Considering a single issue of a comic book or episode of television provides a unique set of criteria. They are both offered as parts of a greater whole but also intended to function as discrete units. It is a single puzzle piece examined simultaneously as a piece and a whole. There's no doubt regarding the artistry and skill of writer Warren Ellis and artist Jason Howard. They have established reputations, individually and together on the series Trees, that are reaffirmed in Cemetery Beach #1. And while it is a skillfully produced piece of comics storytelling, it never grasps the role of the individual issue resulting in something deserving of lots of praise with one glaring flaw.
Leaving aside the issue of pacing and presentation for now, Cemetery Beach #1 presents a delightful encapsulation of what draws eyes to its creative team. Howard produces some of the best action sequences in his career, enhanced by his own colors. His figures are primarily defined by roles in the military and law enforcement leading to a series of characters who function like muscles in every way from their silhouettes down to stretched individual. Even in repose there is a sense of the power contained in each form and when they are in movement every joint of the body pulls and strains against limbs building and releasing tension.
There is never a wasted panel when the story is in motion. Each moment specifically reflects a change in the status quo, cause and effect serving as the dominant force in these quickly paced sequences. While there are plenty of explosions and plenty of brutal moments, Howard resists the urge to frame these all in splash panels, only releasing the careful structure of pages for one grand sweep of this new series' surroundings. Trees certainly showed a mastery of the comics form, but Cemetery Road still seems a step above.
Chases and fights are enhanced by a willingness to let them tell the story without unnatural speech bubbles. An opening interrogation sequence reminds anyone who might have forgotten just how funny Ellis' dialogue can be. He establishes character with incredible economy and always makes exposition work toward a greater purpose. The central duo of Cemetery Road establish themselves and their dynamic in a manner that borders on effortless. It's through these early rounds of dialogue that Ellis presents much of the premise about the series to come as well, but fails to set a hook.
It is possible to jot down a rough outline of what this story is about after walking away, but there is a lack of clarity on what the stakes might be or why readers should care. While there is amusing repartee and grumblings of conspiracy, it all lacks the context to establish the roots of a story or any resonance from theme. This is the flaw of Cemetery Road #1 as a single issue. No matter how much momentum is created in the second half of this issue, no action sequence is capable of pulling readers across a month long wait. While it can easily be imagined as the first 20 pages of an original graphic novel, it seems to end without purpose as the first chapter in a monthly series.
This raises the question that any potential reader must ask themself: Is the craft worth the wait? There is no doubt that individual elements of Cemetery Road are great; Howard produces some of the best action sequences of 2018 and Ellis' dialogue is in top form. Yet the narrative lacks clear form and there seems to be little call for reading the story in monthly installments rather than waiting for it to cohere in a more fitting form. There's no clear answer as this is a great selection of 20 pages from a larger narrative, but only a passable single issue of comics.
Published by Image Comics
On 12 September 2018
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jason Howard
Letters by Fonografiks