In the pages of his latest Marvel Comics series, Doctor Strange is looking for a successor. For instance, in this week’s issue of Strange, the ol’ Doc seems to have recruited a young adept named Casey to take his place in the mystical pantheon. That series may be the way Marvel handles the next Sorcerer Supreme, but there’s already a new mystic hero that fits our era. His name is Salem Brownstone.
Salem is the son of Jedediah Brownstone, a man who had mystic powers and some extremely strange friends. With his father’s sudden death, Salem suddenly finds himself in possession of his father’s house, his father’s friends, and (soon) some of his father’s abilities. What follows is a bizarre mystic adventure of which Steve Ditko would be proud. It is filled with some of the most bizarre and spooky creatures that you ever might encounter.
The key to the success of Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers is Nikhil Singh’s wonderfully dark, angular and mysterious illustrations. I hesitate to call his art gothic because that immediately pigeon-holes the work into a certain frame of mind. However, gothic is the most accurate term to use here. The artwork really does reflect a modern sort of gothic style, but it’s not defined by that approach. The gothic impression is more in the mood of the story that the illustrations creates rather than an actual adherence to medieval ornamentation.
The story features some insanely detailed artwork by Singh. Every panel is crammed with details and textures to produce some of the most densely illustrated comic pages I can remember seeing. The complexity of the art adds to the story rather than detracts from it because Singh has a terrific ability to center the reader’s eye with the most important details. Even when Salem is climbing a long set of stairs, he always appears at the center of each panel.
The intensity of the art at the beginning of the book sucks the reader into the story and embeds us in the strange world that Dunning and Singh have created. The stylized way that Singh presents his characters also adds to the mysterious mood of the book. For instance, I adored the way that Cassandra Contortionist was continually drawn all akimbo, witchy high-heeled shoes above wizard-hat-wearing head–and nasty Ed Harm was continually drawn as all menace, malice, and unshaven badness.
However, Singh’s most interesting character designs belong to his other-dimensional villains–where he actually outdoes Ditko’s amazing designs from Doctor Strange by drawing characters that look like they’re beamed over from some horrifying Lovecraftian land–all depicted in intensely detailed art that makes them feel like they’ve consumed hundreds (if not thousands) of souls over the years.
The villains truly do look spooky, so having them confront a neophyte like Salem makes readers feel there’s a real danger facing the character. Thankfully, though, Salem has some very flamboyant friends to help him–and they know the way to defeat the evil creatures. It is at this point where Dunning’s scripting is at its strongest as it achieves the difficult balancing act between creating intense action and leavening that action with humor.
I’ve found myself fascinated with the world of Salem Brownstone in the way that I once was fascinated with the world of Stephen Strange. Watch out, Doctor Strange. There’s a new mystic master in the comics world, and he lives in a very dark and intensely interesting world.