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Scratch #1
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 qualify.)

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.


Derek McCaw

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