Well, this is it: the triumphant return of Ten Grand, a series that unfortunately fell victim to a creative setback after its artist, the immeasurably talented Ben Templesmith, suffered a personal crisis that mysteriously and quite suddenly pushed him out of contact with Straczynski and Image, without anything in the way of warning. Regular readers and fans of this series, like myself, were obviously concerned, first of course for the health (both physical and mental) of Templesmith, which was in question for a short time, as well as the longevity of the book, which quickly set itself apart from just being a Hellraiser clone.
Replacing Templesmith with C.P. Smith, the team moved along (impressively quickly, all things considered) in a bid to cover lost ground, and this is their inaugural flight together. However, much like what is mirrored in the story of this anticipated fifth issue, would that unfortunate turn of events lead Ten Grand to creative heaven, hell or stuck somewhere, inescapably, in-between?
I’m honestly not sure how much this particular issue was catered around the real life events surrounding the book (Straczynski’s postscript would seem to indicate that it wasn’t), but you really couldn’t have planned it any better. As I alluded to before, the entirety of this issue is set in what is, in layman’s terms, usually referred to as “limbo,” a state in which the title itself has been languishing for some months now.
Trapped in this world-between-worlds after a turn of events last time, main character and paranormal P.I. Joe Fitzgerald is left to find out why Heaven (via his angelic mediator) left him high-and-dry in his investigation into the events surrounding the resurgence of a dangerous figure and his cult, in this case taking it upon himself to explore the afterlife for answers.
What he finds in “purgatory,” however is really just a graveyard of buried questions, taking a path that sees him set-upon by lost souls seeking freedom, hungry beings known as “Howlers” seeking a snack, a life-jacket-wearing Charon (morbid ferryman of the river between fates) seeking thrills, angry dead enemies seeking vengeance and an encounter with (and possible loss of) his own identity, which sees Joe simply seeking a way out.
The story itself is well-written and introspective, continuing a direction that has seen this title establish its own voice that is at once snide, morose and frankly pissed-off. In that, this is a great - and somewhat unexpected - continuation for Ten Grand, which could have easily rested on its laurels collecting a fan base dedicated to the tried and true urban-meets-supernatural dynamic.
This is dark humor set within a “Divine Comedy” dynamic, and it plays on those feels surrounding the disenfranchisement of belief and loss well, using a quippy yet relaxed tone as it does. But would C.P. Smith’s normally grizzled art be able to follow suit, or is this walk between planes just too jarring a change?
This is a strange departure from Smith’s usual style, which would have been a more than worthy replacement for the unexpected and odd departure of Templesmith from the book. Either out of expedience or simply to keep in-line with what came before him, he went for something stylized: a paper cut-out look that echoes Templesmith in its cleaner, more defined approach.
In a way, this new direction works for me. I personally think it does a nice job, not ironically (given the story, which of course takes place in Purgatory), by acting as a visual bridge from the first part of Ten Grand and what it might become. However, it’s also pretty clear that Smith is playing it safe here and is burdened by the constraints of a pressing deadline, making it feel a bit like a Bruce Timm version of Templesmith, at the same time incorporating a heavy use of background collage and multi-media elements that together make it feel somewhat rushed.
On the other hand, this vastly different direction definitely shows his range, but it may come at the expense of fans of his previous, more realistic and well-textured work. It’s almost like he’s following the Templesmith template using shadow puppets, with some panels that simply look far too furious, and not in the measured chaos that Templesmith brought to the table. It will be very interesting to see if he settles back into his own style with more time to prepare as this story eventually canters out of the afterlife, but at this point, only time will tell if Smith can separate from the temple built before him by the previous artist.
I also take issue with an ill-advised visual choice early on in the issue, which sees afterlife Iranians (who are lumped together with Iraqis for some reason) and Japanese (who are similarly compared to Chinese), who Smith presents as culturally-indistinguishable racial cliches. Now, this could simply be a representation of how main character Joe sees them in his mind’s eye, but given his experience in dealing with demonology from a variety of different cultures and his apparently vast knowledge of the different religious lexicons for purgatory, it isn’t exactly in-keeping with his character to make such generalizations, despite how “meat and potatoes” he comes across. It’s a small point, perhaps, but for me, a slightly damning one.
Still, I have to give Ten Grand #5 high marks for rolling with the punches and doing an admirable job in pressing its advantage. As this is a transitional story, I’ll be withholding the majority of my judgement while Smith finds his footing in what I think is a deftly-penned story by Straczynski. In short, I’ll be spending more time with Ten Grand, and will hope - for now - that this gamble after an unfortunately-dealt hand pays out.
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski Artist: C.P. Smith Publisher: Image Comics and Joe’s Comics Price: $2.99 Release Date: 11/6/13