Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest: Harker #7

Posted: Sunday, September 27, 2009
By: Thom Young

Roger Gibson (with Vincent Danks, co-plotter)
Vincent Danks
Ariel Press
Detective Chief Inspector Harker and his assistant, Detective Sergeant Critchley, specialize in homicide cases. Following the first arc of the series set in London, Harker takes a few days off to visit Whitby, a seaside village on the Northeast coast of Yorkshire.

Dave Wallace:
Charles Webb:
Shawn Hill:
Ray Tate:
Thom Young:

Dave Wallace:

Harker #7 is the first issue of the UK-based detective series that I've tried. Luckily, it's a perfect jumping-on point, kicking off the title's second story arc in an accessible manner, and giving new readers enough information about its protagonist that they won't feel lost due to missing out on the initial six-issue arc.

The book immediately endeared itself to me with a brisk, chatty editorial that thanks the book's readers for their support, encourages them to spread the word about the series, and sets out the structure of the title for the next arc and beyond. It's a much-appreciated personal touch that reflects the passion that the creators have for their work--a quality that also manifests itself in the form of a surprisingly polished script, and visuals that are far more accomplished than you might expect from a small press comic.

The characterisation in the story is strong, with writer Roger Gibson effectively introducing us to his protagonist Griffin Harker--who turns out to be a grumpy-yet-diligent detective in the classic mould. He's also (if the opening page is to be believed) the great-grandson of Mina Harker from Bram Stoker's Dracula, which makes me wonder whether we'll see any supernatural elements find their way into the book in later issues--especially given that this second arc is set in Whitby, a key location from that novel.

However, there's no hint of a connection to the supernatural at this point, as this issue sets up a very straight "whodunit murder mystery" that's simple enough to quickly catch the readers' interest, yet detailed enough that there are several potential avenues of investigation for Harker to explore.

The issue is peppered with potential suspects, all of whom already have their own possible motivation to kill the victim--a diva-ish novelist who is hosting a murder mystery evening at the same Whitby hotel that Harker has chosen as his holiday accommodation.

Gibson has a gift for capturing his characters' distinctive personalities with brisk, economical dialogue in a manner that's reminiscent of Warren Ellis at his best. It's a talent that helps him to establish his story's major players quickly and efficiently--getting all of the necessary groundwork out of the way in the arc's first issue, and providing all sorts of possibilities to be explored in the remaining chapters.

Vincent Danks's artwork is just as accomplished as Gibson's writing, making use of a greyscale/inkwash approach that allows the artist to execute some quite subtle effects despite the black and white artwork. I get the impression that much of the artist's work is photo-referenced, but it's no less effective for it.

The opening shot of Whitby bay is a realistic but atmospheric scene-setter, and the characters' facial expressions feel very natural and dynamic. Crucially, Danks's work doesn't come off as "traced" in the way that some other artists who rely on photo references do--and it prevents the artwork from feeling posed or static despite the emphasis on realism.

On the strength of this issue, Harker seems to be a very solid crime comic that's intent on presenting a more classic whodunit style of story than many other crime-based books. It's not exaggerated or heavily stylised in the way that book's like Criminal or Sin City are.

It's not even hugely original, but it's a compelling story that is told well and executed to a far higher standard than you might expect from two such untested creators.

This is very much an issue of setup, but it's an enjoyable and engaging one that introduces a compelling cast of characters and an interesting murder mystery, whilst also serving as a solid introduction to the protagonist. These elements make it a perfect jumping-on point for a new reader, and I look forward to seeing how the story develops in future issues. I'll definitely be reading them.

Charles Webb:

This is my first exposure to the character of DCI Harker and the work of Roger Gibson and Vincent Danks. Upon reading this issue of Harker, my first thought was that Danks's black and white illustrations are surprisingly bright and relaxed.

