In an alternate world, a walled-off London is plagued by the bubonic plague while in the grip of a momentous battle over the power of an extremely strong Catholic church. When Pope John XXIX visits London, all the different forces at work in this London show themselves as a complex web of conspiracy and danger.
This is a thoughtful and ambitious graphic novel, sometimes too ambitious for easy comprehension by a reader at first glance. The book never quite spells out its setting, and doesn’t make a lot of concessions to readers as the story goes on. On my first reading, I had trouble figuring out all the conspirators who were afoot, and didn’t get a good feel for this odd alternative world. However, this is probably intentional by writer Das Petrou. By creating a strange world and not providing users easy explanations of that world, he forces readers to find their way, to discover this world bit by bit rather than all at once.
For instance, the book begins with a quiet seven-page sequence showing the massacre of a group of priests who are taking a boat down the Thames River. Readers see the scene subjectively, without narration, witnessing this horrific crime but having no context for it. Immediately after that scene, the comic cuts to a barrister with a difficult client. Not only is the barrister never named in that scene, but there’s no connection spelled out between the two scenes. They’re intriguing sequences, but what binds them together? Readers who stick with the comic will find great significance in those scenes, but one looking for quick answers will be frustrated.
This sounds like a complaint, but iT isn’t. Das Petrou is an interesting writer, and has created an intriguing alternate world that slowly shows itself to attentive readers. The level of complexity in which Petrou has thought out his world is amazing; readers see the full depth of that world in the newspaper clippings and other ephemera that end each chapter.
Artist John Watkiss provides a good match for Petrou. His tight, angular and paranoid layouts complement those same elements in the story. In a world where shadowy conspiracies abound and mysterious forces are at work, Watkiss provides a wonderful artistic depiction of the world that Petrou has created.
Ring of Roses is a fascinating piece of comics art. If you can penetrate the book’s complexity, there is a lot to digest and think about.