Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dr. Grave: The Unholy Twelve

Antix Press, 2008, paperback, 112 pages, $ 14.99

Writer and artist: Ed Clayton
Cover artist: Guy Davis

(The book reprints Dr. Grave #1-4, originally published in 2000 by SLG Publishing.)

Before I get into the content, I think it’s worth mentioning that Dr. Grave: The Unholy Twelve is riddled with spelling and punctuation errors. Given that the material has now been released twice and by two different publishing houses, this is somewhat remarkable. “Personally, when I create a work, I don’t like anyone to suggest I move a comma in a sentence,” Ed Clayton tells Comic Book Resources. And I sympathize with that. But then again, a proofreader can be rather helpful. After all, you don’t want the first impression of your published work to be that you’re an amateur, right?

That aside, Mr. Clayton delivers a pulp-adventure pastiche that’s actually pretty well-told and frequently funny. It’s not laugh-out-loud hilarious, certainly, but it does fend for itself perfectly well in the humor department. When a raging demon indiscriminately vomits on people, bites their faces off and wreaks all other kinds of prolonged havoc in the small room of a monastery, I raise an eyebrow; when Dr. Grave is probing chaste Brother Gruber’s steadfastness with a three-page campfire lecture on purely hypothetical scenarios involving “soft, wriggling girls, bathing together in a cool brook,” I smirk; and when, in an Austrian tavern, Grave takes up the cudgels for “the Kaiser” to stave off his exposure as an American, I am, in fact, chuckling.

At the center of the work’s appeal stands its protagonist—a straightforward, no-nonsense pulp hero if there’s ever been one. Dr. Grave knows evil. Dr. Grave destroys evil. And Dr. Grave is not bogged down by tedious things like humility, self-reflection or moral ambiguity. He knows what needs done, and, more importantly, he’s convinced that he’s the one to do it. Everything—everyone—else is just means to an end. And, thankfully, Mr. Clayton has the good judgment to leave well enough alone and play Dr. Grave entirely straight: The story is as unapologetic about its hero as Dr. Grave himself, resulting in an intriguing, delightfully unconventional character.

Stylistically, Mr. Clayton’s black-and-white artwork sits somewhere between Sergio Aragonés and Ted McKeever, and it’s a perfect fit for the book. The author is a skilled page-to-page storyteller with a good sense of comedic timing and a knack for putting faces on the overtaxed and the befuddled—which, among other things, means that he’s very good at drawing Dr. Grave’s faithful servant Shandar. Indeed, the question what impossible and painful task poor Shandar will have to endure next quickly becomes a favorite running gag in the story.

Where The Unholy Twelve fails, though, is in making me care about what’s happening. Clearly, Mr. Clayton wants the book to be more than all-out slapstick and, clearly, the potential for that is there, if you look at Dr. Grave’s character and the way he’s handled in the story. But in the end, things don’t quite add up.

For one thing, the structure of the book is at odds with its tone. While the silliness undeniably has its charm in the individual scenes, it also means that I don’t really get the chance to become invested in the plot; and with a plot that lasts a hundred pages, that’s a problem. For another, the story is too flimsy to carry its own weight for the length of a book to begin with.

I could see Dr. Grave as a collection of funny strips; and I could see it as a full-length adventure comedy with a plot that does justice to the characters and allows them to be rendered with more depth. As it is, though, it seems Mr. Clayton couldn’t make up his mind between the two, and the result is a story that distracts from its strengths by stretching itself and its characters too far, and too thin.

Grade: C+ 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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