Dark Horse | Berger Books
(w) Ann Nocenti (a) Flavia Biondi (c) Lee Loughridge
Dementia is one of the most tragic ailments that can befall a person, and to see a loved one succumb to it is a heartbreaking experience. From a storytelling perspective, it can provide a strong emotional hook for readers while being a great tool for compelling storytelling. In Ruby Falls #1, veteran writer Ann Nocenti utilizes both of these elements to their fullest extent, crafting an engaging murder mystery.
Ruby Falls gets its name from the small town in which it is set. Nocenti’s script quickly establishes it as a quaint small town of classic Americana that harbors a dark history. There was a time when the mob ran the town, with a “big stick” approach to enforcing the unwritten rules. Much like other fictional small, sleepy towns (e.g. Haddonfield, Il, Springwood, OH, or Derry, ME), the past is something that most of the townspeople wish to keep buried.
With this setup, our attention turns to Lana, the series’ protagonist. While not explicitly stated, she seems to be a reporter for the local newspaper, though that doesn’t play a major role until roughly two-thirds of the way through the issue. She has a confidant in her sister, Blair, a loving father who is the local butcher, and bartending mother with whom she shares a confrontational relationship. But from a storytelling perspective, her most important relationship is with her grandmother, Clara, who is in a nursing home and suffers from dementia.
Based Nocenti’s script, it appears that Lana and Clara have a close relationship, with Lana visiting her grandmother on a frequent basis. This is based on Clara’s apparent familiarity with Lana, and the passing mention Lana’s mother doesn’t like these visits occurring, which later comes to a head in an argument between mother and daughter. But it is this relationship where the story’s premise takes root: that Clara may have witnessed a murder at a young age, but it cannot be said for certain due to her failing mental faculties.
The idea of an unreliable witness is far from original, but having a disease such as dementia being the prime cause of their volatile trustworthiness presents a fresh wrinkle. As a whole, the issue is largely concerned with setting up the premise and as a result does not get a chance to play with certain concepts, though it may in subsequent issues. However, readers get a hint of what is to come through Flavia Biondi’s art.
By and large, Biondi does a good job at establishing a wholesome look to Ruby Falls. The same can be said for her characters, who are expressive and uniquely rendered, making it easy for readers to identify each member of the book’s expansive roster. However, there is a notable flaw in that she struggles when more than two characters appear in the same panel, regardless of size. Throughout the issue, the reader will happen upon characters with partial or completely absent facial features or other details. While there is a part of me that wants to chalk it up to an attempt at mirroring dementia-like symptoms, it ultimately comes across as sloppiness.
Ruby Falls #1 is a solid first chapter in potentially great little murder-mystery miniseries. While the art does have its occasional flaws, it overall does a good job in keeping readers fully engaged from the first issue through the final page. Nocenti’s script does a great job setting up the story, and the potential of playing with an unreliable character is enticing. If the creators can continue to build on what has been established here, Ruby Falls can be special. Given the subject matter of this series, it’d be a real shame if it slipped into mediocrity.