I didn't know anything about 'Love Stories to Die For' when I agreed to review it. It was on a great big list of weekly titles to review, most of which were issue numbered in the tens, twenties, and thirties. This comic with the unusual name had a nice safe number one on it, so I added it to my review stack. On the other side of this issue I almost feel I know less about the book having read it. Like Jeff Lemire's 'Trillium' the comic is a flip-book comic, containing two stories each printed on the reverse side of the other story, both written by Dirk Manning. Unlike 'Trillium', the two stories are unrelated, one dealing with medieval barbarians that trade their violent services to a monastery beset by vampire/zombies, the other about a brutish soldier fighting to reach his wife on a space station infested by monsters, unaware that she's been unfaithful and expects him to die before she escapes with her lover.
The press release that announced the comic described it as “tales [that] explore the intersection of love and life, death and hope, and what happens when a person is forced to choose between one or the other” but I, as well as well as most readers I'd imagine, didn't have this description to go on and immediately found the title somewhat bewildering. The first story I read was “Bloodlust: Deceiver of the Gods”, where a unit of vikings stop at a monastery on their travels, taking food and a place to sleep in exchange for fighting a gang of vampirelike creatures that have the monks under siege. While a vague association with 'love' appears near the end of the story most of the tale is taken up by violent combat and the Vikings learning the rules of fighting this particular variety of monster. Since I was unaware that the book was a pair of short stories the abrupt ending of the story confused me, seeming to be the first part of a longer story rather than the sum of it's parts. The art for the section was serviceable, with clean lines by Rich Bonk.
The second story, “A Symptom of the Universe” is set in the distant future, as a pair of lovers are about to escape a space station that has been attacked by an alien force of mysterious intention. However the woman delays them, as her husband, a huge battlescarred warrior, is one of the last survivors and is heading to their location. She doesn't do it so that he can be rescued, as she doesn't love him and expects him to die on the station, but rather sees it as a gesture of respect to wait until he is finished off before leaving. While still banked with many of the questions that plagued the first part, I had to double check to see if the writer was the same for both stories, as the second features a writing style notably different from the first, down to the language and composition. The art is far stronger in the second half, completely accomplished by artist Owen Geini, who has animation influenced lines with a muted painterly color style perfect for the 'Heavy Metal' tone of the story. While engaging to the eye and somewhat better written, it becomes hard to see what the intention of the plot was as it is loaded with unlikeable characters and fails to lend the emotional weight required for a heavy hopeless tone. While action oriented there at least seems to be the parts of a love story, and if handled better could have come across as a bleak romance, but the story lacks one unified theory of what it is trying to do and ended up leaving me with the most troubling question of all: why?
I found myself having to use the press release as a guide to the motivations of this book. The first story was intended to be about 'honor' and 'justice', but while both of those words are spoken a lot in dialogue and is the main motivation of the lead character Skullsplitter I never found the kernel of the story that made it 'about' honor, and certainly nothing that suggested it said anything about love. The second story is built on a premise of twisted love, a quite good one at that, but ends up feeling like a surface feature of the story, with an ending that relies on a more nuanced and capable approach to creating connections with characters. So why the strange oddly-compelling title, promising love stories with a twist? Is there really to be a second issue with the same format? My confusion extended all of the way to the covers, lacking explanatory cover copy to give an idea of what the book contains and featuring vague dramatic images. While I find myself feeling a little guilty being so completely critical of an indie project, especially one that sought to be more ambitious than yet another thinly veiled Batman/Punisher clone, this is a book that leaves me thoroughly perplexed.
Writer: Dirk Manning Artists: Rick Bonk and Sean Burres Publisher: Shadowline and Image Comics Price: $4.99 Release Date: 9/4/13