|Written by: Chris Denton (current run) and Chris Langton (original run)|
Art: Neil ‘Bhuna’ Roche (current run) and Mark Roche (original run)
Colours: Darren Stephens
Letters: Bolt-01 (current run) and Vincent James (original run)
|Pigdog Press – 2020|
Imagine a world of dark legend, home to mad wizards and hooded assassins, where the undead and creatures fair and foul roam free. Against a backdrop of imposing castles, fiery plains and dark dungeons we are invited to travel to this world and meet the intriguing cast of Killing Moon.
Volume one collects the first four issues of the modern run of this excellent title, paired with the original stories from the mid ’80s, presented here for the first time since original publication. To further add to the book, Pigdog Press and the creators have included an interesting and inspirational foreword from Chris Langton along with a history of Moses Valentine and Killing Moon essay. As if that weren’t enough, we then have a stunning back-matter gallery of artwork from numerous small press artists, each offering their own take on the world and characters of Killing Moon.
It’s a really impressive package and makes for a book that stands out. It’s clear from the outset that the guys were keen to meet their promises to their Kickstarter pledges with gusto. I’m certain that, if anything, they exceeded expectations (for those unaware, Kickstarter is a ‘crowd-funding’ platform; a website through which projects can be proposed/presented at various stages of development and the the fans/audience pledge a certain amount to help fund the project’s completion. This is done in a tiered system, offering various rewards on delivery of the end product). I’m certainly very glad to report that the Killing Moon crew exceeded their funding target.
The physical and overall quality of this book is very high; the wrap-around cover is produced on very high quality card stock and the interior pages are a delight to flick through. They have a very pleasant tactile quality and present the contents in a way that should have some of the major publishers blushing and taking notes.
The cover itself has a striking logo and bold, atmospheric art depicting some of the main characters. That it segues from the modern take on the world of Killing Moon on the front through to the original vision on the back is a really nice touch and hints at some of the changes that were made, both in art and narrative. It’s a cover which will instantly appeal to Killing Moon’s target audience while also intriguing others who might have been browsing for something else.
So, first to our main characters, who are perhaps more fitting the mantle of ‘anti-hero’ than hero. They are, after all, assassins for hire operating under the name ‘The Killing Moon’. Ingrid Stensgarrd, Mr. McKie and Jack the cat are led by the grim faced, mysterious Moses Valentine. Ingrid seems to be the newest member of the group and seems well suited for her profession, approaching her work with stoicism and gravitas. Meanwhile, the darkly moustachioed McKie is given to moments of dry humour and seems entirely matter-of-fact in the presence of death. Jack no doubt keeps his own secrets while Valentine is shrouded in shadows and mystery, often serious, always thoughtful and living to his own moral code.
While growing to become quite fond of a band of assassins seems like an unlikely side effect of reading about their exploits, here I am… liking them. While that perhaps says something about me, the development of these characters through the book is a pleasure to follow and we are treated to a colourful and engaging cast of supporting characters too. There is the aforementioned dark sorcerer, a hapless thief of crowns, various skeleton and zombie warriors, a city of entirely civilised orcs under the mountain… the list goes on. It is through their interactions with each other and the other denizens of this world that we come to know Valentine and his band. Each chapter, from prologue to issue four, has its own feel while still very much being part of the greater whole.
‘The Prequel’ opens on sinister happenings in the gloomy halls of a castle. We are introduced to a couple of key figures who are about to set events in motion. Several darkly comic, Monty-Pythonesque exchanges later and we move to the story of ‘The Tyrant Wizard’ in issue one. ‘It began in Merstburg’… wherein the The Killing Moon are approached by the Mayor to rid the town of a necromancer who not only stole Castle Merstburg from their former lord but now uses the town’s dead as his playthings. What follows is a hugely entertaining adventure which feels as if it could be a transcript of someone’s really, really good Dungeons and Dragons session.
The second story, ‘Warning to the Glorious’, follows Ingrid as she stalks a crown thief through the Flaming Fens. It’s a story in which both main characters are relatable and, as such, we’re left on our own when it comes to which side to cheer for (so to speak). The tale is bookended by depictions of Ingrid’s life prior to her joining The Killing Moon, bringing us closer to the character and offering up more intrigue.
‘The Man in the Mountain’ has us following our motley crew as they enter Miwk, an orc city built on cooled lava inside a volcano. The enter at the behest of King Drenkost, whose people are being terrorised by someone known as The Man in the Mountain. As they investigate, it is soon clear that the orcs are under threat from fanatical cultists who seek to eradicate orc-kind. This is a great tale, which I’ll reveal no more of other than to say that again, this feels like it stepped from the pages of an old tabletop role playing game. I mean this as great compliment; it’s full of the things that make fantasy/sword and sorcery stories such good fun.
