26 December 2006

Review: Lucifer's Garden of Verses: The Devil on Fever Street

Lucifer's Garden of Verses: The Devil on Fever Street
By Lance Tooks (NBM/ComicsLit, 2004; $8.95)

The beauty of graphic novels is that, in the right publisher's hands, they don't suffer from the temporal existence of their periodical counterparts, most of which often come and go, completely unnoticed, in the whirlwind of a particular months' issue of Previews. Lance Tooks' Lucifer's Garden of Verses: Devil of Fever Street, first published in 2004, has been on my want-to-read list for more than a year now, first suggested to me by the invaluable Rich Watson, but I never got around to giving it more than a quick flip-through here and there, whenever I had a little extra money to throw towards something different.

On first glance -- several glances, in fact -- it never grabbed me enough to make it home, as Tooks' visual style didn't work for me, but having read the likes of Ho Che Anderson's King and J.P. Stassen's Deogratias in the past year, I was better able to appreciate his impressive storytelling skills. Fortunately, it's still in print and readily available, and as a result, I've belatedly discovered a great read and a comics creator worth following.

The basic premise is an oft-used one, as the Devil, Lucifer, wakes from a one-hundred-year sleep on the eve of Armageddon and questions his role in God's overall plans, "tormented by the memory of having been his brightest angel." Black Lily Baptiste, a former prostitute who is now one of God's most faithful, becomes his target, first for an "old school temptation" as a warmup to the apocalypse, then as a chance for redemption as he seeks to abdicate his throne as the prince of darkness and help "bring [God's] light to the world." Tooks makes the story his own, deftly balancing some intriguing theological philosophizing -- "man does not need me to lead him astray..." -- with two sharply defined lead characters (and a varied and entertaining group of supporting characters) who give his tragic, if inevitable, ending a thought-provoking, emotional gutpunch.


Tooks' deceptively unrefined visual style won't appeal to everyone, especially fans of "traditional" sequential art, but as is often the case with singular visions, the overall package works very well together, the whole much greater than the sum of its uneven parts. His varied layouts and shifting styles may seem erratic at first -- almost amateurish, even -- but by the end, you realize that it's actually an example of an artist defining his own signature style, knowingly breaking the rules, and doing so in ways that strengthen his story.

Fans of literary "What if..." stories and late-night, coffee shop philosphizing will enjoy The Devil on Fever Street, and I'm now looking forward to checking out the next three volumes in the Lucifer's Garden of Verses series.