7.5

Book of Death #1 by Robert Vendetti, Robert Gill & Doug Braithwaite

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<i>Book of Death</I> #1 by Robert Vendetti, Robert Gill & Doug Braithwaite

Writer: Robert Vendetti
Artists: Doug Braithwaite
Publisher: Valiant
Release Date: July 15, 2015

In the recent years since its return, publisher Valiant has become one of comics’ most prominent success stories. Relaunching an entire shared superhero universe from the ground-up featuring fresh takes on lost 90’s heroes, the imprint has carved out a nice niche for itself in the capes and masks genre—and the more Valiant explores the “jumping-on point” cliches of comics with its events and crossovers, the more Valiant manages to subvert most trends.

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Book of Death continues the story of the Eternal Warrior, Gilad, and Tama, a time-displaced Geomancer. Taking place soon after previous miniseries The Valiant as a non-official sequel, Book of Death finds the duo hiding in Southeast Oregon as Gilad protects both Tama—an ecological messianic figure—from the world, and the world from her. As the duo remain in self-imposed exile, Tama reads Gilad a book from the future that chronicles the way the world will end (not with a whimper, but with several tremendous bangs). Scribe Robert Vendetti’s first time writing the pair, this relatively new paternal relationship remains intriguing, like a variant Lone Wolf and Cub, and Venditti ramps up the conflict that nips at their heels naturally.

However, Book of Death lacks a central tenet to previous Valiant events. What made former blockbusters like The Valiant, Armor Hunters, Divinity and other Valiant events so captivating was that they were presented as entry-points to the Valiant Universe first and foremost before diving headfirst into the evolving canon. Book of Death takes a slightly different approach; this title assumes you have some attachment or knowledge of the new Valiant Universe, and it leverages that headway for an emotional connection to the titular tome. This is a comic that begins by telling the reader all of these characters are going to die; if you have even the most remote affection for them, then this communique is unsettling. If not, then this approach plays like one of the many “everything is ending” superhero epics common in traditional crossover fare, presupposing the heroes present and their pathos are already relevant to the audience.

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Book of Death Interior Art by Robert Gill

Therefore, unless you’ve had previous experience with the characters, the book has this hole at the center of it. The hole could be interpreted multiple ways, perhaps placed there on purpose for that impending sense of doom, but it’s also the central element that either defines the story positively or negatively. Contrasting Book of Death with Armor Hunters, another Valiant event that Vendetti wrote, the missing piece stands out more; Armor Hunters stood on several years of build-up (X-O Manowar’s Earth-shattering confrontation with those who deem his armor a threat was seeded in the first arc of the book back in 2012), and yet the event felt as accessible as if it were the first time we’d met the characters.

Book of Death, despite the foreboding central tome dealing with the future, does not present the richness of Valiant’s shared universe as directly present or accessible; instead Vendetti offers the connection with some shorthand techniques to establish character connections and not much else. If you don’t care already, it may be hard to figure out why some of us already do.

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Book of Death Interior Art by Robert Gill

To his credit, Vendetti—a Valiant mainstay present with the company since its re-launch—cares deeply for the cast. As someone who’s introduced a fair share of the modern Valiant Universe, Vendetti’s writing in the book comes off as meticulously involved in the lives of those manipulated—past, present or future. Nothing about the end of the Valiant Universe feels forced, but rather melancholic, like a eulogy. We’re not saying goodbye to these characters officially (as far as we know, anyway) and we don’t yet know who’s menacing them, but that sense of foreboding and danger does weigh heavily in the book. It’s easy to be cynical and roll your eyes at a superhero story promising death, but death does linger here like a nefarious inescapable shadow.

Book of Death features pencillers Robert Gill and Doug Braithwaite in dueling narratives. Gill illustrates the present era, jumping between multiple characters and locales with slightly inconsistent work. Some of the artist’s sequences, specifically the opening, employ a specific eye towards the fear and dread of a horror book, and Gill’s eye for classic terror tropes fit well with the mood of the book to create unease. Yet the further the comic progresses, the more uneven Gill’s work becomes, particularly when portraying the characters as they unite and convey grander emotions. Meanwhile Braithwaite, who has experience both with Valiant’s events and ongoings, illustrates the future pieces of the book beautifully. He gives us a world past the brink of destruction, torn apart by disaster both manufactured and natural, and his apocalyptic sequence offers a steady contrast to Gill’s more uneven illustrations.

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Book of Death Interior Art by Robert Gill

The above reflections aren’t to say that Book of Death couldn’t be someone’s functional introduction into Valiant. As it stands, the book does a decent job of not only introducing core characters (i.e. the Unity team), but also fringe characters new and old. Valiant’s shared universe is certainly on display once again is still present here. However, Book of Death reads like a chapter in the middle of a different story, and that sensation compounded with the presence of an overdone “superhero team at war with itself” narrative relegates this debut as a good-but-not-great opening salvo.

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