Spoiler Free Review
Yes, Westerns have a formula, but the formula is pretty good. When you imagine a climax or gunfight in a Western, a feeling of tension and dramatic excitement comes to mind. Though the genre works well when presented on radio and film, we don’t often think of Western comic books. Honestly, off-hand, I can’t really think of a classic Western novel. I have read The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, but that’s a little different and somewhat modern. Above Snakes is the traditional Western comic book that bridges the gap.
Above Snakes, released through Image Comics last week on 7/13/22, is written by Sean Lewis and illustrated by Hayden Sherman. The intrigue begins with the book’s name, which, while somewhat Western-themed even to the uninitiated, refers to something directly specific to the story. It’s a straightforward title that raises curiosity on its own yet clearly points to a Western environment set tale combined with the cover art.
The story is set in a desperate 1866 Western world where things are rough, as you’d expect in a gritty Western. Our hero, Dirt, is on a mission to get revenge on his wife Dorothea’s killers. Dirt knows the Above Snakes are the gang that took her and are headed in their direction. Dirt is obviously distraught and shiftless from the loss yet determined and driven by his bloodlust.
The twist to this story is that Dirt has a “little bird” on his shoulder whispering in his ear. We don’t yet know exactly where this bird, Speck came from or what he really is, but to us and Dirt, he’s a talking vulture. Only Dirt can see Speck, but his guiding vulture seems to know and share things with Dirt, making him seem like he’s more than an illusion. While this may seem distracting, their dialogue helps us understand Dirt better.
This comic feels incredibly cinematic. I can see the warmth of the sets and skyline as the characters travel throughout their Western environment. I can hear the spurs and hammers of the revolvers clank and click off the page. The direction in the panels also focuses on the action or what’s important in a way that’s stylized to a Western I’d like to watch. It’s certainly a lesson in what to do if you are hoping for your comic to one day be easily optioned for the screen.
I enjoyed the straightforward simplicity of the story, and all the Western tropes effortlessly touched upon. This will clearly be a somewhat stereotypical Western, and it’s good at that so far. There is some fascinating world-building around the edges. Still, even without it, just the man on the mission for vengeance is the draw here.
Our hero, Dirt, isn’t exactly a hero or a man of many words, but this is common in Westerns. Instead of speaking, he lets his face and eyes do the talking. The panels also allow the scenery to do quite a bit of talking as well.
The comic is rated Mature. I flip-flop on Mature books because sometimes I don’t enjoy the violence. This book is violent, but the colors help keep it in check. There is a clear sense of damage being done without leaving the reader speechless or looking closer to see the guts. I like adult-oriented Westerns as they have a certain feeling about them. This book has that same feel. It’s a desolate world with a darkened man on a darker mission. Thus far, the comic carries the gravity of the situation without taking us out of the world of a relatively standard Western.
Speck is the wildcard. It may all be in Dirt’s mind, it may be supernatural, or it may be somewhere in between. For now, Speck just helps move the story along and leaves open the possibility for more unusual occurrences in the story, which is also exciting. In a way, Speck seems like it could just be a fractured piece of Dirt’s mind that’s driving him forward to complete this mission that’s now his only purpose for living. What happens when that purpose is gone? What happens if he really is a spirit of vengeance?
The coloring of the scenery and panels also stand out in this book. Instead of browns and tans as you’d expect in a Western, the pages are filled with purple, pinks, and blues. This serves as an odd contrast to the images of stereotypical Westerns that the book’s content exudes. The colors add a sense of supernatural or fantasy without telling us this is a different world from the one we know. These colors don’t detract from the story but intensify the emotion coming off the panels. It would be very interesting to see this style aspect of the book carried over to a live-action version.
I am unfamiliar with this book’s writer and artists, but they have worked together before, and you can tell. There is a sense of their connection in the execution of this story on the page. While you could never hear the colors or direction in the panels on the radio, they clearly make an impact here. The first issue plays out like the first act of a Western with a short-term end, but the story is not yet complete.
I look forward to the next installment and hope it’s similar to this one. I give Above Snakes 5 out of 5 talking vultures.