Thursday, January 06, 2022

Wild's End, Vol. 1: First Light by Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard

Sometimes a high concept can be unfairly dismissive. I could describe Wild's End as a "X meets Y" story - I will, later - but that would minimize it, and make it sound vastly more derivative than it really is.

(On the other hand, this is a book from 2015, so it's entirely possible everyone reading this already has a good idea what X and Y are. And the cover gives some really strong hints, too. But I'll go with it for now.)

There have been other Wild's End stories since this; I don't know if the series is final, or if more will be coming. But this one was the beginning, and it stands by itself: it does have a "and what's next?" ending, but a lot of stories that never get sequels have endings like that, too.

So there was a miniseries, called just Wild's End I think. The collection got named Wild's End, Vol. 1: First Light slightly later, once there was a glimmer of a Vol. 2 in the works. This story was written by the British novelist and comics writer Dan Abnett, with art by I.N.J. Culbard, who I know best for his Lovecraft adaptations. (See my post on The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.)

And what's it about?

There's a small English village - Lower Crowchurch, somewhere unspecified but far from metropolises, next to a river. It's somewhere in the early 20th century, between the wars. The Great War is still relatively recent, so I'd think more '20s than '30s, but somewhere in that era. Clive Slipaway, a former Navy man, has recently moved to that village, perhaps as retirement, and is invited to help with planning for the annual fete.

During the meeting to plan the fete committee, another man breaks in: Fawkes, a local ne'er-do-well. He has a tale of a horrible event he witnessed the night before, something that crash-landed in a field and killed his friend Bodie. The villagers dismiss it as drunken ramblings; Slipaway finds something more compelling in it.

Fawkes and Slipaway and a few others go to investigate. And they find that Fawkes was absolutely right: a "star" did land, something did emerge, and it's killing people. Something mechanical-looking, on tentacle-like cables.

Did I mention all of the characters are anthropomorphic? You can probably figure that out from the cover.

So the high concept here is "Wind in the Willows meets War of the Worlds," more or less - there's very little of Wind in the specifics of the characters, but that's how Hollywood would log-line it. Something has landed from space in the middle of a supposedly-bucolic setting, and a mixed group of locals, more or less led by Slipaway, has to stop it before it kills all of Lower Crowchurch.

Abnett walks the reader into the premise slowly: we see his characters from the beginning, as we always must in comics, but we've seen anthropomorphics a million times before, and Culbard makes them real individual people with their own body language and gesture. When they reveal the machines for the first time - should I call them Martians? no one does in this book - it's not a surprise, but a confirmation. Even without the cover, even without reading any description, we knew it would be something like that: we knew almost exactly.

There's a lot of depth and nuance here: more than you might expect in a book about fox- and dog-headed men fighting alien machines. These are all real people in a real world, one that is very similar to our own from the era, and their problems - aside from the murderous machines - are real problems, and their ways of thinking and reactions are not action-movie moments but realistic and often unfortunate.

I'd had this book on my "find and read it" list for years; I waited far too long. If you haven't read it, add it to your list as well: it's worth it. And now I'm off to see if the next story is available the same way I read this one.

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