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Driver is “Urban Fantasy at Its Best”

Review by Alan M. Rogers

Don’t worry.

There’s a good chance you don’t know what’s really going on around you. There’s a good chance you think the real monsters are thugs; the real villains are drug dealers or baby snatchers.Don’t worry.

There’s a good chance your mortal remains won’t be stolen, mutilated, dissected, sold for spare parts, used in dark rituals or used by the local necromancer.

That is, if your friends and relatives have his card.

Alabaster Graves. The driver for the dead.

Dramatic enough intro? I hope so, because Driver for the Dead by Radical Publishing is just that: dramatic. In the best possible ways. Writer John Heffernan takes his big screen experience (Snakes on a Plane, anyone?) and delivers supernatural suspense with a hollywood flourish.

The story opens in Shreveport, Louisana and immediately, the flavor of the old south, the Deep South is captured in every panel; you can almost smell the bourbon, the mesquite and the bayou. You can almost feel the heavy sunlight pouring out of the painfully bright sky.

The art here is typical of Radical; a sharp photorealism with intense attention to detail and amazing colors and it sets the mood perfectly. Driver for the Dead is one of the best examples I’ve seen of why art is such a big deal in comics. In a medium combining text and visuals, you have the unparalleled opportunity to have art reflect the story and help carry the story.

Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? It is. But when it’s done with this level of skill and precision, the story comes to life in ways that story or art alone can’t do and speaks of a very high level of collaboration.

The story opens with a man named Moses Freeman; he climbes out of a yellow cab outside a old southern manor house carrying an old doctor’s bag proclaiming him a healer. It’s worn and weathered and you can almost see the leather is seamed with cracks.

“I’ve been carrying this bag around with me for fifty years.”

He’s a well-dressed African-American who wears dignity like a suit. He walks up to the gate and– after finding a pair of crossed nails near the walkway- greets the couple living there.

He’s there to heal their son.

The sequence is as timeless as the South; impossible to place in a period. It’s the small things, like the way the couple dressed, the subtle bits of affection between them, the way their home is drawn, the way the light fades out the sharp lines, softening everything with a coating of pastel.

Moses walks in and takes control, easily figuring out the mystery that stymied doctors and priests before him.

This is a man of learning and of power; in the space of just a few pages, Heffernan takes the reader through a crash course in just who Moses Freeman and what he can do as he does mystic battle with the hoodoo curses left by a nanny fired for theft. Artist Leonardo Manco uses his experience on Hellblazer to good effect, making Moses’ battle against the demon possessing the boy into an epic struggle against altogether disturbing and reptilian adversary.

You’re gripped with the urgency of the battle; the sudden escalation, the sudden realization that he’s up against something more powerful and abhumanly evil than he knew. You’re positive he’s going to win.

You’re positive his power and knowledge – maybe even his faith – is greater than the otherworldly creature he’s fighting for.

But when all is said and done, Moses Freeman needs a bit of very specialized help – the help only Alabaster Graves can provide.

The art shifts as the story does, growing dark and gritty. The sun-drenched old south gives way to dusk shadows and urgency; panels flash by as we meet Alabaster Graves doing his grisly work, trying to keep a new vampire from rising.

He’s driving a hearse, the dead body in a coffin chained down in the back. But this hearse? This hearse is a black gothic roadster with a massive supercharger, great fins, awesome rims and enough gothic bling to make even the most demanding urban fantasy reader happy. Pentacles and symbols of power decorate the car and Graves is obviously the hard-edged, bad-to-the-bone Southern boy. He won’t be stopped. Won’t be cowed and won’t let anyone or anything get in his way.

Heffernan again shows his mastery of the form by using the scene to dual purpose. He introduces to Graves, his job, his personality and his skill while the artist team gives us a single glimpse of something very important that sets us up for the story to follow. I’m not ashamed to admit I missed it as just one more detail. I saw it. I noted it. But I didn’t grasp the importance of it.

Graves goes home to his silver-bullet airstream trailer, decorated – like his car- with esoteric arcana. As a man in his macabre profession should, he has a horrible dream. He goes in to work the next morning and we’re back to the sun drenched pastels.

A few revelations later, and Graves is reluctantly on his way across the sprawling South with Moses Freeman’s great-granddaughter along for the ride. A volatile combination of angry, smart and naive, Marissa Freeman doesn’t believe the stories about her great-grandfather. She believes he was a hero; a healer and herbalist who “helped poor black folks when the rich white doctors wouldn’t treat them.” The idea he was a witch doctor was just superstition.

Graves is convinced to let her ride along by that great equalizer – a big check. The ten-hour drive across the sprawling South starts with awkward conversation and beautiful dramatic irony. Disgusted by the lack of modern amenities in the tricked-out hearse (seatbelts, MP3 player jacks, stereos, etc.), Marissa, right beneath mystical symbols of protection, asks: “This thing got any safety features to bring my great-grandfather back in one piece?”

This entire book screams something a lof of urban fantasy comics don’t have: authenticity. It’s authentic South; old wives’ tales have real power, superstition is more than just superstition and all the tales of monsters [are] real. The racial tension, the combination of vintage and modern and the feeling of being there, in the deep South, where Reconstruction is still a bitter memory, drags the reader into the story.

John Heffernan has done his research. Being from Texas, I know the place he’s writing in and he writes it like he’s been there.

So has Graves.

The trip out to Shreveport isn’t uneventful. We’re taken through the South – a place out of time, living anachronism with old women churning butter turned sour, farmers with stillborn calves, water flowing upstream, where a witch’s familiar is still a black cat.

Graves faces down a witch – a real devil-worshipping, green-skinned, evil woman with folklore weaknesses and a history with the hero. He’s already killed her once… but she was ripped from the ground by a necromancer named Fallow.

The authenticity still rings through this story. Heffernan hasn’t just researched the South, he’s researched voodoo and the traditional signs and powers of a witch. And again, we see that clue – which, if you’ve paid attention, you know to look for.

Graves isn’t even worried. He takes her on with casual ease. He doesn’t waste his time or give her a chance to get him before he gets her.

Marissa [manages] to miss out on all the fun.

There’s a saying we take seriously down here in the South. “Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.”

The witch speaks Fallow’s name, and he appears. A couple of old Southern women are going to visit a blind man “God has gifted with the Sight” to get a little help at the casino. Only, Fallow has plans for the seer, too.

This guy is a villain. He’s not your sympathetic villain you can sorta root for. He’s not a good-looking, smooth-talking warlock who seduces his victims with slick promises. He’s a walking corpse wearing a black hat and a black coat.

Radical’s comics tend to push the envelope, taking plots and stories we know and breathing new life into them with dynamic art and writing using the comic medium to its fullest. They turn genre on its head (FVZA is a great example of this) and throw the idea that there is nothing new out the window.

Driver for the Dead is urban fantasy at its best. As a genre, urban fantasy is best when it has theme and flavor and mood – and this comic is permeated with it. Amazing imagery, deft storytelling and some really good writing make Driver for the Dead one of those comics discerning readers will talk about for years and new readers will be spoiled by.

Read Driver for the Dead and (re)discover why comics are still cutting-edge storytelling.

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