Quite a few good books came out last week, not the least of which is the hardcover collection of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s five-issue miniseries, “Alabaster: Wolves.” Kiernan, best known in comics for her lengthy run on “The Sandman” spin-off series “The Dreaming,” is primarily a prose author. Her books have won numerous awards and earned her a dedicated following, one that seemed more than willing to follow her return to our beloved medium. “Alabaster: Wolves” brings one of her most popular characters to comics: a young albino monster hunter, colorfully named Dancy Flammarion, and her guardian angel, who leads her on a quest to rid the Deep South of all manner of monsters, demons, and practitioners of black magic.
When I first heard of the series, my initial reaction was, “Here we go, another Buffy clone!” The surface parallels are obvious: she’s a teenage demon hunter with an innate, God-given ability to combat creatures that your average high-school-aged person wouldn’t stand a chance against. However, one glance at Greg Ruth’s iconic, enchanting covers instantly changed my mind, and I picked up the first issue on a whim. To my delight, I discovered my initial reaction was completely unjustified.
“Alabaster: Wolves” is a story that stands well on its own, in more than one way. She’s certainly no Buffy clone—the series has a completely different feel from Joss Whedon’s quirky monster-hunter-meets-high-school-drama. Dancy has no Scooby Gang and doesn’t go to school, and of course, there is no Whedonesque banter. The differences in tone and form are quite significant. It also stands apart from Dancy’s previous appearances. She first appeared in Kiernan’s prose work, debuting in the novel “Threshold,” and then becoming the focus of her own collection of short stories called “Alabaster.” I have not read either of them, and I found it easy to understand the story and the character from the comics alone. Reading the comics will make you want to track down her previous adventures, though.
The miniseries also stands out in terms of genre. At first glance, gut instinct is to place it in the horror genre. After all, it’s full of demons and monsters of all kinds, most of which seek to destroy her. But it’s not truly horror. Dancy rarely scares, as she’s no helpless victim, and the rising tension does little to frighten the reader. It’s not an outward struggle against metaphors for the fears of the collective consciousness or a thinly veiled tale of repressed sexuality. Her struggles are primarily internal, as she struggles to reconcile her faith with her mission and the terrible things she must do and confront. She faces temptation and the danger of her own corruption, reminiscent of pre-horror gothic fiction, but she resists it and avoids the tragic ending associated with the genre. It’s perhaps best described by one of those nebulous hybrid genres, such as weird fiction or dark fantasy, with a strong dose of Biblical allegory. It’s also a coming-of-age story, as she begins to cast off the trappings of her childhood and accept her new life and its dark and violent duties.
The story begins with Dancy arriving in one of what she calls “the bad places,” a town civilization has abandoned and surrendered to the evil forces she is tasked to destroy. A talking blackbird arrives, warning her to leave as quick as she can, a warning that goes unheeded. She is then approached by a young woman named Maisie who she soon discovers is a werewolf, and who has acquired Dancy’s previously lost cigar box full of mementos from her previous life and her now-deceased family. She challenges the wolf to a sphinxian duel of riddles, staking her own life for her lost property and swearing on the name of her angel that she’ll surrender if she loses. Inevitably, lose she does, and she breaks her vow and kills the wolf, losing the protection of the angel in the process.
Seeking refuge at the local church, she arrives to find it defiled by a monstrous menagerie of all kinds. In the ensuing battle, she manages to dispatch the worst of the lot, but she is bruised and bloodied and collapses as the church burns down around her. At the last minute, she is saved by the ghost of Maisie, the girl who became the first werewolf she encountered. They are joined once again by the talking blackbird, and the three set off to find the werewolf sorcerer who started this mess by setting off the werewolf plague and turning the town in to one of the “bad places.”
Despite her somewhat silly name, Dancy Flammarion is serious business. A complex and well-layered character, she is in constant conflict with herself. Her outward struggle with the creatures she hunts reflects the struggles within her. She’s uneducated and generally uncouth, but she admonishes those around her not to blaspheme and is intimately familiar with Bible verse. Her faith is strong enough to resist the temptations offered by the demons she faces, even as she doubts her quest and the motives of the angel. She sympathizes with many of the corrupted people she encounters, but in the end has little difficulty with ending their lives.
Dancy’s struggle seems to be with her own past, and the angel is the crutch on which she leans to avoid facing her new life and duty on her own. The box of mementos is really just a box of junk, but she is willing to risk her life to get it back just because it’s the last connection she has with her past life. The blackbird is representative of her own self-doubt—it warns her to run, to hide, to go back to her old life and hide from the terrifying task she’s been given. The angel isn’t really a guardian angel, as it does little to protect her against the evils she faces, nor is it an angel of death, as it refuses to do any of the dirty work itself. Instead, it’s the crutch she has relied upon to ease her doubts and fears, even though it does little to actually help her. When she finally decides to accept her responsibilities, she confronts her not-a-guardian angel and dismisses it, saying, “You do your own dirty work, I’ll do mine.” In so doing, the bird of doubt is destroyed. She has become her own guardian angel, and accepted her role as the sword-hand of God.
In this way, the story is reminiscent of Jesus himself questioning his purpose just before he turns himself in for the final crucifixion, the sacrifice he must make to save the world. Dancy must come to peace with sacrificing what remains of her childhood and the life she could have had, and give it all up for the sake of her new role.
Steve Lieber provides the artwork and lettering for “Alabaster: Wolves,” and his work is as solid as always. Lieber is known for his work on numerous titles for DC, most notably “Detective Comcis” and “Gotham Central,” but gained true critical acclaim working on creator-owned titles such as “Whiteout,” “Underground,” and “Me And Edith Head.” As editor Rachel Edidin points out in the letters column, Lieber’s style “has a scratchy wildness that reminds me of old-school horror comics.” It’s perfect for the subject matter, especially when it comes to the strange creatures inhabiting the book. He’s also an excellent storyteller, and has great skill at drawing the numerous, varied expressions the story calls for.
Lieber and Kiernan are both veterans of their respective crafts, so the real surprise in the book is the immense talent of colorist Rachelle Rosenberg. She’s been around for a little while, coloring mostly Marvel superhero books like “X-Men” and “X-Factor,” but since she’s had to conform to their in-house style, she’s had little chance to show off her versatility. This book changes that, as she adopts a style closer to coloring grandmaster Dave Stewart, a feat made all the more impressive due to the fact that she’s working in watercolors, without the aid of the digital tools he uses.
As I mentioned before, Greg Ruth’s covers are what caught my attention, and for good reason. They manage to capture the tone of the story and the essence of the character perfectly. You can even surmise the outline of the story just by viewing his covers alone. Clearly, I’m not the only one pulled in by his work, as the letters columns are full of fans who discovered the book the same way I did. Dark Horse clearly took note of this, and continued to have him draw Dancy Flammarion covers for some of the issues of “Dark Horse Presents” that she has appeared in. I can’t find the words to truly do him justice, so I encourage you to see them for yourself.
You can find the hardcover collection of “Alabaster: Wolves” in stores now for the low price of $19.99, which is a steal in my opinion. I also encourage you to track down both of Dark Horse’s 2012 FCBD issues, which between them contain a short story about Dancy encountering a bridge troll. Her saga continues in the pages of “Dark Horse Presents” in a twelve-part tale entitled “Alabaster: Boxcar Tales,” also illustrated by Lieber and Rosenberg. The story began in “DHP” #18, so you’ll have to do a little catching up, but you should be purchasing “DHP” anyways, since it has one of the best story-pages-per-dollar ratios in comics today and is packed with some of the best creators and characters in comics today. The “Alabaster” team is no exception.