Joe Death & The Graven Image

By Benjamin SchipperThe character Joe Death rides towards the reader in a cold, desolate land.
Publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781506717074

Every once in a while I come across a book that genuinely excites me by daring to be different. With publishers increasingly playing it safe with what they put out, it’s a phenomenon that seems to happen less and less. I can recall delighting in the discovery of District 14 from Humanoids, the work of Joe Daly, and more recently Headlopper from Image. All of them have a style of their own that sets them apart from the crowd, but they also, somehow, manage to capture a sense of nostalgia in their art.

This is something that Benjamin Schipper has achieved, too. It tells a completely original story that mixes fantasy, western, and the wide-eyed rubber-hose animation of the 1930s.

There’s also an inescapable similarity with Mike Mignola, but the end result is something altogether of its own.

Following a mass killing, and the abduction of a mother and child, an eerie skeletal figure undertakes the task of righting the wrong. It’s a story of demons, witches, redemption and justice, and it plays out in a world oddly juxtaposed between cute and friendly cartoon faces and brooding, sinister danger.

The lead character himself is an oddity, arguably designed in the first place to resemble the grim reaper, but as the backstory fleshes him out, it reveals that there’s far more to him than that. And he’s no lone cowboy or lawman either. His constant companion, living in his chest cavity, is Bloo, a moth. The insects of this world live parallel lives to the larger creatures, complete with their own culture, despite the fact that we encounter several of them travelling with their giant-sized friends.

The second-level cuteness contrasts heavily with the demonic possessions and blood sacrifice, and perhaps in different hands it would jar too much to work, but Schipper pulls it off. And although he sets up situations, he’s in no hurry to explain the reasons why this mixed-up world operates in the way it does. It’s tantalising, audacious and smart, where the added mystery helps keep it captivating. 

Schipper’s cartooning, particularly when he goes wordless, is great visual storytelling, building the tension as it holds your gaze. I liked this a lot, and I really do hope he’s given every opportunity to expand upon the characters and scenarios he’s created here. We need more books as daring and entertaining as this.

And if you liked that: I highly recommend Headlopper as a recent, easy-to-find series of books, but if you’re really after something special, and can find a copy, the District 14 books from Humanoids are utterly fantastic.

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