[Editor's Note: Full disclosure- Rachel Deering occasionally writes for Comics Bulletin. However, this fact did not impact the following review in any way, shape or form.]
As much as the spotlight on creator-owned work has shone on Image in the past couple years, it's easy to forget that there is a surplus of material coming out every day from self-publishing creative teams. While the majority of it falls closer to the Tarot end of the spectrum than, say, the Nexus end, there's still a ton of great titles that pop up and force you to tattoo the creators' names on your brain for future reference. Though it's got plenty of room to grow, Rachel Deering and Chris Mooneyham's new series Anathema falls into that category, handily showing off two creators with great potential at the relative start of what will hopefully be prosperous careers.
In Anathema, Deering and Mooneyham have created an especially relevant and timely work that nonetheless manages to feel timeless, like it could have come from the peak era of horror comics. Set in the post-Salem Witch Trials period, Anathema is a story about the horrors of guilt and hatred and the costs of giving in to either, whether it's on the end of persecutor or persecuted. At the center of that divide is Mercy, a young woman who is nearly killed because of who she loves, by a group of religious fanatics who themselves claim to be the victims of persecution. Mercy's guilt comes from her inability to stop those fanatics from killing her partner, Sarah, who also happens to be the daughter of the fanatics' leader. But the real story develops in the wake of that, as Mercy's guilt becomes all-consuming and she takes on a curse in order to save the soul of her lover.
Deering is clearly channeling the ongoing war being waged in America by similar fanatics, over who should decide who can love who, and how. Deering is commenting on how little things have changed over the past several centuries, indicating that while literal witch hunting has disappeared, relentless and vicious persecution continues in the name of a religion allegedly founded on peace and tolerance. But rather than explore this through the witch hunters and their victims, Deering instead focuses on what happens in the wake of their crimes, as their prey feel guilty in their innocence and make great sacrifices in order to save the ones they love.
In Mooneyham, Deering has a perfect partner, his style modern enough to recall similar works like Rex Mundi but still classic in tone and feel, referencing the masters of EC and Warren without hitting you over the head with obviousness. Deering's script would be demanding for any artist, with its movement between centuries and locales, its demands for period details and grizzly forensics, but Mooneyham rises to the occasion, making every panel dynamic and interesting without cluttering every inch. Fares Maese likewise does an excellent job with the colors, of course leaning on plenty of shadow and darkness but also working in a surprising amount of light, utilizing elements like fire and blood to draw the viewers' gaze to important story elements amidst the stark blacks. The colors in particular could have been an obstacle for this debut issues — too dark and they'd mute the dynamism of Mooneyham's art, too light and they'd ruin the mood, but luckily Maese keeps the balance in check. Deering also provides her own lettering and it too adds greatly to the aesthetic, seemingly hand crafted and scratchy without falling into distraction.
Every element of this first issue makes it clear that for all involved, this is a project built around love for the genre and a long gone but never forgotten part of its history. The way Deering and company twist and reconfigure the cliches of the genre — from vampires, to werewolves to witches — shows they've done their homework but that they aren't chained to it and are more than capable of crafting their own story within those confines. The history enables the story to avoid feeling instantly dated, but it's that passion that enables it to be so entrancing and readable, the way great horror works always are. Last year gave us Echoes and Green Wake, but there's a strong chance horror in 2012 will belong to Anathema.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.