Night Witch #1 Review

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Tony is looking at the pretty pictures.

What makes a kickass comic-book?

Arguably you can break it down into four main things:
  1. Cool central idea
  2. Interesting characters
  3. Pacy, engaging storytelling
  4. Shexy visuals
Arguably, Body Work, the first run of Rivers of London comic-books, written by Ben Aaronovitch and Andrew Cartmel, drawn by Lee Sullivan and coloured by Luis Guerrero, had three out of the four.

Sullivan’s artwork was sub-freakin’-lime, and Guerrero was clearly sent from another dimension as some god’s gift to colourwork, so the thing you could always count on was that the Rivers of London comic-books were gonna look purrrrdy.

The central idea too has always flirted on that trip-wire line of incredibly naff/incredibly cool – London cops who deal with spooky shenanigans in the world beyond the ordinary, while still rooted to procedure and modern-day London. Like other ideas that have been highly successful in the last twenty years, including Life On Mars, Being Human, Grimm, Once Upon A Time and more, it’s half a geek-audience taking it to its heart that determines which side of the line Rivers of London falls on, and Ben Aaronovitch in the novels certainly makes a strong case for the audience to stick with him, and for Rivers of London to be seen as incredibly cool.

The characters are at least OK, even if the comic-books frequently sacrificed a chuckle and a wink to a more hard-boiled, taking-life-seriously mentality. They have a modernity with which the audience can connect, while also being in touch with classic fantasy tropes, like the magician and his apprentice, brought right up to date to be of use in the 21st century world.

Pacy, engaging storytelling…

Err, yes, well, anyway, on we go.

There’s a way to read issue #1 of Night Witch, the new storyline in the Rivers of London series, which claims it’s pushing its luck – it’s on its fourth page before the first words of English are exchanged, trusting the reader up to that point to interpret the story from unsubtitled Russian dialogue and visuals alone. That takes a certain size of cojones, and again gambles with the pace of the storytelling, but you have to disengage the linguistic part of your brain to get the most from it. Do that, and what you have is a perfectly self-descriptive scene that never leaves you unsure of what’s going on. Again, Sullivan and Guerrero are our guides and helpmates into the story, which this time involves a squadron of Russian, State-organised witches from the 1920s, and the Russian mobsters who want to get hold of one of them who’s still up and about and looking pretty sprightly in 21st century London.

Varvara Sidorovna Tamanina – the witch of the hour – clearly has a fascinating history, and here we get to explore some of it, because there are connections between her involvement in the Night Witch squadron and the people who are looking for her. You have to ask yourself why people would go looking for a Russian witch. The answer, obviously, is that something diabolical has happened, which a Russian witch, particularly a member of the Night Witch squadron, would be particularly adept at dealing with. But Varvara appears to be a good witch, notwithstanding certain arrangements for her location at HM Prison Holloway, and she tips Grant and Nightingale the wink when people come to abduct her en route to her accommodations, and even when a softer soap is applied, she refuses to get personally involved, advising her would-be supplicants to get in touch with the wonderful wizards of the Metropolitan Police.

As in Body Work, there’s an extent to which backstory-richness could be said to tip over into yawnorific overkill in this first issue, as we get a socio-political newsreel, narrated by Grant, of the personal history of a Russian oligarch, from his birth in 1971, through university, through the Yeltsin years and the subsequent Putin government – both Russian leaders make an appearance, as does former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke – and all for reasons that feel a little spurious. Yes, it helps give a sense of history to one of the potential ‘bad guys’ in this story, but you have to ask whether we’d care any more or less about him if we knew significantly less. Granted, it gives Aaronovitch and Cartmel an excuse to throw in a slightly oddly-placed Police lyric which likens the Major governments of the 1990s to a prostitute touting for business, which is always worth doing in and of itself, and oh my life, but Sullivan and Guerrero make it look staggeringly beautiful, from the bright yellow light of a London sunset to the gentle sepia used to illustrate the historic section, to a glorious page where panels are set against the background of a ten thousand ruble note, to an almost tongue-in-cheek note of scarlet supervillainy when showing Putin the Polonium President. In fact, once he gets going, there’s hardly any stopping Grant in his remembrances, which take us through to yet a third character’s backstory – witch, oligarch, and now a black magician, taking us forward to a poster-quality cliff-hanger page. There’s a story there, to be sure, and it reads like one of betrayal in Grant’s past, but you really have to keep your eyes on the artwork from Sullivan and Guerrero to get the most out of the issue.

One to get excited about then, this new beginning for Rivers of London?

Cautiously, yes. Sullivan and Guerrero are still a dream team of eyeball-joyfulness, and they’re still the big draw of the comic-book because of the added dimensions they bring. The storytelling is still a little circuitous without necessarily punching at its weight in terms of delivering the point, but that’s arguably a feature of trying to make a chapter or two fit into the strictures of a single issue of a comic-book. There’s still not a great deal in the way of laughs or levity in the issue, but what it does deliver is a sense of the wider world of magic in which the Rivers of London series operates – in the first story, the world was fairly tightly contained, dipping back into Nightingale’s past to find independent magic-users. Adding the Russian element broadens out the canvas on which the Rivers of London series can tell its stories, and gives a wider scope to the potential of the magical underlay of our actual, material world. So yes, on the whole, it’s worth jumping on board again for another magical mystery tour with Grant and Nightingale and the Rivers of London gang. Right now, your brain might be just a little boggled about what’s actually going on, despite the lengthy backstory info-dumping. But in broadening out the scope of the storytelling, and taking us immediately into the realm of Russian State-sponsored witchcraft, this issue gives us a bold almost-reboot of its world and its potential, and quite apart from anything else, with Sullivan and Guerrero on board, your eyes will thank you for taking the plunge.

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 day, he 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

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