I am, as nearly as I can figure, one of a mere handful of people who have had no experience of the work of Joss Whedon. The others are, I'm sure, comfortably ensconced in caves in the Himalayas. (I'm a non-TV person. I have a couple -- they both came with my living space -- one of which doesn't work and the other of which I put in the closet because I needed the room for books. So, scratch Buffy. Also, as you should know by now, I seldom go out to movies. That does it for Serenity. It's just the way life is.) And then Whedon decided to do an original comic, Fray, a copy of which landed on my desk. I've obviously got some catching up to do.
Melaka Fray is a thief who operates on commission, managing to survive on the streets of a future Manhattan run by mutant crime lords and police who, for the most part, could give a damn. One of her best clients is one of those mutants, the fish-man Gunther. He has lately given her commissions to obtain rare objects, mostly from museum collections, all ancient and of some spiritual significance. What Fray finds out, eventually, is that Gunther himself is working on commission. The vampires, known colloquially as "lurks," who have been hiding in the city's sewers, are preparing to take over. But Malaka is something more than a common thief: she is the current incarnation of a great warrior, the Slayer, who arises, as incarnations of great heroes tend to do, when they are needed. The wrinkle here is that Melaka has the physical abilities of the Slayer, but her twin brother, Harth, who was killed by vampires, inherited the memories. So Melaka doesn't know what she's doing. (Having just finished Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I am sitting on my hands right now to avoid going off on a tangent about Melaka as an avatar of Arthur or Charlemagne. You can figure it out.)
And that little aside should give you a strong hint as to why I think Whedon has established himself as a major figure in popular culture: there are certain images that seem to live within us, and manifestations of those images outside ourselves command our strong attention. And in this case, couple the Eternal Champion (Moorcock did not pick that sobriquet by accident) with vampires -- particularly if the vampires exhibit a post-punk aesthetic -- and you've got a winner. (Or, as Jeph Loeb credits J. Scott Campbell in his introduction, "Pretty girls and monsters. You can never go wrong." How much better if the pretty girl is a kick-ass hero?) In this case, there's an element of psychological reality to Melaka that both moderates and underscores her archetypal dimension and casts her firmly in the mold of the anti-hero (which, after all, is nothing new for comics).
The story itself is not so straightforward as you might have gathered from my summary. There is enough duplicity involved, enough layers of deception, along with a couple of really major surprises, to keep you turning the pages.
I really have nothing but praise for this one. The story is intelligent, inventive, somewhat iconoclastic, and extraordinarily engaging, while the graphics form a seamless envelope for the narrative line. The future world here is beautifully realized, in the post-Bladerunner noir vein, complete with flying cars, disgusting slums, and creepy underground lairs. Character designs are superb, and hats off to Karl Moline for his intelligent renderings. The drawings are expressive, even the monsters show what's going on in their faces, and the layouts, while not particularly adventurous, provide a clear narrative flow, reinforcing the spare, clean frames. Andy Owens, who did the inks, has given us strong lines that reinforce that spareness, providing each frame with a clarity that is rare. I even like the color in this one, which is seldom the case these days. Dave Stewart and Michelle Madsen have somehow managed to provide color that doesn't stop the eye at the surface, but rather allows it to enter the space of the frame. Even Madsen's lettering and balloons fit right in; the variations in shape and style make perfect sense.
I'm going to be on the lookout for a continuation of this series -- there's no sense that things are finished for Melaka at all. That's a good thing.
Joss Whedon is present on the 'Net, at Joss Whedon.net and at Whedonesque. Dark Horse is still right where it's always been.