writer: Keith Champagne
artists: Shawn Moll, Tom Nguyen
In the unforgiving desert sun, life still thrives. That is until a brightly smiling dandy appears, promising something "…very special." He leaves death in his wake, through methods left vague. But this is Death Valley; it's to be expected.
In Death Valley the graphic novel, however, it's to be avenged. At least, that's the motivation of some of the all-star Western team that gather. For some, death sparks the promise of gold. But as any good Western points out, what does the motivation matter when justice actually gets done?
Keith Champagne has smithed a great summer blockbuster – even if Westerns aren't quite in fashion. Who could resist this as a gang of real-life pulp characters join forces to face off against a ninja clan (and the mixed-race mastermind who serves as traitor to both cultures), all I 19th Century California?
Not that the locality plays too much into it – this is Death Valley after all, out in the middle of nowhere. But Champagne also throws in an underground slave operation (literally, underground), plenty of banter and much violence, both seen and unseen. Hello, ninjas!
It moves at a breakneck pace, with a first act cliffhanger that would have been startling if it had come out in a monthly form. Thankfully here you can riffle a few pages forward. From the concise opening to the assembling of the team to what's actually going on, it scarcely lets up.
That would be enough for some people, but there is also some subtlety at work here. Champagne gives as much attention as he can to character, and for most of the historical figures, he overcomes the mercy of what people think they know about them. Though he claims to have chosen Frank James over Jesse just to give him a little due, there's a very good thematic reason to use the lesser known of the brothers.
Many of the characters are people living on legends, or trying to live them down. That point gets made quickly in the first chapter, though it does turn out that reputations don't hold much weight when facing a group who simply doesn't know them. Then things get real.
I admit I'm a little let down by Doc Holliday here – but that's my own being a slave to the legend or rather, the movies. He's not nearly as fun a character in this version as he is in Tombstone, but Champagne's take on him must be much closer to the real thing. Only a few of his rogues seem comfortable with what people think of them.
As for the art, penciller Shawn Moll has a good sense of layout, playing with camera angles and for the most part playing up the action well. The inking makes a major shift.
Chapter One gets delineated by Tom Nguyen, who really makes Moll's work pop. It's sharp and detailed, but then as an inker Nguyen has a strong personality that's instantly recognizable. The rest of the book gets inked by Mariano, who is a lot softer in his line. It's still good, but it just isn't as distinct, losing some of the differences between characters' faces.
That's a small quibble on a book that delivers a satisfying combination of old West history, ninja action, sharp characterization and ninja action. Did I mention ninja action? It's cowboys versus ninjas, and really Death Valley is a heck of a lot tighter and truly more fun than it had to be. And that's pretty satisfying to say.