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November 21, 2017

White Ash #1 (Review)


White Ash #1
Charlie Stickney and Conor Hughes, 2017
Writer: Charlie Stickney

Marvel Comics’ superhero title Thor, working in tandem with Neil Gaiman, an unabashed obsessive of Scandinavian mythology, would on the face of it together have mined out most of the fine grade literary ore from Asgard and its surrounds. Norse mythology no longer has any serious practical adherents (and indeed relatively speaking had very few in the first place – Scandinavia is not so big), and it is not as heroic or grand as Hindu epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. Yet comic book writers, beginning with Marvel Comics’ founder Stan Lee, have adored that particular body of mythology for decades. Mr Gaiman, for his part, wove substantive threads from Norse mythology into The Sandman (DC Comics/ Vertigo Comics) and then pulled many of the same concepts into his subsequent novel, American Gods.

The contemporary interest in Norse mythology is actually not especially contemporary at all. The “Viking revival” occurred in the mid-1800s, triggered in the United Kingdom by the offer by Denmark of the acquisition of Iceland in 1860. In continental Europe, the catalyst for interest in Norse mythology in the mid-1800s is not obvious, but manifested in various plays and poems. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle opera, featuring the very famous musical score “Ride of the Valkyries”.

“The coal dust would blow out from the mine and settle in a film all over the streets and buildings. The mining company said it gave the town character. That and black lung.” A dirty mining town called White Ash in the United States is the odd stage for an intriguing tale with unexpected roots in Norse mythology. Writer Charlie Stickney entirely ambushes his readership with it. The story starts with some sort of cannibalistic serial killer named Seth, who has dismembered a drunk, shoved his torso into an overflowing toilet, and brought along his victims’ limbs as road trip snacks. Seth declines some casual sex in favour of the Bible. It is a schlock horror introduction intended to snare the reader early, with the subtlety of a bear trap. (It is also reminiscent of Mike Carey’s horror writing in Lucifer, for Vertigo Comics from 2000-2005, where the demonic Jin-En-Mok eat the hacked-up dead so as to assume their form.)

But the story’s deep characterisation starts immediately thereafter. The protagonist, a nineteen year old named Aleck Zwerg, wants to leave White Ash and study at an out of town college, and wants it immediately. Aleck sees a better life far from the pollution and rigid social stratification. And as he hates White Ash, White Ash comes to hate him. The town’s inhabitants cannot wait to see his back. The reaction of the other townspeople to his assertions of a speedy exit speak volumes as to the character. “So, to what do we owe the honor, Mr Zwerg? Because we know you’re too good for our gas,” says one. He is that sort of constant and ungrateful complainer, the youngster who thinks he has outgrown his youth, and he has as a consequence throughly irritated everyone around him with his attitude towards their home. It might be wretched, but it is home.

But, surveying the landscape, who as an outsider can blame him? The very best job opportunity lies in fixing car engines. His father digs coal, in dirty and dangerous conditions, for the benefit of an aloof, rich family who own the town and use the leverage of power to quibble over every dollar.

Aleck’s farewell to his father, Gunther, is awkward. “You done?” says Aleck’s father. “‘Cause I’m late to get doing the thing you just crapped on.” Both men are stubborn and convinced the other is wrong. It looks for a moment as if that will be how the relationship ends. But the two are coerced into a hug and brief but meaningful words of care. It is a nicely executed, sentimental moment by Mr Stickney.

The last item on Aleck’s checklist for departure is to visit Thane Alden, the town’s overlord, and demand the balance of money owed to Aleck – he has been shortchanged three hundred dollars. Alden, a looming and tall man, toys with Aleck, and demands that he trim some hedges before he gets paid. Shirtless and sweaty, he finds himself in a strange flirtation with the man’s daughter, an attractive but odd girl named Lillian. It becomes clear that Lillian is in essence a captive of her father.

On his way out of town, an explosion at the mine changes everything. It is as if the ash which describes covers the town is blown away, revealing ancient and gnarled truths. Lillian unexpectedly takes on the mantle of a huntress. There appear to be three factions at play: Lillian Alden’s spooky family, Seth the cannibal murderer (a demon), and the Zwerg family. A shadowy truth worms its way from the surrounds. And then Aleck’s uncle reveals a startling truth.

Mr Stickney’s remarkable effort here is to dovetail the coal town’s story into the tale of Viking monsters in the shadows. It should not work. The two sides to the story should be too jarring and too odd. But Mr Stickney interweaves the two such that the forked-tongued threat of bloody murder sits intimately with coal dust, small town ennui, lung cancer, and odd cat ladies. It is a fine start to what we hope is a long ongoing series.

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