Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ex Occultus: The Seal of Solomon Review

The folks at Saint James Comics are nothing if not hopeful. Though I didn't like the previous submission of Ex Occultus much, they've submitted the second issue for review, too. Despite it being free reading for me, this has to be the last time I take the time to read it.

If memory serves, my main conclusion on reading the first issue was that it was essentially fan work, much in need of editing. Unfortunately, that hasn't changed with the second issue. Important story elements just pop up out of nowhere, the pacing is really in need of help, and the voices of the characters just don't create a lasting impression. I can say the art, by James Emmett, is a bit better, but as a story guy, it's not nearly enough to overcome the shortcomings of the story.
Our intrepid leads remain the adventurer Francis Wakefield and his boy toy, Hollander, who seems to have no first name. From the comic itself, they remain cyphers; however, the web site at has some short web comics featuring the two characters and also gives more background on them. As a reader of the comics, submitted for review no less, this character information ought to be somewhere between the covers of the paper publications. I recommend checking out the short web stories, though. If you like those, you'll like the longer publications.

Wakefield and Hollander are in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1874. This is one of two historical oddities in the writing. Bulgaria wasn't a country in 1874. In fact, it didn't gain independence from the Ottoman Empire until 1878, after Russian help in a brief war in 1877. And, no, I didn't know this stuff off the top of my head. I looked it up because I did know enough to question the independence of any of the current Balkan countries at that point in time. Considering there was a failed nationalist uprising in Bulgaria in 1876, there could have been a great story idea pulled from all this, but none of that happens in this story.

Instead, the story is of the pursuit of a legendary ring of King Solomon, which is the second historical oddity, though this one's as much or more a religious oddity. The ring is supposed to have been created at the behest of King Solomon so that he could speak directly to G-d, as it would be written by observant Jews. The thing is, Solomon had a pretty direct line to G-d already. What would he need with a ring to facilitate it? And then there's the part of the story that says there was a flaw in making the ring so that it communicated with hell instead. Judaisim isn't really clear on the hell business and the levels of demons that Christianity has developed. Stranger still, the ring allows the wearer to summon and order around demons, whicih is a lot more than just communicating. Makes me wonder if it would have allowed the wearer to summon angels or G-d if it had worked properly (which is a great religious conundrum - would G-d allow the creation of a device that allowed a man to control G-d? Is such a thing even possible?).

I could forgive some of that in the storytelling, but it's the languid pacing of the thing that's really a killer. It starts with 6 pages of conversation. It has a brief several pages of chasing the guy who has the ring and then fighting the demons he summons (who are defeated with weapons that aren't explained in the text but rather in what amount to endnotes), but then it ends up with another 8 pages of exposition. It pulls in a character to take away and rehabilitate the guy who had the ring without any information about who this new character is (until you get to the endnotes). The guy with the ring vacillates from scared, to combatitive, to pleading. He seems to be under the influence of the ring, a la Lord of the Rings, but strangely needs a page from an otherwise disappeared text to operate it. Amusingly, it doesn't seem to matter what page of the text, but just any page will do to allow him to summon demons. For all we know, he had the bibliography page to the text and no instructions.

Oh, and someone needs to tell Robert James Russell, the writer, that having one of your leads quip that attacking crows might want their feathers back only makes the character look stupid when the page previous it was established that the leads were wearing eagle feathers. Of course, the same character looks equally stupid when he asks his partner if they're prepared for any demonic attacks, only to later reveal that he's already carrying two weapons he knows to be useful in fighting demons. Did he just forget about the ammunition he used for the shotgun in his hands?

I like small press publications. Really. But, as I said the last time I looked at Ex Occultus, editing, editing, editing. Its value can't be underappreciated. I don't have an editor, and look how that turns out.

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