Devoid of Life

I wouldn't normally want to give too much away about the big bad in a horror story, but in case of the new Image graphic novel Devoid of Life, the nature of the terrifying aliens is explained in the back cover blurb, and they are depicted in all of their shambling glory on the front. The Xenos hail from an unknown planet in our solar system, which remains outside of human knowledge because they hunt down and kill anyone who discovers the secret of its existence. These hideous creatures mean business: if they cannot contain the threat, they will jump straight to genocide. The opening pages, set 5,000 years in the past, depict the end of the Martian civilization after they discover the Xenos homeworld.

The heroine of our tale is Rochelle Bonner, who is police chief of a small American town called Andini. While Rochelle seems to have the responsibilities of her job well in hand, privately she is plagued by extreme anxiety linked to a fuzzy half-remembered incident from her childhood. Her troublesome past is affecting her marriage, to the point where her husband Garrett has decided they need some time apart. In other words, her world is already falling apart even before the really strange stuff starts happening.

Rochelle's work day starts out with a trip to a local farm where an entire cornfield has simply disappeared overnight. On her way back through town, she suffers through an extensive waking dream in which she is trapped in a creepy deserted building which is somehow reminiscent of her hazy past trauma. Her worst day ever culminates in the discovery of a massacre at the Andini Observatory. And who happens to be the now late designer of the new telescope which had unfortunately noticed the Xenos homeworld? Garrett's brother, Victor.

Writer/Artist Raffaele Ienco's greatest strength is his artwork, which is amazingly assured and effective considering this is only his second published work. He is equally adept at depicting people having a quiet conversation or twisted in a rictus of death; cars and buildings believably coexsist with gruesome monsters and walking corpses. Ienco clearly has a great awareness of and love for the elements of effective horror. The imagery throughout this graphic novel is genuinely creepy and thrilling. If a J-horror director were to film a Lovecraftian mythos story, it would look something like this.

But then there's the ending. I'd like to think I'm not a total dummy, but I'm having a hell of a time connecting all the dots when it comes to this book's final act. For starters, the climax hinges on one of the characters having possession of-- well let's just say it's not something you can pick up at the local five-and-dime. And while it's to be expected that Rochelle's mystery past will tie into the current crisis somehow, the specifics cause logical knots of Donnie Darko proportions. Where did that opportune pack of wolves come from? What's with all the helicopters? If I didn't know better, I would almost think there were pages missing somewhere along the way.

I would love for someone to option Devoid of Life, because it would make one scary-ass movie. As it stands, I would rate this book a 7.5, but if someone could explain to me what the heck was going on towards the end, that rating could easily go up or down. In any case, Raffaele Ienco is a talent and I intend to keep an eye out for his future work.

UPDATE 10/24/08: Well, my tongue was in cheek when I talked about having the ending explained to me, but Raffaele Ienco himself contacted me to patiently explain what I was missing. Lest anyone think the book is too complicated, let me assure you that it all pulls together quite nicely, as long as you understand that prolonged proximity to the Xenos has made White super super smart, like Brainiac 5-level smart.

Raffaele gave me permission to reprint his email, but I think it gives away too many spoilers. In classic "give em an inch and they'll take a mile" style, I briefly considered trying to convince Raffaele to grant me a short interview, but I decided not to pester him because let's face it, how many readers can this blog possibly have? Besides, I came across a pretty good interview at Comic Book Resources that answers most of the questions I would have asked anyway.

Anyway, I hearby bump up my rating to an even 8. Devoid of Life is good scary fun, everyone go out and buy 5 copies!

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