REVIEW – Unseen Shadows: Tales of the Fallen

Unseen Shadows: Tales of the Fallen is an anthology graphic novel, collecting four short stories set in the universe of Fallen Heroes, a novel by Barry Nugent.  I was quite looking forward to this volume, I must admit.  Barry Nugent himself is a great guy, who – when my computer was too crappy to read the review PDF – kindly offered to send me a print edition of the book via the post.  On top of that, the graphic novel itself is a lovely volume, pristinely presented by UK printing press UKComics, and supplemented with interesting backmatter that helps further submerge us in the world of Fallen Heroes.  It even has a witty introduction from TV personality (and writer of Turf) Jonathan Ross.  In short, going in, everything was set up for me to really want to like this comic, with me being prepared to like it.  So it’s a real shame that in the end, I was a little disappointed.

Admittedly, my problem could be that I’ve not read Fallen Heroes, and so I’m not already invested in these characters, or familiar with the intricacies of its plot that these stories may be playing off.  I will say that even reading the character profiles in the backmatter helped give me a clearer idea of who these characters are.  But even so, a graphic novel like this should be able to stand on its own, and while yes, it’s nice to have it be enrichened by having read the book, it should also be accessible to new readers.

The first story, “Fragments of Fate”, suffers from many of the common indy failings.  Peter Rogers’ story has interesting elements, but it is hampered by the fact that Rogers himself seems to have a grasp of his intricate story, but hasn’t quite managed to clearly convey that to the reader.  Characters seem to appear and disappear abruptly, without clear indication of where they’ve come from or what they’re doing, and I had moments where I lost track of who was who.  Roy Huteson Stewart’s often-muddy art (which is strangely black-and-white, where every other story is in color) must also shoulder some blame for this fault.  Rogers, however, must take the bulk of the blame for grammatical errors in the dialogue.  You could say that letterer Paul McLaren should also take some responsibility, and maybe he should have noticed, but to be honest, that’s not a letterer’s job.  They have enough to keep track of, and it’s not a failing on their part to assume the writer is competent enough at their job to just directly transcribe what they’ve written.  I’m not talking about obvious language flaws like misspelled words or typos.  Most often, the problem is what super-editor Steven Forbes calls “comma fail”.  It’s actually a pretty common problem, even amongst some good writers.  Just not knowing when to put a comma, such as before/after someone is mentioned by name.  “Harold, get the tea,” as opposed to “Harold get the tea.”  Writers need to try saying lines out loud, something as simple as that can let you know where a comma (which is where we have a pause in a sentence to take a breath) is necessary.  It might seem like a minor gripe, but it’s a bug-bear of mine.  Few things can make a comic seem amateurish quicker than poor grammar in the dialogue.  That’s the one part of the final comic us writers have most control over, so we need to make sure it acts as a solid foundation.

“Band of Butchers” fares better.  There’s the odd problem with anatomy and weird facial expressions, but I’d say Rob Carey’s art makes gives this story a superior look, aided by the nuance provided by Vicky Stonebridge’s color.  Dan Thompson’s story is also stronger, packing some emotional resonance, and giving us more of a feeling for the shady world of black ops and secret military missions.  The narrative is chugging along nicely, but sadly it falls apart a bit at the end.  I can see the dramatic purpose for the end twist, but it stretches suspension of disbelief a little too far within the established framework of the story, and took me out of the drama.  For one, it relies on a massive coincidence.  That’s acceptable, though.  The worse crime is that it requires our protagonist to act out of character, pretty much the polar opposite of what we’d expect, in fact: earlier, he risks his mission to do what he feels is the right thing, but in the end he blindly obeys his mission to do what he feels is the wrong thing.  As I say, I can see the thematic power behind the decision taken, but the way we got to that point felt clumsy and cheap, and marred what was an otherwise solid story.

“Wrath of God” was probably my favourite of the bunch.  “Reverend” John Bishop is a wonderfully messed-up character.  Cy Dethan does a good job of balancing the idea of Bishop as a wronged, tragic figure, and making him seem qute unhinged and even monstrous in his own right.  Steve Penfold’s rough artwork reminds me of the stylised approach of Alberto Ponticelli in Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., and for the most part it’s a nice fit for this particular story.  The lack of distinction between past and present did cause some initial confusion about the chronology of events, but a second reading cleared most of my problems up.  Overall, a satisfying short story.

“Operation Solomon”, however, is considerably less satisfying.  The artwork of Conor Boyle starts off nice and clean, but as it progresses, the same problem of lack of clarity that hampered “Fragments of Fate” come back to haunt this story.  Losing track of who’s who, not entirely sure about what’s going on in the plot, etc, etc.  This lack of clarity is worsened by Paul McLaren’s lettering.  While mostly solid up until this point, here the lettering goes off the rails, with speech bubbles badly placed, so I was often reading them out of order.  But then again, this is also a problem with the art, hell, even a problem with the script.  The person who talks first goes on the left of the panel, kids.  The person who talks first goes on the left of the panel.  Each story had been steadily improving in this collection, so it’s a shame that we had such a slump with this final chapter.

I’m sorry if this came across as a negative review.  I don’t like being down on creator-owned books, as I’m trying to promote him.  I do hope my points were at least constructive.  In spite of my criticisms, there were elements that I liked.  If you’re a fan of espionage and hard-boiled action, this may very well be a book for you.

Unseen Shadows: Tales of the Fallen is available to buy from the official website.

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