Pain Train: I’ve never been stabbed by a broad sword. Nor have I been decapitated with a battle axe, skewered by a spear, or pummeled with a war-hammer. But if I’ve learned anything from Crone, the excellent fantasy series by Dennis Culver and Justin Greenwood, it’s that there’s injuries far worse than evisceration by a sword called Mordenstorm.
After unsheathing the blade in issue #1, swinging for the heart in issue #2, and stabbing with expert precision in issue #3, the fourth issue breaks off the steel and kicks the reader into a pit. Emotionally speaking, as it were.
Old Friends, New Problems: I always struggle what to spoil in these reviews, but now feels like a perfect time to let loose. Having been captured by her nemesis D’Kayde sometime near issue #3, Crone now learns how her foe came back from straight decapitation: he’s actually Vor the Lion, a former ally who has tried for years to win Crone’s heart via armed combat. (Spoiler: in 7 attempts via combat, he never got it done). Issue #4, then, is all about the fallout of this massive revelation, and how Crone feels betrayed not only by Vor but also Gaspar, who suspected the big reveal but never told his allies.
To an extent, the Crone-Gaspar thing doesn’t feel quite as impactful as it should, as it only really perpetuates the feelings Crone already had (which is to say, screw all y’all). Plus, with a name like Gaspar the Rogue, you sort of expected the guy to be less than forthcoming about most things. Even the sting of Vor’s betrayal doesn’t feel as violent as you’d expect, and Crone is mostly ready to just be done with this mess. But rather than feel half-cocked, this all sets the stage for some greater events and insights that make issue #4 so deeply visceral.
The Lovable Scoundrel: So, how did Vor (who is basically the closest to a Conan knock-off as this series gets) go from hero to scourge of the Three Kingdoms? Mostly ’cause Crone. His endless defeats at her hand (including one final confrontation that should leave you with goosebumps) drove him to drink. When the bottle ran dry, he decided to try and fulfill his sense of manifest destiny. Without spoiling too much of that — cause it’s a great story for your own perusal — all of that tension and unrequited feelings drove him to the helm of D’Kayde to try and take Bliss (and his destiny) by sheer force. By telling his story, we understand Vor not just as the Big Bad, but also a sympathetic character. You can’t condone his actions, but you understand how these feelings poisoned his thoughts.
More than that, he’s a great counter to Crone. If she left the world to die alone on a mountain out of her own insecurities following the exit of her true love, Ella, then Vor used those same feelings to tackle the world head-on. Sure, he’s pure evil, but he never cowered from the demons he saw in the world, and instead did something to overcome them. He may have botched the job big time, but his distinct connection to the world (and something larger than himself, regardless) helps show the disconnect that colored the bulk of Crone’s life and how it shaped her. They’re two sides of the same coin: how to live with pain, and how to process trauma you can’t ever escape. In that sense, they’re perfect rivals.
A Big Leap Forward: OK, here’s where I really struggled with spoilers. Because that last bit regarding the Crone-Vor saga was just a warm-up, and the biggest moment of issue #4 comes with Vor reveals how he actually came about his “fate” — a chance meeting with Ella. I won’t spoil how that goes, but her subsequent exit from Crone’s life should make that picture more clear. And once she understands that, Crone reacts in a way to set up the issue’s massive cliffhanger (kind of literally?) No, it’s not some big battle, and while I can’t reveal what that decision is, suffice to say it’s perhaps the biggest moment of the whole series. It speaks pure volumes about Crone, and will forever alter your perception of this character. Not because her post-revelation actions are out of character, but the fact they’re very much in character and a seemingly logical decision given the things she’s done and said since panel 1 of issue #1. It’s a giant moment.
It’s not so much a shocking choice but it is one that you didn’t think would happen. Is that because you ultimately didn’t want it to? Maybe, but it’s a single moment, one massive decision, that forces the reader to feel her emotions and try to understand how we got to this narrative crossroads. That’s what Crone has done really well thus far: illicit reactions to moments and ideas and make you think about their value (or even the lack thereof). In this instance, you’re forced to explain away her choice or make peace with these massive outcomes. There’s no apathy here, and this book demands actual moral/emotional stances.
Salting The Wound: From an artistic standpoint, there were plenty of moments of both quiet introspection and blood-soaked battles. Yet again, Greenwood’s art delivered in all the right ways, especially when it comes to the development of Vor into D’Kayde, which feels quiet and organic but surprises you with its grace and emotional impact. But perhaps some of the best moments continued to be the actual faces of characters, and in an issue packed with betrayals and hurt feelings galore, Greenwood managed to foster subtlety and devastation in equal parts to drive home just how hard this issue smashes readers in the ol’ cockles.
I think what made the art so great in this issue is that everything was laid bare, and all the heartache and bloodshed seemed to coalesce into this splendid rainbow of suffering. The physical and the emotional were united, and that made everything feel almost surreal and yet still deeply resonant. That’s what good fantasy can do: take you out of your comfort zone and still make you experience all those familiar human feelings and weaknesses.
(Chef’s Kiss Emoji): To say I’m looking forward to issue #5, the grand finale, would be an understatement. Whatever happens, be it Crone’s true ending or some final victory in battle, issue #4 could have been the end. It was here that we saw people as they really were, and felt their loss and devastation like it was our own. Culver and Greenwood presented layers of history and emotions that dazzled in their intensity. And things achieved a sense of finality that felt comforting without making us feel any less drained.
Anything that happens at this point is just a cherry on the sundae. Or, what’s likely the fantasy equivalent, gold inlay on your ancient sword.