I should also point out that I have only a cursory exposure to British crime dramas, having only watched a bit of Life on Mars and Wire in the Blood. This cursory experience has given me a sense of the leads in these dramas--kind of rumpled, put upon, worn down by the world. They're a far cry from the whistling, singing, sneaker-clad lead in this book. He seems downright upbeat when compared to those characters that I'm familiar with.

The build up to this issue is slow but not plodding as we see our protagonist on vacation, enjoying the seaside sun, and getting acquainted with the employees and a prominent guest at the hotel where he is staying. Given that you can't have a detective in your story without a dead body to investigate, someone turns up dead, and so Harker's vacation is cut short.

Gibson and Danks take their time establishing the personalities of the cast--the brittle novelist, her exasperated agent, the aggrieved hotel staff, and an off-kilter fan. By the end of the book, readers may have their obvious candidate for the suspect who will likely be a red herring. Harker is obviously miserable about the prospect of ending what appears to be a much-needed break, and the creators milk a little comedy out of his exasperation.

To put it in perspective, Harker is more Murder She Wrote than it is Law & Order, and that means it should appeal to different audiences. It's an affable book, and I would like to know where the story goes next month.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of the author's work at Monster In Your Veins

Shawn Hill

Author Roger Gibson's charmingly humble introduction to this issue of Harker indicates that ideal casting for his two detectives would be Bill Nighy and Johnny Depp. I'm tempted to up my bullet rating just for leaving out Simon Pegg. Gibson seems well acquainted with his characters, because the two actors he mentioned would be wonderful choices.

It may be a bit disingenuous for Gibson to already be discussing the movie version, as the story already reads like a script for PBS's Mystery! anthology of British detective shows. Which isn't a bad thing, I'll take another Wire in the Blood or Prime Suspect any time I can.

We don't see much of the younger Sergeant Critchley this installment (he seems to be involved in some sexually ambiguous downtime with a variety of consenting adults in a pub). However, we get a fairly solid introduction to Inspector Harker in this new-reader-friendly issue.

Harker will seem a familiar character to anyone accustomed to British crime films and TV shows; a salt-of-the-Earth sort who's seen it all and done it twice, and yet who preserves a little core of his soul for his sole perusal alone. He's the kind of bloke you'd want on your side, and that you'd dread for an enemy.

Plot events are telegraphed rather heavily in this opening issue, and the predictable mystery is set up with sturdy speed. However, it's not really the novelty of the crime that matters in this case. Gibson and Vincent Danks are both more concerned with setting mood and tone.

Harker is a series that rests on character, not bloody gross-outs. Danks's vistas of the seaside of Whitby are breathtaking and charming in an old-fashioned way. One double-page splash fits in gulls, boats, thatched roofs, and church ruins in a way that could only make sense from a European perspective.

The threats to the bucolic way of life that Harker sees as a haven are made clear, too, as the hotel he's staying in has pretensions of attracting a more flashy tourism trade. Though treated as a regular by the staff, Harker's peace is interrupted by the book tour "event" of . . . wouldn't you know it . . . a murder mystery author.

Agatha Fletcher basically screams, "Off me immediately!" from her first sight of the "rotten and moldy dump" that Whitby is in her eyes--and the hypocrisy between her rude words (reserved for the hotel staff and her assistant) and her public demeanor (crassly cheery) seals our distaste. She's vile, but Danks gives her a grounded, believable, and not unattractive presence nonetheless.

She looks like a mature, talented author--one who could easily build a large following of readers.

Gibson's sympathy, however, rests with the "hired help," not to mention the "illiterate cretins" who attend her book signing. We meet the concierge, the manager, and other hotel staff--and not just to fill up our suspects list. The black and white graphics fit the tone perfectly, and Danks varies his shades with large black masses, used as punctuation amidst a preference for thin lines defining details of expression and clothing.

It's a good tale, solidly told by creators talented in this medium. Let's hope we don't lose them to the telly too soon!

