The Small Press Spotlight on Abstract Studios continues with a focused look on Terry Moore’s current series, “Rachel Rising.” This is a book that impressed Multiversity staff when it began, and one that continues to have a special place on our pull lists. Unfortunately, it’s also a book whose sales have hovered just above the limit of sustainability. The grass roots push to #SaveRachelRising over the course of 2014 stopped the sales drop, but didn’t result in a sales rise. If you’re not reading “Rachel Rising” yet, hopefully this in-depth review of the series so far will convince you to pick up the first trade. If you’re already a fan, read on and enjoy some of the behind-the-scenes details.
The origin of “Rachel Rising” is much older than the book itself. Back in 2002, Moore was hired to write “Birds of Prey” for DC in addition to his regular “Strangers in Paradise” work. While working on the title, he had an idea for a new character – a dead girl who would torment Batman. His run only lasted three issues (47-49), and he didn’t get the chance to use her. Instead of fading away, the idea stuck with Moore and grew into something larger. Nine years later, the dead girl finally made it to the printed page in “Rachel Rising” #1.
The book’s plot is difficult to summarize succinctly. When asked how he peddles “Rachel Rising” to new readers, Moore replied “ ‘Read this, you filthy bastard!’ Surprisingly, I’ve never sold a book with my pitch.” He then goes on to admit he struggles to describe his own work because the same outlook that lets him write deep, thoughtful stories also prevents him from explaining them to strangers in less than an hour.
Once you’ve read the book, that’s an easy problem to understand. The plot starts off simple enough – Rachel Beck wakes up in a shallow grave after being strangled, looking and feeling mostly dead. Once she accepts her condition, she sets off to find out who murdered her. It gets complicated quickly when she’s forced to temporarily drop that search and focus on the cause of her resurrection. Throw in witches, demons, and creepy little girls, and the murder mystery becomes overshadowed by some very down-to-Earth supernatural aspects.
As complex as that may sound, the surprising thing is how simple it is when you read it. Even with the wait between issues being a little longer than average (six weeks instead of a month), it’s easy to jump back into the story without re-reading the previous issue and follow along. This is somewhat surprising because “Rachel Rising” doesn’t come with re-cap pages or have constant exposition to remind you of prior events. The only time characters remind Rachel she’s dead, for example, is when she needs it, not you. And she doesn’t need it on the first page of every new issue.
A major factor in the story’s ability to stick with you between issues is the nature of the interplay between characters and dialogue. Reviewers sometimes describe comic dialogue as ‘natural sounding,’ but that’s often a euphemism for ‘it doesn’t sound forced.’ There’s a broad spectrum in dialogue quality, and “Rachel Rising” falls much closer to the realistic-conversation end than most. Characters make off-hand comments and jokes that do nothing to move along any kind of development, which happens to be what real conversations are like. Seriously, when was the last time you talked to a friend and everything the two of you said related only to one topic, and moved that topic toward a conclusion? Concisely told stories where every element serves a purpose can be very good, even great when you don’t realize it the first time you read it. “Rachel Rising” is not that kind of story. The characters who populate “Rachel Rising” are treated like real people, leaving you with the impression that when someone in the background walks off the page, they keep right on walking because they have a life they’re living, even if it’s not the one you’re paying attention to at the moment. Characters with this kind of depth stick with you long after you put the book down, whether you actively think about it or not. When you pick up the next issue six weeks later, you don’t need any kind of story-so-far summary because you’ll remember it.Continued below
Part of what makes “Rachel Rising” (and “Strangers in Paradise”, and “Echo”) such a compelling read is the same thing gives an upper-hand to all single-creator comics: The writing and the drawing processes occur simultaneously. Obviously there are still quality comics made by teams, but regardless of the method used by those teams, the work is always done one step at a time; it’s either being written or drawn. Any feedback or adjustment is limited both temporally and in scope. If an artist is having trouble making a scene work, she may be allowed to play with the pacing and panel setups, but she probably won’t be comfortable telling the writer the scene needs to be rewritten or dropped entirely. Especially when a deadline’s involved.
Moore’s normal process for making his comics starts by deciding how far an issue will advance the overall plot, with consideration for both the single installment and its position in the collection. Unless he’s unsure of a scene, he’s comfortable sitting down with just an idea and working it out as he draws. If he is unsure, he’ll write out a final draft with finished dialogue before starting the art. Both styles have strengths and weaknesses, so he’ll use both (and others) to challenge himself to come up with something new.
One way he’s made “Rachel Rising” new, at least compared to his previous work, is the setting. “SiP” was mostly set in a populated area with lots of buildings and houses. “Echo” was set mostly in a desert. “Rachel Rising” takes place in a very rural town, surrounded by woods that are frequently visited. The indoor scenes and the characters are all done in the typical Moore style readers have enjoyed for decades, but it’s the forested landscapes where the art really shines. The attention to texture is especially remarkable, providing the images with a depth most modern pencilers can’t manage without digital colors.
But what are landscapes without weather? As nice as the forest looks with leaves and sunshine, Moore makes it look even better in winter. His ability to draw snow is something that has caught the attention of more than one person. This, again, all comes down to texture. You may not think of snow having a texture because once it gets deep enough, it’s just featureless white, right? Well, “Rachel Rising” will change your mind on that, because you can almost hear an audible crunch when people are leaving footprints on their way to wherever they’re going. According to Moore, he achieves this effect pretty simply: “I always liked the snow in “Peanuts” strips, so I ape that, over and over and over…”
If you aren’t reading “Rachel Rising”, you’ll need to start at the beginning – this isn’t a good book to start reading mid-stream. Physical copies of early issues will be tough to come by, but fortunately there are other ways to get started. Digital copies are available and affordable, and paperback collections can be ordered through Diamond if your local shop doesn’t have them in stock. Of course, you can always buy them straight from the source, too. Hard cover collections won’t be available until after the series concludes. As you read at the top of this article, sales have been hovering close to the cancellation threshold for over a year now. If you put “Rachel Rising” off for the hard covers, you may find yourself getting the shorter story you deserve, not the full story Moore wants you to have.