Ray Fawkes’ horror series makes its return.
Few recent series have both reached the same heights and fallen to the same lows as Underwinter. I gave the horror series’ debut issue a 10/10, and the majority of the first volume remained great — except for its painfully mediocre ending. Then came the sequel series, A Field of Feathers, which showed promise but also failed to end on a satisfying note. The comics’ third installment, Underwinter: Queen of Spirits, was just released in graphic novel format. Does it manage to stick the landing more effectively than its predecessors? Is it good?
Though he’s struggled with the series’ plotting and resolutions, creator Ray Fawkes has never failed to make Underwinter beautiful to look at. Fortunately, that continues to be the case here. The watercolors here are lovely, from the earthy-looking trees to the ethereal forms and shadows of the main characters. Though Fawkes definitely leans heavily into blues, purples, and blacks, there’s still a solid enough variety in the rest of the colors to prevent the visuals from feeling monotonous. Most of the page compositions are also quite good, and the flow of action across panels is easy to follow.
Unfortunately, this clarity is lacking in the plot itself. There’s something to be said for generating intrigue by withholding pivotal information, but Fawkes seldom actually reveals explanations for the questions he dangles in front of the reader’s face. We follow some ghosts as they search out the mysterious Queen of Spirits, with some occasional cutbacks to a pair of cops trying to find survivors in a bombed building. It’s clear that the events are connected, but some issues with specific numbers prevent them from working in tandem effectively. It’s revealed that thousands of souls are needed to accomplish some nebulous feat, but their causes of death aren’t consistent. As a result, it’s unclear which deaths count toward the total and which don’t. Why is the bombing so important when, at the story’s conclusion, it seems like the quota is met before any of the bombing victims reach the Queen?
The lack of satisfying resolution also stems from the fact that many of the more specific details aren’t provided in the comic itself but in a series of roughly 15 pages at the volume’s end that are meant to be read as letters collected over time. Dates, times, and statistics are woven into these pages and rather than making the plot coherent they just come across as a variety of undeveloped ideas. It’s difficult to give a vague story more concrete shape after the fact, and these letters just add more confusing notions instead of actually illuminating anything.
These pages also suffer formatting-wise. The backgrounds look like crumpled paper, but the text is printed regularly on the page as opposed to matching the faux-folds. Though it makes the words easier to read, it does so at the cost of looking nonsensical. Allowing the text to wrap and bend in concurrence with the folds not only would have made more visual sense but also would have matched Underwinter’s tone of searching for disparate, incomplete hints about the truth.
Fortunately, the lettering in the comic proper is much better. Steve Wands does fantastic work as always, with font and color choices both legible and befitting the content. The placement of the caption boxes and word balloons is also excellent; they never encroach upon the art or cause displeasing clutter in the compositions. Between the art and the lettering, this volume is a lot more effective visually than it is writing-wise.
As previously mentioned, very little concrete information is provided in this book. The air of mystery is largely the point, and if the writing itself was more interesting the plot’s hazier elements would likely be more tolerable. Unfortunately, the characters themselves are almost invariably dull. There’s a solid good cop/bad cop dynamic between the two main living characters, but neither of them is ultimately developed enough to stand out from any other police officer character. The ghosts are even worse, mostly acting as mouthpieces for the tone of mystery. (“Is the Queen of Spirits real?” “Why are walking this way?”) Worst of all though are the Queen of Spirits and her accomplice. For figures of supposed vital mystical importance, they have no unique details in terms of their designs or their (woefully nonexistent) backstories.
Overall, Underwinter: Queen of Spirits isn’t terrible but it is disappointing. Visually, Fawkes and Wands deliver a polished comic with great watercolors, page compositions, and lettering. Writing-wise, though, this volume is a mess. Few concrete answers are provided, and those we do get are mostly incorporated in text dumps after the fact as opposed to in the comic itself. Unfortunately, the characters and concepts present aren’t intriguing enough to make up for the lack of answers or the questionable form choices. All in all this is a decent book, but almost all of its strengths come from its artwork.