Ray Tate:

I formed several assumptions when I saw the cover of Harker #7. The sole character seemed to be hiding from the sunlight. Harker of course was the surname of two of Dracula's victims, so I naturally thought that Harker was going to be another dull vampire book and hoped the metrosexual pretty boys within would at least have the decency to drain somebody to death and a Kolchak or Buffy analog would come along and stake them before their whining reached fever pitch.

Imagine my delight upon discovering that Harker has nothing to do with vampirism. The protagonist is the descendent of Mina Harker, but what many do not realize--thanks to the numerous liberties taken by the film adaptations--is that in Stoker's novel Jonathan and Mina Harker survived their encounters with the Count. For the record, Dracula murders Lucy Westenra, Mina's best friend.

So what does Harker gain from his roots? Nothing, as far as I can tell. In fact, the addition of Mina's gravesite, which Harker visits, may just be a joke based on the character's name. Perhaps his family tree engendered a temperament for solving puzzles, but he has no allergy of sunlight or thirst for blood.

Harker is a Detective Chief Inspector with New Scotland Yard, and Harker is a bona fide British mystery. If you watch Masterpiece Mystery or Mystery! on PBS, you will feel right at home with Harker.

Inspector Harker is on holiday for this story, but that doesn't stop him from finding a murder at his hotel. The book properly begins as all mysteries of this type should. We meet a diverse group of people who will be witnesses, suspects, red herrings, and background color. One of them will end up dead, naturally.

I don't think I have ever read a comic book like Harker. I have read mystery comic books before, of course. After all, Batman is "the world's greatest detective"--but his presence changes the tone of a murder mystery even if the plot adheres to the conventional. Similarly, Nancy Drew solves mysteries, but these riddles always "sound" American. There's something unique about the Agatha Christie rebus.

British mysteries often feature over-the-top characters. These vibrant, distinctly English players act like shots of vitamin. Their antics are delightful or fascinating. They act so full of life--for the good or the bad. The characters in Harker emulate the eccentrics of English enigmas.

Roger Gibson's dialogue is witty and filled to the brim with robust voices of scenery-chewing characters. Vince Danks's artwork matches the emotive dialogue.

Agatha Fletcher, a mystery writer, has wide eyes and grins. Fate winds her up and sets her loose on the hotel. Her aide-de-camp, Jasmine, bears a subtler mien to reflect her put-upon life. A fan's gestures signify madness--or at least somebody slightly askew. The hotel Fawlty keeps a stiff upper lip, and Harker? He seems like a quite decent bloke, happy in a pub or simply spending his time reading a newspaper.

When the lights go out and the corpse splatters across the hotel rug, Harker reveals his true nature. He is a professional crime-solver familiar with what must be done rather than what mystery writers believe should be done. Solving crime in many ways is just a job to him. He wants nothing to do with this murder, and he hopes to continue his vacation. However, the Chief Superintendent has other ideas.

In addition to a crisp clear artistic narrative and wonderfully outrageous character studies, artist Danks provides a distinctive coastal atmosphere.

I have but one caveat. Harker is in black and white. This book just screams for color, especially when Danks spreads North East Yorkshire across two pages. Imagine the art with painted houses, green grass, an azure sky and white gulls soaring over turquoise water. What's more, the sharp black and white inks are ready-made for a color adaptation.

Harker introduces the British mystery to comic books. The medium surprisingly soaks up the style and turns out to be a natural.

Thom Young:

When my review copy of Harker #7 arrived in the mail, I opened it up and first glanced at the cover--obviously. The illustration style for the figure seemed familiar, but I couldn't quite place it for a minute or two--then it came to me. The figure is reminiscent of the work of Argentine comic book artist José Muñoz, who was one of my favorite illustrators in the 1980s during the initial black and white comics boom.

The rest of the cover didn't remind me of Muñoz's work, but that central figure did. He seemed to be a Muñoz character who found himself in a European seaside village drawn by Michael Zulli--another of my favorite illustrators of the 1980s. I was instantly intrigued. This Vincent Danks hooked me right away with a cover that evoked a decade that I consider the true "golden age" of comics.

