I’ve only been exposed to three versions of the Holy Grail story. They include Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Now, the first one only used the Grail as a plot device for a great movie, and the third was just insane British comedy. Brown’s book turned, and is still turning, the very Grail myth upside down. Still, for all the controversy the book made, I honestly found it just boring as a thriller. I mean, for all the history, conspiracy theories, and epics, was the Holy Grail reduced to an uninteresting bestseller?
Thankfully I then found Rex Mundi.
Created by Arvid Nelson and EricJ, Rex Mundi has to be of the greatest comics of the past decade. Many people who glance at the title without reading it will simply call it a DaVinci Code rip-off, but it is far from that. Yes, while both stories do cover a lot of the same subjects (such as the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, and Mary Magdalene), it is the way that Rex Mundi approaches the subject that makes it entirely unique to Brown’s bestseller.
Set in France during an alternate history version of 1933, Nelson took the Grail myth and wrapped it around political intrigue, murders, and a ton of mystery. The book stars Doctor Julien Sauniere, an outcast among his profession for his treatment of the poor and non-Christian. One night he is awoken by his friend Father Marin, who tells him of a stolen scroll with huge implications on the Catholic Church. Immediately after that, Marin himself is killed by a mysterious man in white. What follows is Sauniere’s search for the scrolls and Marin’s killer.
The levels of complexity in this book are just amazing. The series reads more like a good novel than a comic book. Every issue builds upon the previous one. A tidbit of information mentioned one, five, or even ten issues ago might suddenly come into importance later on. Sauniere’s investigation grows and grows, starting with questioning a whore to uncovering dynastic history and Church scandals. The book is a giant progression. The only other book on the market I can even think to compare Rex Mundi to is Ex Machina. Yet, while Ex Machina is rooted in the real world and uses story arcs to tell the story, this book’s unique background and continuity results in a totally different type of comic.
One of the unique things about the book is that magic is real. There is an organized “Guild of Sorcerers” similar to all the other guilds of specialized jobs. Those not a part of the Guild are hunted by the Inquisition as witches. Still, even with that, we see magic pop up in the series numerous times. The scroll was stolen from Father Marin using magic, the Man in White apparently uses it during fights, and it is quite popular among drug dealers. In a nice reversal on the criminal aspects of unregistered magic, Nelson has many of the nobles and high society types constantly use it to light a cigarette. The best example of magic in the series occurs when a criminal is seen using it to light a dark tunnel while he carries a machine gun in his other hand. It is these little touches that add even more mystique to an already great comic.
Aside from Sauniere, the book also contains a rich supporting cast. Julien’s chief assistant in his investigation is fellow doctor Genevieve Tournon, an old flame of his past. Meanwhile, Father Eugene Calvet, a friend of Marin’s has offered his help as well. On the antagonistic side of things, Ireneaux, head of the Inquisition in Paris controls the Church’s hold on all aspects of life, and his assistant Brother Moricant upholds all of Ireneaux’s orders. Moricant himself has to be one of the single creepiest characters in any comic I have ever read. His face is covered by a silver mask bearing a clef note on one cheek and a teardrop on the opposite eye. The mask provides a unique contrast when close ups of his face reveal eyes narrowed with hate. Again, he is extremely creepy.
An interesting subplot in the book concerns the political tension rising across Europe. The Duke of Lorraine, head of France’s Hall of the Sword (think of it as this France’s Senate, while the Hall of the Robe signifies the House of Representatives, in terms of size and influence at least) starts a meteoric rise to power throughout the series. He gains supporters with his talk of French superiority and hopes of reclaiming Palestine as a Christian land. Meanwhile, he faces opposition from the more moderate King Louis and the Hall of the Robe. Nelson devotes equal time to the political situation as he does with Sauniere’s case, as we soon learn both are very connected.
In fact, it is the political side of the comic that brings out some of the best parts in the series. Nelson went to town with the world, using the alternate history to change familiar events in the past. The most significant revision is that the Protestant Reformation never happened. Oh, Martin Luther was around long enough for the Inquisition to start up, but he never gained enough followers to affect Catholic Europe. The Inquisition instead devotes its time to handling day to day crime. Meanwhile, the Islamic Moors were never forced out of Spain, and three little Christian kingdoms stand between them and the rest of Europe. The Holy Roman Empire never dissolved, and along with Prussia, provides a strong German presence in the book. Farther east, the Tsars still control Russia, and the Ottoman Empire is still in power. The sheer amount of work Nelson must have done to write up this world is admirable. The world feels like something that could have actually happened had history developed slightly differently.
Aside from an incredibly deep and detailed storyline, another aspect of the book to admire is the art. EricJ’s initial run featured a crisp view of Paris, with bright backgrounds and wonderful facial expressions. He even got to display a wonderful action sequence at the end of issue five, as Sauniere was forced to run for his life from a mysterious assassin. After a run of over twelve issues, he stepped down from the book and Jim Di Bartolo took over. Di Bartolo maintained the wonderful character animation, and added a moodier, darker atmosphere that suited the book. However, after a handful of issues, he too departed from the book. Currently, Juan Ferreya handles the art duty. While his art is somewhat softer, the atmosphere and rich detail of the previous artists are adequately upheld. If nothing else, the characters look even better under his pencil.
Recently, Rex Mundi shifted publishers after reaching the halfway mark in its thirty-six issue run. It moved from Image Comics to Dark Horse Comics. So far, this has caused no ill effects to the publication of the series, perhaps even making it more appealing. So, what does the future hold for the series then? As the main comic continues on at a breathtaking pace, Dark Horse is apparently making a movie adaptation of the series. While it is still in pre-production, the announcement that Johnny Depp is going to star as Sauniere certainly raises my hopes that the series will transfer wonderfully to the silver screen.
All in all, be it artist changes, delays, or even a switch in publishers, nothing has stopped this series from capturing my full attention and love. The series is inventive, deep, and surprising. This is a must have for any fan of mysteries, political maneuvering, or just a fun comic. If you get Rex Mundi, you will not be disappointed.