Speak softly and carry a big sword

If there’s any truism worth adapting to the pastime of reading comic books, it’s that a good shop is hard to find. Last summer, after several years of ordering my comics online, I decided it was time to go back to shopping locally. Sure, I was saving a few bucks by buying through a website, as many of us do for our cultural necessities. Truthfully, I’d grown used to getting that monthly package of books, most often the last Friday of the month — sometimes not until the following Monday. Those latter months were unpleasant, but I still managed to make do. I’d rip open that box and whip through the 30 or 40 books in a single weekend and then just wait around for the next shipment. Tick tock.

Aside from evolving my reading habits into something more akin to binge eating, I had other factors to consider. I was planning on buying quite a few titles digitally as they became available on mobile app the same day as print. That would shorten my pull list for print comic books, and the economies of scale would undoubtedly start to fail me. I also missed the weekly routine. Most of my childhood was spent figuring out ways to get my parents to understand why it was SO IMPORTANT that Wednesday was the day they needed to drive me to the comic book shop. How was it not clear that Thursday is JUST TOO LATE? With so many new projects developing last year that started to respark that nervous, impatient, got-to-have-it-now feeling in me, I really had no choice but to find a brick-and-mortar comic book shop I could call second home.

The choice, however, was not as easy as one might suspect. Many parts of the United States, and indeed the world, have very few comic book shops, if any. I have met more than a couple readers that must drive over an hour to hit a store. Of course, I could never consider living in such a place. Then again, I also could not purchase a home that does not have a massive storage locker attached. I may be what you call a ‘special case.’ Chicago, fortunately, has the opposite problem: I drive within spitting distance of a dozen comic book stores on my 40 minute commute to work. Three are within walking distance of my house. So how to decide?

My shop — mine because I have now picked it, and therefore it should consider itself mine — is managed by a funny, articulate, friendly and smart lady. Let’s call her Shanna. And because her name is actually Shanna, that shouldn’t be weird. I picked Shanna’s shop when it became obvious to me that she possessed the two things I most appreciated in the world: she would be diligent about the accuracy of my pull list (!) and she would ensure my weekly visit didn’t feel like just another chore. I love bringing my comic books home every week, but I love stopping in my store to hear what else is happening almost as much. I talk to a lot of people on Twitter about comic books all week long, so I’m not entirely sure why it matters so much to me to hear what Shanna and her team think or are seeing or what they’ve read. But it really does. A recommendation from a live person, with whom you have face-to-face conversations and trust, oddly still matters in 2012. Who knew?

Dara before

Image Comics’ The Sword is a recommendation I received from Shanna, when I asked her for a book she really enjoyed that might not be on my radar. Crafted by brothers Joshua and Jonathan Luna, The Sword introduces Dara Brighton, a college art school student living at home with her parents. Dara has been in a wheelchair for a few years, but in every other way seems to be living an unremarkable life. Her best friend Julie is a little badder than her (not too bad, though), she receives what every former art student understands as a glowing critique, and she still comes home for family spaghetti dinner after class. Stereotypically, the normalcy of suburban life changes instantly with a knock at the door during dinner. I can comfortably say, however, that’s where the clichés end.

Three strangers wielding strange powers claim to know Dara’s father, demand to know the location of a sword, and don’t stop asking until the house is in flames and everyone but Dara is dead. Her fate seems sealed as well until a beam loosened by the expanding fire falls, pulling Dara through the burning floor. Assuming a paraplegic to be doomed in these conditions, the mysterious trio leave the scene without finding the item for which they came. Dara would have been doomed, in fact, if she didn’t catch a glimmer of light on the unfinished basement floor. Grasping a silver handle just peeking out of the dirt, Dara’s body begins to magically heal itself from scratches, burns and even long-term damage, as she stands for the first time since she was 16 years old, sword in hand.

What follows is a revenge story that could easily have mimicked almost every super-hero origin ever written, and thankfully does not. The sword carries with it great power, having arisen from a complicated and mystical origin all its own, but it doesn’t bring to the bearer a glamorous life. Dara is quickly on the run, with Julie and one of her father’s students, from all manner of magical and authoritarian threats. The power Dara now possesses isn’t easily controlled, to somewhat gruesome results. Unsurprisingly, every horrific outcome adds to her desensitization and propels her determination to avenge what has happened to her family. This was never meant to be a bloody journey, but this blade is no mirror to the soul. If Dara ever thought revenge would bring back the peace of her middle American family life, her process for achieving it would have evaporated that possibility completely.

somewhat grusome

Jonathan Luna’s illustration of Dara never diverges from a matter-of-factness that underlines how normal and human a girl she really is. Grasping the sword heals her legs, but it doesn’t increase her cup size, volumize her hair, or inspire Dara to start wearing a bathing suit into battle. Tones throughout the book are pleasantly muted, and action is contained in small sequences, not splashed across double-page spreads. The art, on the whole, is very quiet, the perfect background for the very loud emotional turmoil running on every page. Every battle is obviously a struggle, and none of them are clear victories.

Overall, The Sword is precisely what I imagine would happen were one of my neighbors or fellow commuters to get great power they weren’t adequately prepared to receive. At her root, Dara is a prime example of how fascinatingly human comic book characters can be, if written well. The only catch is that in this case, her humanity is best illustrated not through compassion or heroism, but in the insidiously unavoidable nature for self-destruction most human beings possess, but don’t have the means to so colossally enact.

Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He works a day job as an art director for several non-profit organizations, but spends his dark nights and weekends fighting the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.

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