Before I review Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, The Bird #1 (it's a mouthful), I need to make a brief confession. Prior to reading this issue, I had never interacted with the character of Dancy Flammarion (another mouthful) in either of her two Dark Horse mini-series. Some comics can be started from a new arc without losing anything while other require a deep understanding of the previous events. I frankly can't say for sure which is the case for Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, The Bird, but I will say it could really use a snappier title. I certainly felt lost in places while in others it felt like a coherent introduction to the book's world. Either way I enjoyed the comic enough to want to see where it goes, but if you are already a fan of Caitlin R. Kiernan's lesbian albino monster hunter, you likely won't find this review particularly useful. As the book opens, a brief recap informs us that our hero, the aforementioned Dancy, has been killed and sent to a barren, lonely hellscape (presumably Hell but we are never told outright). Dancy wanders a white void, musing on her predicament and also the nature of her damnation. Meanwhile three psychopathic killers meet at an abandoned truck stop to discuss the late Ms. Flammarion while alluding to their other nefarious machinations. This is all the plot that is present in Alabaster #1. That said, a brief online search informs me that Dancy is a monster hunter guided by a four-headed angel, and late in the issue we are shown through flashback the circumstances of Dancy's death. All this is helpful but makes new readers like myself both curious and confused.
On the plus side, this confusion is not hugely detrimental to enjoying Alabaster. Kiernan's sharp narration gives the book a somber, mythical tone that makes even the most inexplicable scenes feel like part of a larger world. The specificity of Kiernan's take on religious fantasy is immediately gripping as well as a little mystifying. Hell is a blank white expanse of mazes, the walls of which can only ever be momentarily glimpsed. The angel is a monstrous, polycephalic being, with a flaming sword (I use the word 'polycephalic' in hopes of approximating the confusion a new reader may feel reading Alabaster). In fact the tone of the book is its best quality with a horror atmosphere that is both surreal and subtly disturbing.
Sadly, the book's art by Daniel Warren Johnson is often at odds with the tone of the writing, creating a somewhat cartoonish, brightly colored world. The art is technically well-made, with clean thick lines and striking designs, but the style clashes with the messier, noir aspects of the story. Further, the character designs are cartoonish with a particularly inconsistent bunch of facials design (as many panels have the characters looking awkwardly rushed as not). Adding a final problematic touch, the coloring uses a limited, brightly colored palate that does not fit at all with the noir nature of the story.
One major exception, where the art and script play off each other well, is the depiction of Hell itself. Johnson cleverly renders the main character as a black silhouette with a night sky pattern against a pure white background emphasizing Dancy's extreme isolation. As the main character wanders the void, her body language perfectly shows her mental state while within her outline the swirling mass of stars constantly reminds us of the supernatural nature of her predicament. These sequences are beautiful and unique, demonstrating the potential Alabaster has to be a wonderful piece of original fantasy fiction. Sadly, the rest of the book is not quite there yet. Even so, I am very excited to see where it goes.
Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, The Bird #1 Author: Caitlin R. Kiernan Artist: Daniel Warren Johnson Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $3.99 Release Date: 12/2/15 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital