story and art by Sam Kieth
Don't be taken in by the appearance of a certain Dark
Knight on the cover of Scratch. Though if it gets
you to buy the book, then it will have done its job. Batman's
presence in this story seems almost arbitrary, a way to
tie Scratch in to the proper DC Universe.
For now, though, except for Batman narrating, the story
stands alone, dark, disturbing and creepy. In fact, Batman's
role so far seems more akin to Cain in House of Mystery
than anything else.
Like a lot of Kieth's work, the plot machinations tend
to be arbitrary anyway. There's a method to the madness,
or perhaps the method is the madness. The artist works in
a palette drawn from his own dreamscape. No need for an
explanation as to why young "Zack" wolfs out; all that matters
is that he does.
What Kieth gives us for now is that the boy was born with
a deformed finger that sort of exploded with puberty. Now
he keeps it heavily bandaged, so that nobody can see that
it looks like some sort of twisted hairy claw. (With characteristic
Kieth proportion, it almost looks more like a furry tentacle
has replaced Zack's hand - just more effective "ick" factor.)
Even Zack's name is vague. Might he have a tie to an established
DC figure? There may be room for such a twist.
Oddly enough, Kieth even leaves an open question as to
whether or not Zack has parents. The first few pages, as
Zack discovers his new self, are set in a void. Heavy blacks
dominate the panels, blotting out any sign of personality
or other characters. Batman's narration offers that others
have been disturbed by Zack's finger, but we don't see it.
It's just Zack, his claw, and then, his rippling flesh.
Before anyone can be hurt by the full-bore transformation,
or can hurt Zack for it, the boy leaves, walking until his
feet become "…bloody stubs." Yes, the narration seems a
bit overblown and strangely homespun, another reason why
Batman appears out of place. The Dark Knight just doesn't
fit into a Southern Gothic, which is clearly what Kieth
is going for with this piece.
For Zack is a lone wolf among heroes, finding a brief idyll
in a rural cabin with a group of freaks. The modern Prometheus
radiation has affected some of the locals, and their misshapen
children have gathered together in isolation.
Of course, it can't last. And an actual plot involving
another monster rears its head. But this is mostly set up,
meant to lure us in, give us a vaguely unsettled feeling,
and then buy more issues.
As such, it works. Kieth's calculatedly loose artistic
style effectively keeps us on our toes. The close-minded
townspeople are almost as freakish as the children they
fear and persecute, and with a couple of panels, you have
to look twice to really tell who's supposed to be normal.
Even the deformed-since-birth Sage, guardian of the irradiated
children, gets a couple of panels where she looks almost
conventionally pretty by Kieth standards. Almost. But who's
to say what's ugly in his world? (I'll go out on a limb
and say that Scratch's nemesis in this issue does still
Scratch is not an easy work, as Kieth's stuff tends
not to be. He definitely works in his own realm, but those
who venture there will be rewarded by thought-provoking,
challenging art, though the writing often gets a little
loopy and hard to follow. The overall package transcends
its weaknesses, though.
Why must this young werewolf stalk the DC Universe? Because
you might not buy it otherwise.