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Rex Mundi: Guardian of the Temple

Through some very odd literary coincidence, my pleasure reading and my school reading have always collided in some way. The comics and novels I read almost always relate to something I happen to be studying in college. When taking a Mystic Writers survey, I started reading Alan Moore's Promethea; when taking Post-Civil War history I was reading Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South (an alternate history book where the Confederates had AK-47s). Intermediate French? I was reading Metabarons, followed by The Incal. You could probably guess my course load based solely on what I pick up at Borders or my local comic shop every Wednesday.

So I was not unduly surprised when I cracked open the first volume of Rex Mundi, and found that all those little history tidbits, fallen from my Global History of the 20th Century textbook and into my brain, suddenly applied to something other than a multiple choice test.

Rex Mundi is a true mystery comic with undertones of horror and fantasy, set in a world faintly different from our own. In France of 1933, the Catholic Church still holds power over the citizenry and the monarchy of France continues to rule as the French Revolution was put down after the aristocracy consolidated its forces and crushed the rebellion. Magic is real but seen as a path to the devil and only the Sorcerer's Guild can practice it without recrimination and without church sanction. The Holy Roman Empire sits where once the Austrian-Hungarian Empire occupied, and the United States is separated into the National Republic of America and the Confederate States of America.

In this familiar yet wrong world, Dr. Julien Sauniere is asked by his friend Father Marin to investigate the theft of a medieval scroll stolen from a secret crypt in a Parisian church. Marin asks only out of desperation, as no one outside of the highest echelon of the Catholic Church is supposed to know of the scrolls' existence, and Sauniere obliges his friend. What he finds is a series of grisly murders with ritualistic elements, what could possibly be a conspiracy against the monarch Louis XXII, and an ancient secret society all somehow connected to the missing scroll.

There are two story elements that are simply spectacular, the first being the excellent world-building that writer (and apparently letterer and layout artist) Arvid Nelson pulls off. Alternate histories are hard to write, as they require in-depth research so as to appear plausible. It's much easier to simply create a world for your characters to inhabit, a trick CrossGen figured out long ago in their comic line, than it is to use your knowledge of history to craft a truly believable alternate reality.

Nelson does it in spades; so much so that he doesn't need to explain it at any great length to the reader. The reader naturally picks it up as the story moves along. The Inquisition, the Catholic police force, seamlessly replaces a conventional law enforcement agency, as they investigate crime scenes and question suspects, despite the fact that they walk around in metal face masks and wear armor underneath brown robes. The aristocratic government divided into the Hall of Robes and the Hall of Swords is a nice touch and one can see Nelson's eye for political structure, creating these branches under the king, yet at times, in opposition to him. Nelson sets up the economic structure of his created world also, in the creation of the various guilds: the Guild of Illuminists, the Guild of Physicians, the Guild of Railway Workers, etc. It's such a common sense idea to place these institutions in the script, as it echoes the real history of the beginnings of labor unions and collective bargaining in both America and Europe, yet Nelson manages to make it his own plot device that will tie later to the over all mystery of the piece.

Helping to explain the various cultural aspects of Nelson's alternate reality are the chapter breaks in the graphic novel. Between each chapter is a fake newspaper front-page from Le Journal de la Liberte, as well as a back-up piece that pertains to the happenings of the plot. It provides the reader with the history and current events of the world the comic is set in while still providing clues to the over-arching design Nelson has in mind. Especially interesting is Nelson's explanation of how and why magic works in this world.

The second story element is the depth of the mystery involved with this lost scroll. Mystery is becoming more and more common in comics today, but too often the so-called mysteries are so full of red herrings as to be annoying, or too simplistic to challenge the reader. Nelson has created a mystery that began simple (find the missing scroll) and has become infinitely complex.

Every time Dr. Sauniere uncovers a new clue as to the whereabouts of the scroll, the puzzle becomes more intricate and the reader is pulled farther into the back alleys of France and the catacombs of the Catholic Church surrounding the story. The reader has no idea where the story is going, but the reader knows that it's going somewhere, which enables him or her to sit back and enjoy the intricacy of the script, as well as the fairly large cast of major and minor characters in the narrative.

EricJ is the artist for the title and he's extremely good. His pacing, coupled with Nelson's layout of the storyline, is wonderful, demonstrated most notably in the several instances where entire pages go by without a word balloon between them. EricJ knows that too many talking-head-panels in a mystery makes it boring and he allows the visual to either creep-ify or thrill the reader where suspense is called for; his silent panels are some of the best scenes in the comic and the most telling as it concerns the search for the scroll. He also has a spectacular knack for period drawing and a wonderful concept of architecture. The buildings along the Rue Duphont are beautiful, and his many shots of French landmarks are quite good; the prime example being his rendition of Notre Dame on the cover of the volume. His character work is great and so is eye for the kinesthetic of his characters.

The only problem I see in his artwork is that he tends to lay the inks on too heavily in the beginning of the book, obscuring good line work making black holes in the visuals, but this corrects near the end of the book, so future volumes will most likely be better. Also, Jeremy Cox (Leave It To Chance, Starman) is the colorist. He is the best colorist in the business right now and I need say nothing more.

Rex Mundi is a rare book and I applaud the hell out of Image Comics for being able to promote and sell a book that has such an out of the ordinary concept, something Marvel has rarely been able to do, and DC sometimes has trouble with. It's possessed of a fierce intelligence that doesn't pressure to the reader, but slowly moves him or her along the narrative, drawing them deeper into the story after each page. It's just plain beautiful and you should abscond with $14.95 to whatever print media distribution center you can get to and buy the damn thing. Order it if you have to, because it's one of the best comics in the last couple of years.

Rex Mundi: Guardian of the Temple

Robert Sparling

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