Saturday, July 17, 2004

Ruse #2

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By Mark Waid, Butch Guice, Mike Perkins, and Laura DePuy
Published by CrossGen Comics

Super-sleuth Sean Archard disappears as the Powers That Be in London turn against him and his mysterious partner in the second installment of CrossGen's new series, Ruse.

At the end of last issue, Emma Bishop used her magic to freeze time in order to save Sean Archard once again. This time Emma and Archard found themselves trapped on a docked ship they had boarded--right before it caught on fire--while investigating a mysterious death involving narcotics being transported through the innards of dead fish. Instead of saving Archard, Emma succeeds in attracting the attention of Miranda Cross; a foreign dignitary who posesses magic powers of her own and who has apparently taken a special interest in the enigmatic Sean Archard. Emma and Sean manage to escape Miranda's clutches (supposedly, without Archard being made aware of her threat) as well as the ship itself. Shortly afterwards, Sean Archard disappears altogether, while Emma finds that Sean's name has become synonymous with mud among the wealthy and powerful elite of London who had counted themselves as friends and allies only the day before.

What makes Ruse work so well is Mark Waid's attention to the characters. By the very nature of the series setting--a turn-of-the-century London with a classic Holmesian atmosphere where sorceresses wage secret wars and gargoyles circle the skies like vultures--it would be very easy for the story to devolve into an incoherent and contrived mixing of genres where the drama would hinge on nothing more than the contrast of setting. Waid avoids this pitfall by keeping the story character-driven rather than milking the more fantastical elements.

Sean Archard is not only an enigmatic and eccentric character, but one of the more colorful and enjoyable protagonists to grace the pages of comicdom in recent memory. While thoughtful and stoic, Archard still has a very real warmth about him that makes him tough not to like. "Emma, why are you smiling? We've discussed smiling," Archard tells Emma after they escape from the fiery ship.

While I call Archard "the protagonist," it's not that simple. Who is the real main character of this story; Sean Archard or Emma Bishop? Archard may be the super-sleuth who dives head-first into danger, but we see most of this through Emma's eyes. She narrates the story and, as far as the more magical aspects of the story are concerned, she's holding all the cards. I'm not suggesting that this ambiguity makes the series any less intriguing; quite the opposite, in fact. Sometimes, it's almost as if you are not reading the story of Sean Archard and Emma Bishop, but rather reading the story of Emma Bishop who is, in turn, reading the story of Sean Archard. At times, Emma's "time-freezing" doesn't seem to be much more than punching the pause button on a VCR.

As far as the progression of the story is concerned, Waid shows us just enough to keep the intrigue alive. We learn nothing more about Emma's mystical origins, nor why such a being has decided to dedicate herself to the exploits of a London detective, but it doesn't seem to matter. We know she's magical, we know she's kept this a secret from Archard (or so she thinks), and that's all we need to know for now. We learn that the seductive Miranda Cross is the villain we thought she was, but more important than any of this issue's other developments is Archard's disappearance. By the end of the issue it becomes clear that, for reasons only the sleuth himself knows, Archard has uncovered something which makes him feel it is important to take matters into his own hands. This could mean a good deal of change in the chemistry between Emma and Sean, considering the question of whether or not his plans have anything to do with discovering Emma's secret abilities. It also makes things interesting because he has now (unintentionally?) freed himself from his magical safety net.

Butch Guice's pencils are beautiful, especially in terms of depicting even the slightest nuance of the characters's facial expressions and the meaning behind them, but I have one minor art complaint.

There seems to be a healthy degree of sexual tension between Emma and Sean. This certainly makes sense considering the idea of a handsome Englishman and his shapely, blonde assistant working together for so long in matters concerning life and death. I would just like to see this handled a bit more subtly. In certain scenes, especially right after Sean and Emma escape the burning ship, their physical language makes it appear that they're about two minutes away from hopping into bed already.

I'd also like to point out something which may seem minor, but to me speaks volumes about the creative team's dedication to the readers. The addition of "The Penny Arcadian" on the inside cover of the book is really a treat. CrossGen provides such a synopsis on the inside cover of all of their titles, but this particular way of handling it is great. Not only is it a testament to the team's intent to keep new readers involved in the story, but it's a unique way of informing while at the same time preserving the feel of the story's setting.

If you like intrigue and mystery the way it should be written, and don't mind the occasional witches brew nor the aforementioned circling gargoyles, pick up a copy of Ruse #2. So far, this is the best series coming out of CrossGen I've come across and as long as Waid and company keep up this kind of work, I'll be saying that for a long time to come.

--Mick Martin

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