‘Targets’ is the closing story for the current run, where we find The Killing Moon take on an ancient vampire nobleman. As they set their ambush in a moonlit forest of twisted trees, we start to wonder if maybe they have bitten off more than they can chew…
The creative team have done a fantastic job here and it’s clear that they really care about their comic. It’s a labour of love that is a real pleasure to share in. Chris Denton’s writing is clever and darkly humorous, lending a strong sense of character and setting through dialogue. Each story is accessible and enjoyable either as a standalone or as part of the larger arc, making for a book that can be devoured in one sitting or consumed in small doses. Either way, it’s a fun and engaging read. The narration and dialogue are conveyed by excellent lettering, always clear and sympathetic to the scene and, above all, easy on the eye. The sound effects are also superb; well judged and full of energy.
The art is really great throughout and evokes the atmosphere of each setting by way of bold line work and vivid colours. Action is dynamic and, at times, bloody but is always easy to follow and track. Panel layouts are designed to help and guide the reader through the book, using splash pages for grand vistas alongside smaller, sometimes quick-fire panels for action. Each character is given keen visual identity, with the art enhancing the charisma lent by the writing through dialogue and characterisation. The art team of Neil Roche and Darren Stephens really draw us into their world, each page having been crafted through great care and attention. I found myself transported not only to their world but further, back to Fighting Fantasy game books, to the role playing and video games of the 1980s, to sharing imaginary adventures with friends.
The latest incarnation of Killing Moon is a nostalgia trip for any fantasy enthusiast of a certain age, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s a reimagining of a world, it’s an invitation to use and enjoy our own imaginations, it’s a series of great stories presented in a fun and unpretentious way.
And all of that before we get to visit the original version! Here we move to black and white art and to a different vision of the world of Killing Moon. It’s a post-apocalyptic place, having regressed to a near lawless, low-tech nightmare of a frontier. It’s survival of the fittest, nastiest, most cunning and it’s in this environment that we meet Valentine as he teams with four other assassins to take on a near impossible job. They are tasked with eliminating an overlord type figure and set off, squabbling and plotting as they go.
It’s interesting to see the genesis of the current comic and also to read a story (presented here over two issues) with a different feel. Instead of facing undead monsters and foul magics, Valentine wields his blade against hooded henchmen (one of whom brings a pistol to the knife fight!). This world is, if anything, even more dog-eat-dog and Valentine faces conflict from amongst his companions before he even faces his enemy.
The story moves along at a fast pace, and gives plenty of opportunity for the assassins to use their skills, both with blade and tongue. The artwork is stylish, evocative and full of nostalgic design touches that work well for this type of comic. There’s great use of shadow (there’s a three panel character reveal which is lovely) and each page has nice details to spot.
It’s a shame that the comic never continued beyond its initial run of two; it would have been interesting to see these ideas go beyond this formative stage. Instead, fast forward to present day and the current iteration created by Neil Roche and friends and it’s easy to see why Neil wanted to resurrect his brother’s creation.
Shifting the setting to one more in-step with traditional sword and sorcery/dark fantasy has given the series perhaps more narrative freedom and while Valentine and company seem suited to either world, it is in his current form that he really shines. Gone is the broadsword of old, replaced by a staff, a cat and no small magical prowess to match his martial skill. The pipe smoking happily remains, giving us some cowl-shadowed-Strider-in-the-inn vibes (I’m thinking animated Lord of the Rings film here).
His companions are two equally interesting characters, and Ingrid offers a genuinely strong female lead, thus broadening appeal. Each fan of this comic will have their own favourite character, their own favourite moments, and that’s a really good thing. It means that it’s a comic people can engage with and relate to. It’s a title that will appeal to fans of Conan, Elric, Geralt of Rivia and indeed fantasy stories in general, but it has enough to offer that its reach can extend beyond.
Killing Moon is a really high quality book, created with love and hard work. It’s an expression of its creators’ wish to entertain, and has moments of high adventure, intrigue, dry, dark humour and even the occasional Star Wars quote in the dialogue. It’s packed with gorgeous, sometimes gritty art on every page, supplemented further by some stunning gallery work. It’s just a really cool book to have on your shelf. There’s more on the way too, with Killing Moon Rising, which I’m sure will be something to look forward to. If you can, keep an eye out for the project on Kickstarter and lend them your support.
I feel very lucky that I was made aware of this book, so please allow me to recommend that the next time you visit a comic shop, maybe looking for something a bit different, ask for Killing Moon. Nine out of ten assassins (and cats) prefer it.
Review by Andy Flood