by Matthew Peckham
Beckett Comics' The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty #1 arrived in July on Free Comic Book Day to rousing reviews
and enthusiastic fans. Two months later, Matt takes a look at the first and second issues to see how this sold-out supernatural
western from a fledgling indie publisher is holding up.
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Have I mentioned I'm a sucker for westerns? It's desert conditions for the western these days, most of all in comics with their sadly predictable allegiance to superhero rehash, crossovers, and soap opera fluff, now mostly in place to support a cinema-dominated industry where comics have become mere advertisement brochures for the Hollywood firework of the week. It was with some shock that I noted newcomer Beckett Comics was releasing the first issue of a new western series as a free comic on Free Comic Book Day, July 3, 2004 (timed deliberately to coincide with the release of Spider-Man 2 the day before). A western comic? Free? From an upstart no-nothing company on a weekend following a superhero movie premiere? To paraphrase the bard, that way lies madness.
Or does it? The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty may be the smartest marketing move an independent publisher has made in a long time. Take a classic genre, mix with a classic fairy tale, bring in a few talented but straightforward artists, nail the cover shot, print on high quality paper stock, make it exclusive (no reprints to date) -- and the opening chapter of an ongoing series -- then give it away for nothing at all, literally. The result was a well-received sell-out nationwide (having shamefully missed FCBD myself, I had to write the publisher just to get my hands on a physical copy), and since I'm getting to this belatedly, I can say the reviews across the board have been unanimously positive.
Beckett's beautifully drawn, inked, and colored epic opens on a western desert town, a backshot of two men on the gallows. One of the men, named Red, is telling a story to the other, a long-haired older man named Cole: a family is depicted leaving a town called Briar Rose. The father says "they don't believe we can make it." The wagon kicks into high gear, but as it crosses the perimeter, its human occupants burst into flame and disappear, and thus is our curiosity sufficiently fired. The rest of the first issue follows a dream sequence flashback (Cole's) and allows Red to finish his tale of a legendary western village that shamefully turned away a Native American woman in the dead of winter. The woman's return several years later during a banquet resulted in a curse upon the town's first born (a girl) and the town's citizens, dooming them all to endless slumber (and the town to disappear, with overtones of Brigadoon) when the girl turned eighteen. Red is hunting for the village, hoping to find this enigmatic girl, presumably to do something fairy-tale-like in hopes of winning her affection and ending the curse.
Given the expansive, cinematic panels, there's not a terrible lot of story here to analyze yet, but what's established is likable and intriguing enough. Gabriel Benson's melding of supernatural elements with the traditional west isn't exactly original, though the Old World European influence seems fresh, but he'd do better to push some of the western stereotypes (the bitter husband whose wife was killed by Native American bandits) further in future issues, to avoid turning this into a mere graft job. Hawthorne does double-duty on pencils and inks, and the art is very good, if cartoonish at times, missing some of the grit you would get with Leonardo Manco (Blaze of Glory, Apache Skies) or Steve Dillon (Preacher), or Carlos Ezquerra (Just a Pilgrim), but it's Mike Atiyeh's colors that really shine, a perfect mix of layered single tones and other richer colors which shuttle effectively between the main story and dream or storytelling sequences. Jeff Amano's cover is flat out stunning, and I wouldn't mind seeing him take on a full issue or two himself.
The other thing the book has going for it is the slick packaging, easily shaming the competition by miles. How they're selling these things without running ads is beyond me, but it certainly turns out a nice looking book. Omar Mediano's letter work is tremendous, and also, thankfully, takes full advantage of case sensitivity (lower as well as uppercase letters). Minimalist and to the point, you can find the page numbers easily (something impossible to do in nearly any other mainstream comic, let alone graphic novel) with handy title and website notations gracing the bottom of either page. From the logo to the price to the issue number to the masthead, Beckett knows how to deliver the goods, no nonsense and crackling with style.]
I'd recommend picking it up (it's free, after all, though I'd recommend it at the going rate without hesitation), but it's no longer available anywhere save possibly Ebay. Fortunately Beckett has seen fit to graciously make it available online in its entirety. All you need do is click here.
The second issue of this fledgling supernatural western fares less well than the first. Two things happen in twenty-two pages: Cole and Red escape, and we meet two of the parties tracking Cole, a U.S. Marshall "Lee Van Cleef" type who kills indiscriminately, and a spectral Native American intent on putting an arrow through Cole's neck. Why spectral? We're not told here.
Mike Hawthorne's pencil and ink work swings with more grit this time around the block, and there are a couple scenes where he nails the eyes of his characters out of the park, notably the chilling four-panel sequence on page twelve where U.S. Marshall Drake draws on the town sheriff. There's also a lovely sketchbook shot of Cole at this issue's very back, allaying any concerns I might have had after the first issue that Hawthorne wasn't drawing rough on pencils; his inked version of the same shot which closes the issue is marvelous and hands-down pin-up worthy.
Otherwise there's not a lot to say about the second issue, which kicks up the action full bore but fails to give us much to sink the cuspids into. Clearly Drake is a plot setup for some future confrontation; clearly the spectral Native American is going to be dealt with (probably the next issue, given this one's ending); obviously Red is going to somehow drag Cole into his quest to find Briar Rose, and Cole's hatred of Native Americans is going to weigh heavy on the ethnic balance the book is striking. Unfortunately what we get here isn't enough story for a full second issue, despite its welcome low price ($2).
According to the blurb for the third issue, the book will begin exploring Cole's bloodlust in the context of Red's quest. There's plenty of potential left in this yet-promising new series, if Benson is willing to pack a little more story into his books and give us more than dusty cowboy hats, double-drawn Winchesters, poised gunfighters, implausible escapes, and more than the straight-laced, familiar West we already know.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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