MINI-SERIES The Masked Bookwyrm

#1 - coverRagman: Cry of the Dead

(1993-1994 - six issues, DC Comics)

Writer: Elaine Lee. Art: Gabriel Morrissette.

The next Ragman mini-series after the 1991 re-invention seemed to complete DC's transformation of the original character. Giffen's revamp had taken the initially quasi-realist character and imbued him with all sorts of supernatural attributes and a mystical origin, while making his inner city setting just a little more comic book-y. And with Cry of the Dead the series goes completely in a horror/supernatural direction, like their inspiration was John Constantine, Hellblazer -- only with a cape. Artist Gabriel Morrissette's art even reminded me of the sort of art you might see in Hellblazer! (And though not technically published as a "mature readers" comic, it certainly has that vibe, with some excessive violence and unpleasant horror, the story involving murdered children!)

Equally funny, after the previous mini-series took great pains to emphasize Ragman's Jewish roots -- this mini-series emphasizes voodoo as the religion du jour! (Perhaps if there had been subsequent series they'd have explored Hinduism, Russian Orthodox, etc.) However, even though it can feel as much of a shift from Giffen's series as Giffen's was from the original Kanigher/Kubert version, this series is set in New Orleans -- and Giffen's series had ended with Ragman relocating to that city, so maybe it was intended.

The series starts out sort of effective. Morrissette's art is suitably moody and effective, mixing realism with atmosphere (I mentioned it reminded me of Hellblazer artists like Steve Dillon and others but it's actually more atmospheric than some) and writer Elaine Lee has a good feel for scenes and dialogue. So much so that it actually took two or three issues before I started to feel it had problems.

In short -- it kind of carries you along for a bit, but then you can find yourself wondering what you're reading it for and why.

The story involves an evil voodoo goddess being unleashed as a kind of vengeful spirit for murdered children. Except -- well -- that's the "plot." There isn't really a lot else in the way of twists or turns or hidden agendas or unsuspected motives. It's basically just six issues of this demon running about (inhabiting the bodies of the unsuspecting) while Ragman and his allies try to stop it. And the other problem is the surrounding environment. In the first issue Ragman's alter ego of Rory Regan seems relatively new to the neighbourhood -- yet in the next issue it seems half the community knows who he is (including the local voodoo priests) and are his helpers. While for all that Lee writes introspective passages for Rory, tosses in a few dreams and flashbacks -- Rory himself never really emerged as much of a personality. The fact that an extended sequence involves the evil spirit possessing the Ragman costume (making it the villain) while Rory is possessed by a good voodoo spirit to fight it can make it seem like Lee didn't really have that much interest in either Rory or The Ragman! There's a love interest for Rory, but she's kind of oddly developed, it unclear what the emotional relationship is between the two, seeming more a bed partner than a life partner (and the fact that she's written out by the end suggests she was never more than a plot device).

The voodoo stuff itself is curious. As mentioned, it's funny that in the previous series they played up the Jewish angle and then Lee shifts the focus to voodoo. In the opening issue I thought it was going to be the usual "voodoo = evil" idea which a lot of movies and books do (I have my issues with voodoo -- it's not very nice to chickens if movies are to be believed -- but it's a bit offensive to characterize a religion practiced by many to be "evil"). But then it veers the other way, the story fully immersing itself in voodoo rituals (almost to the point where I'd wonder if Lee is a practitioner herself!)

Ultimately Cry of the Dead is certainly atmospheric, and arguably has a better feel for its creative "vision" than did the previous Ragman mini-series. And, to be fair, often horror fans seem content with the mood and the horror and don't worry as much about plot/character. But it feels like a barely developed plot and without necessarily having much of a fix on the characters. And, as I say, despite not being labelled a "mature readers" comic, it is in some ways (certainly in contrast to the Comics Code original).

Although I've just been looking at various solo Ragman mini-series here, one other solo Ragman story was a 2010 one-shot called Ragman: Suit of Souls which is basically a recap of the Ragman origin (and pre-Rory history) from the 1991 mini-series wrapped around a "character" element of Rory trying to come to terms with his dead dad. It's more a character primer than an "adventure." The art is detailed, in a Jim Lee-esque way -- sort of moody, but more squarely super hero than some of these others (with The Ragman basically looking like a green Moon Knight). Another Ragman tale I'll mention is Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #51. Written by Robert Loren Fleming (who scripted the Giffen series) it's more a Batman story with Ragman appearing, but enjoyable and effective.