I then glanced inside and found that any similarity to the work of José Muñoz on the cover was purely coincidental. By the way, the cover is "reverse embossed" with raised black inks--which I found to be an odd cover gimmick for a small press black and white comic.

I liked what I saw as I quickly scanned the interior pages—though, as my colleague Ray Tate has also pointed out, it seems that this is a black and white comic in need of coloring. I thought the colors on the cover should be brought to the interior pages as well.

I then set the issue aside until I would have time to read it before today's slugfest--looking forward to what I thought would surely be a great story. When I finally sat down to read the issue, I was intrigued to see our protagonist walking through a cemetery while reciting the lyrical poetry of Joanna Walton, the former girlfriend of Robert Fripp of King Crimson who died in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.

It seemed a bit of an artsy or pretentious way to open a story, but I liked it. I was certain that this was going to be a story that I would thoroughly enjoy. When I turned the page to see the double-spread on pages two and three, I was even more certain that this was a comic book for me. I do think, though, that the panoramic view of Whitby, England on those pages would be much better in color than in black and white with various shades of gray.

Turning to page four, I came to the part that began to slightly sour me on this issue. It's on this page that we are introduced to mystery novelist Agatha Fletcher--whose name is a conflation of the names of real-life mystery novelist Agatha Christie and fictional mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher.

The character of Jessica Fletcher, of course is the protagonist of Murder, She Wrote--an American television mystery series that was loosely based on one of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mystery novels, Murder, She Said. It starred the English actress Angela Lansbury, and the protagonist is considered to be a conflation of Christie's Miss Marple and Agatha Christie herself.

However, Harker's Agatha Fletcher is essentially the antithesis of Agatha Christie and Jessica Fletcher--or, at least the antithesis of how Christie has been portrayed in the media (I know nothing about Christie's actual demeanor). From the moment that I realized that the story was going to involve a stereotypical prima donna who was to make a gimmicky public appearance, I knew that she was going to be the murder victim.

Being a prima donna means that Agatha Fletcher rubs people the wrong way and quickly makes enemies. In this case, the two most likely suspects are:
  • The hotel's concierge, who attempts to gush over Agatha Fletcher's latest novel. However, he is rebuked by Agatha with a wave of her hand along with her trite, "Please. I don't talk to the hired help."

  • And a slightly deranged fanboy who invades Agatha's hotel room in order to get her autograph and "show her a really good time! Know what I mean?" (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more).

    Waving a cigarette close to his face, Agatha tells her would-be shagger, "Get out of my room, you mindless little cretin, or I'll call the police." Of course, you can't blame her for her reaction in this case, but the demented and horny fanboy is an obvious suspect when she ends up being murdered while the lights are out.
There is, of course, one more suspect that should be thrown into the mix of this formulaic whodunit plot: Agatha's assistant, Jasmine Burns, who has long suffered her employer's barbs and diva demeanor.

In all likelihood, Jasmine is the murderer because, as her surname suggests, she has been slowly burning away due to the way she has been treated for who knows how many years.

Every scene in this comic in which Agatha Fletcher appears made me cringe at the trite whodunit conventions that I saw countless times when I was a kid--back when I used to watch television mystery series that borrowed heavily from the Agatha Christie formula, but which were void of Christie's genius.

Fortunately, the scenes without Agatha Fletcher--nine pages out of twenty (which includes the wordless double-spread on pages two and three)--are a great reading experience and beautiful to look at. It's those Agatha-less pages that saved this book from being a total waste of cliché-ridden trash.

Perhaps the story will improve from here and the mystery won't be as formulaic as the most generic episodes of Murder, She Wrote. The scenes without Agatha Fletcher clearly show that writer Roger Gibson has talent when he isn't attempting to come up with a second-rate murder mystery for a pedestrian television series.

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