- Posted by Johanna on March 12, 2006 at 8:19 am
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: by Walter S. Crane IV
- PUBLISHER: Sick Mind Press; $17.95 US
A distinctive visual style anchors this combination of mythology, history, and religion. At the time of The Sands of Seth, Egypt has been taken over by followers of Islam, so the outdated gods are hanging out in bars in limbo bemoaning their fate. Sheba, Cleopatra’s mummified cat, is woken by some tomb-robbers and heads off to confront Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the underworld, in order to attain her promised afterlife. He explains that her heart has to be weighed against the feather of truth, which promptly blows away. As Sheba sets off to find it, Seth, god of chaos and sandstorms, wakes the Sphinx in an attempt to recapture Egypt.
On her journey, Sheba meets Buraq, an Islamic goddess/peacock/mule hybrid who carried Mohammed to visit Allah, and starts showing her around. Along the way, we learn more about the history of Isis, Osiris’ two deaths, and the general arrangement of the Egyptian pantheon. Then Astarte (Phoenecian fertility goddess and Seth’s ex-wife), Hathor (who’s moved to India; where better for a cow-headed goddess?), Shiva, Ganesh, and Krishna are added to the picture. Meanwhile, Seth has succeeded in creating an “interfaith incident” when he attacks the followers of Islam.
In the second book, The Falcon and the Flame, we learn more about all the characters’ backgrounds, including flashbacks to Sheba’s life as Cleopatra’s favorite pet during the fall of Egypt to the Romans. There’s lots of misadventures, various gods and goddesses rehash old grudges, and we even visit the Mayans. This isn’t a quick read; scenes cut back and forth rapidly, and there are a lot of characters to keep track of. Still, if the reader pays attention, it’s worthwhile.
Echoes of the Gods is set 1200 years after the events of the previous books, as Napoleon brings his troops into Egypt. His plans for conquest are upset by his stomach ailments, for which his physician prescribes ground mummy powder, while the soldiers are using Egyptian artifacts for target practice. Sheba is tasked with protecting the location of the mummies of the kings, all hidden in a secret location. Her only helper is the Ushabti of Moving-Really-Large-Limestone-Blocks. (Ushabti were little statues of servants, buried with mummies to take care of their needs in the afterlife.)
We then flash back to meet Sheba as a kitten, when she first encounters Cleopatra. Coincidentally, this happens as Cleo is first meeting Caesar. The overwhelming splendor of history is minimized by the way the author dialogues the characters with slang and casual speech. Crane sets the stage with a series of double-page spreads that both establish the Egyptian setting and contrast the flower of its civilization with the later conquest by Napoleon. The art is as moody and evocative as ever, with lots of crosshatching and shading.
The wide variety of non-human characters throughout the series demonstrates Crane’s skill with unique body language. Sheba is a particularly interesting case; as a kitty mummy, the character is a head on a stubby bandage-wrapped body. Her only appendage is her tail, yet she definitely expresses her personality. It’s cute to watch her try and get anywhere: hop, hop, hop. Flashbacks before her death fill in the gaps; she acts like a real cat, stalking and pouncing.
Crane’s art is densely detailed. His penwork uses a lot of blacks and crosshatching for depth, and the resulting pages are heavy with detail. There are a number of nitpicky things that somewhat bothered my reading experience. The typos in the text, including my pet peeve, “it’s” for “its”, should have been corrected. A few places had confusing panel and/or balloon flow. Overall, though, I applaud Crane’s experimentation and artistic reach.
It’s a unique way to experience the history of belief, and the stories put a lot of things in perspective. No matter the culture or religion, there are certain aspects of human nature (and the nature of belief figures created by humans) that remain the same. Whether it’s the desire to be remembered or to exercise your skills to the best of your ability, a “live and let live” philosophy, like that expressed by these gods, seems wisest. Apparently, being immortal gives you a certain acceptance of spins of the great wheel of life.
Certain of the characters are evil by nature, but for most of the cast, the terms “evil” and “good” are too simplistic. For instance, Buraq is often intolerant of the gods she meets, calling all of them demons and expressing her belief that Allah is the one true god. At the same time, she is clearly doing her best to make things right and protect others, and loyalty to her friends is one of her strongest virtues. Although she has moved from feeling uncomfortable about the pantheists to questioning her beliefs, she holds true to her faith.
We’re also reminded of the catastrophe of knowledge lost. As one culture replaces another through war and invasion, all kinds of information disappears, whether it’s the purpose of the pyramids or minor inventions, simply because such items aren’t considered important until long after they’re gone.
The Pantheon Special, published by Sirius’ Dog Star Press, combines character profiles with reprints of the original Sheba comic strips. (It ran weekly in a college paper from 1992-1994.) Having a reference for the various gods and their relationships is helpful, but the strips range from creating chuckles to generating groans, and the art obviously had a way to go. This one-off issue is currently out of print, but much of the character information it contains can be found at Crane’s Sheba website.