Publisher: Studio 407
Reviewed by: Joe Mossman
At first glance they’re a typical pair, at least in the context of a Prohibition-era film noir. Nathan is a bedraggled-looking young boy (presumably an orphan). Al Stone is an equally rough-around-the-edges bootlegger, a hardcase hiding a soft core of morals in the best Marv tradition, who seems to have taken Nathan under his wing. Together they drift through 1920s America, running booze and staying one step ahead of the Feds. Or at least, that’s how Al sees it - a world of sleazy winos and psychotic squatters and Feds out to bust him.
Nathan sees monsters. Real ones.
Smuggling Spirits is a beautiful nightmare, painted in harsh strokes of black-and-white by artist Mike Henderson…there’s not a shade of gray anywhere to be seen. It depicts an alternate history where beings called “Darklings” appeared sometime after World War I, creatures of ill-defined origins who come in a variety of shapes and sizes ranging from the horrific to the downright disturbing. Nathan, as well as most of the other humans he and Al meet, can see them for exactly what they are, but for some reason Al either can’t or won’t. The result is that Al is just as much a lost child as Nathan, maybe more so. While Al believes he’s firmly in control and doing the kid a favour by letting him tag along, Nathan is busy keeping Al safe by eavesdropping on his conversations and watching out for Darklings. It’s an entertaining, often funny and honestly touching relationship. Writer Ben Fisher deftly turns what could easily have been just two film noir stock characters into whole, three-dimensional people…people you find yourself caring about before you even realize it. He keeps dialogue and captions to a minimum, letting Henderson do the talking through big, full-page action scenes, and wisely leaves the Darklings’ backstory vague (we learn how they reproduce, but exactly what they are and where they come from is never clearly explained). It makes them appropriately terrifying, and makes the story feel that much more like a living nightmare.
There isn’t much I can say against this book. I did have a bit of an issue with Henderson’s Sin City-esque style, which doesn’t always come off as well as it should have. There were panels where the action is so stylized, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on or who’s getting impaled. It’s a minor complaint, however because Smuggling Spirits is one of the best and most original horror stories I’ve encountered in a long while.