The Tower Files: The Tower Chronicles #1 Reviewon September 28, 2012 at 6:51 am
The Tower Chronicles, written by Matt Wagner with art by Simon Bisley, is currently on tap to be a three-volume story of four chapters a piece. That means a few things, one of them being that it will likely be an extended period of time before Wagner can put in any concrete work on Mage: The Hero Denied. That’s a problem.
Another thing it means is that, barring cancellation – and considering The Tower Chronicles’s publisher, Legendary Comics, is a relatively new imprint with only Frank Miller’s Holy Terror under its belt so far, that seems pretty unlikely if they want to hold onto the A-List talent they’ve lured to the stable – we’re going to be living with this title for quite a while; with one chapter every two months, this is gonna be a two-year story. Further, on top of the time investment, at eight bucks a whack, you’re looking at a $96 dollar comic story if you decide to take the whole ride from the beginning, as opposed to waiting for the trades, which will almost inevitably be less expensive.
So the question is: is The Tower Chronicles worth the time and cost to jump in this week on the ground floor? Well, that depends on what you already have on your bookshelf.
Meet John Tower: Senator from Texas and head of the commission that investigated Contragate. Whoops! Wrong John Tower. Let’s try that again.
Meet John Tower: paranormal investigator and monster hunter, available for hire via his Web site, Geisthawk (Don’t bother; not only does the Web site not exist, but as of this writing, the name has only been bought in one obscure top level domain. Hop to, cybersquatters!). His prices are high, his client selection process is rigorous, and based on the giant scar on his face, his job kinda sucks. He’s who you call if you have a, shall we say, otherworldly problem. Embezzling ghost? No problem. Child vampire cutting a bloody swath through the Midwest? Easy. Wife possessed by an owl? Gotcha. Crappy Web designer who names your Web site something you couldn’t find even accidentally while surfing for porn? Yeah, he’s apparently powerless.
Regardless, FBI agent Alicia Hardwicke is on the trail of the Piranha Killer, who is taking people out at a rapid clip, leaving behind chewed bones and DNA with no human chromosomes. She is desperate for a lead… desperate enough to seek help from a paranormal investigator, or at least one competent enough to see the badge and yet not start asking, “Does the letter ‘J’ mean anything to you? How about the name ‘Edgar?’ Do you know any transvestites?” So she seeks Tower’s help, putting her on a road where she will inevitably see things she didn’t think possible, and undoubtedly find herself being boned by Tower around chapter three of book two.
So let’s get through the preliminaries here: this is not a superhero story, it is urban fantasy – think Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files novels and TV show if you don’t know what I’m talking about. So whether you like the story at all will depend heavily on whether you have a soft spot for that kind of story, and I generally do. However, where many of those stories feature a protagonist with some kind of supernatural power (Harry Dresden’s magic, Buffy’s slayer powers, Simon Canderous’s Psychometry), Tower appears to work mostly with technology. Sure, there are some mutterings that maybe Tower’s immortal, but he attacks vampires with a solar gun, he takes on owl demons with a supersonic noise generator, and attacks ghosts with a plasma knife that disrupts energy. So out of the gate, Wagner adds something a little bit different to the genre that freshens things up a bit. Which is a good thing, because there is just so much of this book that is a cliche.
Let’s start with the opening sequence, that sets the reader up to believe that Tower, who we haven’t met yet, is a predator stalking an innocent woman… only to turn the tables and show that the woman is actually a dangerous monster. It’s an interesting switcharoo that plays with the tropes of the horror genre… or at least it was when Joss Whedon did almost the same damn thing in the first episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Further, if you’ve read even one urban fantasy novel, you’re going to see things here that you’ve seen before. A cop forced to turn to a paranormal investigator, and who initially doesn’t believe the things she’s seeing, to the point of trying to arrest the hero? That’s damn close to book 2 of The Dresden Files, only there’s it’s werewolves instead of vampires. A paranormal investigator working for a mafioso? Dresden Files again, only here the name’s Solokov instead of Marcone. The hero having an apparently long and convoluted relationship with a vampire? That’s in damn near every urban fantasy novel. If we wind up seeing Tower stick his dick in some supernatural creature, you’ll probably be able to scratch the page and see the text of Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter under the art.
So story and most character wise, you simply aren’t going to see anything here that you haven’t seen before. Where the book does have some legs is in its main character, who is a different beast from your standard urban fantasy story. In most, you get a broke-ass, working class hero, skimping by and helping all comers out of some sense of altruism. Here, however, Wagner presents a somewhat different kind of protagonist: he’s rich as hell, in it for the money, in high demand, and driven by the memory of some woman from his past who we aren’t told much about in this issue. Combine that with his use of technology instead of magic, and you’ve got at least something a little bit different than the norm, in a story that is just jam packed with cliches from the genre. It’s at least something upon which to hang some hope on the story.
If you’re gonna do an urban fantasy comic, you can certainly do worse than getting Simon Bisley to draw it. Bisley’s style here is much as it ever is: detailed yet stylized, with everyone, from the monsters to the humans, looking just a little inhuman and grotesque. Heads are cocked at just the wrong angle, mouths open just a little too wide, limbs just a hair akimbo, all of it leading to a vaguely inhuman and wrong look to everything. And when it comes to the monsters, Bisley delivers as he has since at least the goons in Judge Dredd, with truly ghoulish looking things you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Or a well-lit shopping mall. The overall effect gives the world of The Tower Chronicles a vaguely inhuman look, which gives the proceedings the feeling that there are horrible things writhing just below the surface. It’s a damn good style for an urban fantasy.
The Tower Chronicles #1 has all the elements of a good urban fantasy, but the problem is that those elements are all well-trod. Other than the protagonist and his methods, there is literally almost nothing here that you haven’t seen in a hundred other books within the genre – hell, even the title mirrors “The Dresden Files.” Being an aficionado of the genre, I’m planning to pick up maybe the next issue to see if Wagner delivers something out of the ordinary, but right now I just don’t know if that’s enough to recommend the book. If you’ve never read any urban fantasy, this is probably worth picking up, since it has all the pieces of a good story of the genre… but if you have read some, you’re gonna find this derivative.
Frankly, for eight bucks? Pick yourself up the first book of The Dresden Files. It’s a damn shame, because I really like Matt Wagner’s work. If he wanted to do an urban fantasy, he could have done better than this. Maybe something with a cynical, everyman hero. And his street magician buddy. And maybe he’s the reincarnation of a mythical hero…