Writer Steve Niles may have had greater success with works like 30 Days of Night, but it’s the embittered hunter of the supernatural demons, Cal McDonald, that is his iconic character and the one Niles has continually returned to for 22 years. And, after all this time, it seems as though Cal is having a bit of an existential crisis with his current predicament.
Criminal Macabre: The Iron Spirit takes a little excursion from the main narrative of the series – the war between man and seemingly every supernatural monster ever dreamed – to do a one-shot detective story. When the book opens, Cal is trying to come to grips with his recent… undeath. The bad is that he can’t sleep, he has no blood, and his hands are kind of cold and clammy; the good is he can still drink and smoke (and do both without the adverse health effects, I assume, so: bonus?) and has picked up the ability to sense other members of the undead. I’m sure Niles will explore it further, but whatever rules he has for the undead, the message seems to be that there is no relief from life in undeath. Or, as Cal put it: “I seemed pretty much like myself, just dead and tooling around like before.” The mechanics of being undead are perhaps the most interesting thing about this comic, and I don’t mean that as a backhanded insult. It’s the kind of thing that keeps Cal compelling beyond the mysteries he’s trying to solve.
So, Cal is rudely interrupted from his melancholy by a knock at the door. The man is retired Air Force Captain Richard Clayton, and he has a lot of bruises and a paranormal problem. Without giving away too much here, there is a secret military project that has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Now there are spiritual loose ends, and Captain Clayton, like a good military man, feels responsible for the fates of these erstwhile men. It should surprise no one that Cal takes the case. The whole thing is written from Cal’s perspective in the form of a short story, which does allow for certain narrative flourishes that can be difficult to achieve in the more traditional comic format. There are certain chunks of exposition that are clunky, and drag down the pacing of the story some, but on the whole, it works pretty well.
Artist Scott Morse (Magic Pickle, Soulwind) is new to Criminal Macabre, and certainly puts his imprint on the book. His style here is unorthodox and bleary when compared to other artists’ work on the series – if that even makes any sense. Morse has dropped the panel paradigm for fluid full-page spreads of one or two scenes each. The line work is sketchy and loose, and splashy, earth-toned watercolors cover the page. Since the whole issue is written like a pulpy P.I. short story, Morris can align the Underwood typeface along the borders of the page and let the art stand out, undiluted by word balloons. The effect is haunting and hazy, like a vivid, yet half-remembered dream.
Criminal Macabre: The Iron Spirit is a somber tale about loyalty, one that finds Cal ruminating about his fate, and largely devoid of his usual cynical, macabre (sorry!) humor. But watching him in this existential, mid-unlife crisis still proves to be entertaining and worthwhile.