By Justin Wood
In the second chapter of Dark Horse's new collected trade of Alex Di Campi's supernatural series Semiautomagic, the heroine Alice Creed throws some semi-fourth wall shade on Neil Gaiman's classic series Sandman. It's a cheeky throw-away line; a "this ain't your daddy's supernatural horror adventure series" jab. Now, as a comic that clearly draws a lot of obvious influence from Gaiman's critically adored comic series, as well as its brothers and sisters like Hellblazer, the dig comes off more as an affectionate ribbing rather than taking legitimate potshots, but the moment stood out to me. While spiritually indebted to Vertigo's supernatural lines from the early 90's, Semiautomagic never brushes the feet of Gaiman's best remembered work. That said, having read dozens of original monster slaying adventure comics, silly name and all, Semiautomagic is the closest thing I've read that might deserve to take a few swings at Dream's exhaustingly praised legacy.
Collected from the pages of Dark Horse Presents, Semiautomagic concerns Alice Creed, a college professor who like Indiana Jones somehow manages to maintain an academic position while traveling the world getting tangled in adventures. Unlike Indy, however, Alice is a tortured, anxiety plagued sorceress, haunted by tragedy, her personal weaknesses, and an awareness of the accumulating debt that interacting with the world of magic has racked up (smell the Constantine yet?). The two chapters contained, technically two stories, are linked as a single ongoing narrative, making the volume both a strong beginning-to-end story in itself as well as a promise of further odysseys.
According to the copy on the back of the trade, author Alex Di Campi is most notable for Archie Vs. Predator. I enjoyed Archie Vs. Predator, but from a writing standpoint the best I could really say about it was it was creatively mean spirited. Coming from that, you really wouldn't imagine what Di Campi is capable of in Semiautomagic. This is one trippy feel bad book, giving us a new anti-heroine who is wily and powerful but at the same time deeply flawed and constantly on the edge of losing more than she can afford to. The stories move at a manic clip, never planting its feet to deliver exposition, instead cleverly defining backstory though details slipped into the story itself, letting the reader fill in the blanks on their own. Immediately, it gives you the feeling of a fully functional fictional universe without having to play catch-up, one that is familiar enough but blossoming horrifically and unexpectedly into madness. This isn't a fun book to read. It's a bundle of anxiety and ugly, with a heroine who you genuinely aren't sure if you are supposed to like or just pity. A lot of books try to do weird but most get there via the Grant Morrison free-association method, hoping to destabilize the reader every word bubble will result in art (see everything we've gotten from Young Animal thus far for that technique). With Semiautomagic, Di Campi aims instead for comprehensibility but with insane elements. The book is surreal and dreamlike, but not as far as other books like Nameless that tested the very limits of readability, firmly plot driven but inspired by dark, mad impulses.
Another surprise comes from artist Jerry Ordway, now firmly a classical artist with decades of comics career under his belt. A man most well known for illustrating Superman comics in the 80's isn't the first you'd think attaching to a book that has people wearing crowns made out of human fingers, but damn if the man didn't kick my expectation's ass. Semiautomagic is stunning looking, drawn with a recognizably older style of mannered realistic illustration but suddenly bursting out into grotesque awe-inspiring displays of woozy weird. It utterly fits the book, both recalling the 90's comics the book pulls a lot of inspiration from but also giving the whole thing a pop Lovecraft vibe, strangely pulling off both the broader aspects of the book and the night-sweats dark heart, making it something distinctly its own. I need more of this.
Only a few hours into October when I write this, and I've already been weirdly blessed with not just two of the best books I've read this year, but two of the best horror books I've read in a while. While Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love took care of the Old Dark House side of the Halloween spirit, Semiautomagic takes the more grand nightmare side of things. Halloween comics are usually not this good to me, and I am more than grateful to have something legitimately creative and eerie to read again in the 31 day lead up to Halloween. Read this. Get it on paper, so you can flip through Ordway's art from time to time. Di Campi might be walking some familiar ground, but Semiautomatic makes a damn good case for the revisit.
Writer: Alex de Campi
Artist: Jerry Ordway
Colorist: Marissa Louise
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics