A heartless creature works to break up relationships in 70s New York, wendigos gore helpless victims, and an emotionally wounded woman watches a former lover wither. Any prospect of true love will drain away like a thirsty vampire bite to the carotid artery. Happy Valentine’s Day. As per usual, our review will contain spoilers.
Written by Alex de Campi, Sarah Horrocks, Magen Cubed
Illustrated by Sarah Horrocks, Magen Cubed, Katie Skelly
Critically acclaimed writer ALEX de CAMPI teams up with some of comics’ hottest artists to create tales of love gone wrong, right, and everywhere in between. ISSUE ONE: “OLD FLAMES” In New York City in 1978, there are thousands of ways for people to get together. There’s only one agency dedicated to tearing them apart: Heartbreak Incorporated. But who is the handsome seducer who runs the agency, and what is the secret he’s hiding? Drawn by KATIE SKELLY (My Pretty Vampire). Backup comics story by SARAH HORROCKS (Goro, The Leopard) and prose story by MAGEN CUBED (Crashers).
Image’s newest anthology series sets out to explore the many facets of love: how it goes right—and if the first issue is any indication—how it goes terribly wrong. The four-issue series is appropriately released in February—one for each week of the month. Each issue contains a primary comic (written by Alex de Campi), short backup comic, and a prose story. #1’s primary story, “Old Flames” tells the story of Heartbreak Incorporated—a business that commoditizes breakups by tearing relationships apart.
Our first introduction to 1978 New York City feels ripped out of the film noir handbook. All the tropes are in place: a female client with marital problems, a cynical and misanthropic investigator as the lead, and a confrontation with the femme fatale/lady in red. Despite the initial genre trappings, the story’s 70s setting, supernatural goings-on, and Skelly’s austere art make “Old Flames” feel distinctly original.
The story is ultimately about the eponymous old flames, Mischa and Elena—or is it Mackie and Esther? It’s told through Mischa’s perspective, the morally gray proprietor of Heartbreak Incorporated. Through his less-than-human lens, New York becomes a feeding ground of easy prey—but his actions pale in comparison to his fiery-haired counterpart. Later, Misha defines incubare and sucubare, revealing his bisexual nature, while strongly hinting at his and Esther’s true demonic natures as incubus and succubus. It’s not totally overt, and info is slowly parsed out to keep readers on their toes.
Katie Skelly’s hyper-simplistic art fits the story to a T. Its cute simplicity works to hide the story’s nefarious nature, its dark rotting core of parasitic relationships. It’s purposefully clumsy with skewed angles and lines that fail to achieve 180 degrees. But the imperfections add up to a Skelly’s inimitable aesthetic that truly gives “Old Flames” its appeal. Other techniques are used to imbue the story with 70s flavor. “Aaaaaaah” begins in the gutter at the end of one page leading us to the next page’s “freak out!” It’s a clever way of adopting cinema’s sound bridge technique for the comic medium. You can practically hear Chic’s Le Freak in your head as you view the disco: leopard print sofas, a disco ball’s light refracting geometric shapes in the air, and a roiling sea of dancers.
The color red plays a sinister role in the story’s proceedings. We’re first introduced to Misha Meserov smoking in his office, a canvas splashed with the color of dried blood behind him. The painting might as well be a blood spatter, foreshadowing his true nature. Red is also the color of Esther’s hair, the first thing we see of her as she commits a sexual act. And later when she claims two victims, they take on the same shade of red as the background. Red also envelops her face in the next panel as it encompasses everything save for a brown splotch of blood on her cheek and her yellow-irised eyes. The color even infects a black and white flashback scene in Berlin. It’s the color of corruption that these two beings share. Wherever Misha and Esther go, red will surely follow.
The other two offerings mostly feel like ways to extend the page count. The prose story, “Leather & Lace,” by Magen Cubed, recounts a vampiric romance amongst Wendigo gorings. The added prose story is appreciated, but it’s the weakest link wedged between two comics. “Red Medusa on the Road to Hell” by Sarah Horrocks is far more abstract and personal. It begins with a letter of deep pain and a twisted satisfaction that a former lover got what’s coming to him. Words balloons full of defiance and hatred set the pitch-black tone. The visuals are powerful, evocative, and psychedelic, but the quasi-experimental “Red Medusa” never quite adds up to a complete story.Continued below
“Whatever you think I am, I’m not. But whatever you want me to be? I can become it.” Like the incubus and succubus, we inevitably shift and change to attract and acclimate to our lovers. The danger lies in the degree—and the intention. Mischa and Esther serve as warnings to be vigilant of others’ shapeshifting nature. To them, romance is a mere deception, a means to lure human bait to suck dry. We can never truly know what lies under the skin. Predator and prey. Power and surrender. Choose your partner wisely lest you allow them to twist your romance to their own ends.
Final Verdict: 8.0 – An agency capitalizes on heartbreak in a 70s-style noir, the debut story of “Twisted Romance,” a mostly successful anthology that explores the parasitic nature of love.