I’ve become a bit of a fan of writer Jon Parrish lately. I’ve read and enjoyed some of his script submissions on ComixTribe’s Proving Grounds column, and now – after some delay and miscommunication, which I must apologise for – I’m finally getting round to reviewing his new comic series, Secrets & Shadows, which is off to a very promising start.
Our story quickly introduces us to Haven City, a metropolis basking in the reflected glory of its beloved resident Black Sun and his superheroic dynasty, and our grudging protagonist, Black Sun’s estranged son, Joseph. From there, one of the biggest strengths of Parrish’s narrative is that, as the title might suggest, we are bombarded with questions that make us want to keep on reading and immersing ourselves further in this murky world. What horrible thing happened to Joseph to end his burgeoning superhero career and make him turn on his family? What terrible secret about the day of the Haven City Massacre is being shared by Black Sun – now retired, and a broken man – and his other son, superhero prodigy Dark Star? What sinister conspiracy are the city’s superheroes tangled up in that would require them to murder potential witnesses? And who is the formidable, shadowy figure killing off these superheroes (or “false idols”, as he calls them) in order to “save the city from itself”? Parrish crafts an exquisite, tantalising mystery throughout this first issue, continually grabbing our inerest and demanding we read more.
One thing I liked about the comic, and I don’t know if it’s patronising to even need to mention this in 2013, is the high ratio of prominent black characters in the book: not just the Shaw family – Joseph, Black Sun and Dark Star – but also master supervillain Marcus Kane. And nothing about them feels like it’s foregrounding their colour or making it part of their character, it’s just “colour-blind casting” in the book. And when a comic doing this so naturally is still noteworthy enough that it merits mention, I think it highlights just how much of a disparity there still is in mainstream superhero comics.
The plotting isn’t entirely without fault. There is the odd instance of dialogue that feels to overtly like speaking to the reader to catch them up on the exposition it’s important for them to know. It’s an easy trap to fall into, one I’ve fallen into myself, but perhaps something for Parrish to watch out for in future, particularly as his conspiracy story gets more labyrinthine. And there are quite a few Starman parallels in the “fictional city protected by a revered superhero who retires after a traumatic incident, and has two grown-up sons, one who followed in his footsteps and another who’s more of a black sheep off stubbornly doing their own thing” narrative. But that’s forgivable. Heck, The Standard has a few Starman parallels, and superhero comics these days are always going to ultimately be variations on a theme. The hallmark of quality is not doing something new, but doing something well, and Parrish seems to have that covered.
More problematic is Marco Roblin’s art. There are times when it’s very good, evocatively capturing a believable location or a nuanced facial expression. But at other points the details are quite muddy, hurting the clarity of what’s going on. At one pivotal moment in the plot, I was unsure of what exact fate had befallen a character because the visuals didn’t make it clear, and I had to rely on the script specifying what had happened to the character afterwards in order to know for sure. There’s also some awkward scene transitions that made it unclear that we’d switched from present day to flashback and, due to the way some faces were drawn quite similarly, made me confused about what characters were being featured in particular sequences. There are some odd choices of layout too, where without letterer extraordinare Kel Nuttall carrying the burden of using caption trails to guide my eye along the page in the correct order, I’d have been totally adrift.
One thing worth mentioning is that the comic boasts an ace cover from Dexter Wee. Apparently, he’ll be taking over interior art from issue #2 onwards, so it’ll be interesting how that reflects in the visuals going forward.
Something else that was noteworthy about Secrets & Shadows was that it has a couple of alumni from The Standard involved. And before any accusations of nepotism are flung my way, I didn’t even know they were on the creative team until I started the review! There’s the aforementioned Kel Nuttall on letters, doing as slick and professional a job as ever. There’s also editor Steven Forbes. Now, it’s hard to really assess the imput of an editor in any review, as a good editor will render themselves utterly invisible, guiding the creative team to bring out the best in themselves rather than overtly contributing much. As such, it’s difficult to do more than speculate. But knowing Steven Forbes’ excellent editorial work first-hand, I would guess that he has some part to play in the ruthless directness of purpose that permeates this script, how everything is functional and serves to push the narrative forward, with work being done to hook us in right from the first page, and every interaction serving a purpose.
Overall, a very promising first chapter. Visually, it’s solid if not spectacular, but narratively this shows real promise. Something tells me I’m going to become a bigger fan of Jon Parrish in the future.