The DEADcomic Overlook #138: Walking the Lethe
““We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name.” — Charles Lamb
So, what is this “Lethe”?
It’s admittedly an interesting word. I’d imagined that it perhaps was Celtic in origin, owing to the unique spelling. I was wrong. “Lethe” has its origins in Greek mythology. (Curse my inadequate folklore mythology knowledge!)
“Lethe” is the name of one of the rivers in the Underworld. Using Wikipedia, I discovered that the term has been adopted to a variety of usages, almost all appropriate. Lethe is also the name of a river in Alaska, which probably doesn’t do much to increase real estate value in the region. Pictures of the river do impart an Underworld quality. There’s a Sailor Lethe, part of the Sailor Moon metaverse that, if you dig deep enough, can seem to resemble a damn frightening hellscape. Lethe is also a genus of butterfly, which at first doesn’t seem all that hellish at all. Hell butterflies? It is black, though. I don’t know about you, but if Hell had butterflies, they would more than likely be black. And on fire.
The term also appears as part of the title for Walking the Lethe, written by Dan Potter and illustrated by Sam Ireland and Aditia Wardhana. It’s about a man who straddles the world between life and death, and in so doing unleashes forces that mortal man was not meant to see.
Walking the Lethe is the product of an international collaboration. According to the review copy I received from the author, Dan Potter is a vascular biology researcher hailing from Maastricht, Netherlands. Our artists hail from half-a-world away. Sam Ireland, who illustrates the first two chapters, hails from Australia. Aditia “Adwarr” Wardhana makes his home from across the pond in Balikpapan City, Indonesia. And yet they story is set in Boston, Massachusetts. People from the Low Countries, the Southern Hemisphere, and Southeast Asia writing a story with a title rooted in Greek mythology about Americans on the East Coast? I’m curious about the interpretation, to say the least.
There’s a certain air of Gothic romanticism, by the way, about a vascular biology researcher writing a horror comic. I imagine a guy in a white lab coat, perhaps stained with a few small flecks of blood. Perhaps his writing a few notes in room with shelves upon shelves of blood samples in vials. Perhaps there’s a nice chart on the wall showing the human body stripped of its skin and illustrating the organs and musculature underneath. Potter then chats with his illustrators overseas, one of whom being an avid heavy metal music enthusiast. My scenario is all conjecture, but you’ve got to admit, it’s also very cozy mental imagery.
Anyway, Dan sent me a nice review copy of Walking the Lethe by email. I got to read the entirety of Chapter 4, which has not yet been fully released on the website. I’d seen one of Walking the Lethe‘s excellently rendered covers (this one drawn by Mr. Wardhana) in promos, and I was excited. The attractive, eyecatching compositions bursting with wild colors stoke my curiosity to see what the comic was about.
Walking the Lethe explores a common theme in fiction: that of a man trying to bring his dead wife back to life, and not only getting denied that one thing he’s wanted, but inadvertently making everything worse. In my experience, the same theme was explored in at least one fantasy series (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn) and one critically acclaimed cartoon (the redone Mr. Freeze origin from Batman: The Animated Series).
Why do I find this sort of story so compelling? Perhaps because it encompasses a wide range of heavy, intersecting themes. First, there’s the notion that death should not be dominated, but should be accepted. Second, the story illustrates that there’s a very fine line between love and selfishness. Finally, there’s the sense that not only must you worry about getting what you wish for, sometimes what you get is nowhere close to what you were even wishing for.
Our main character, Richard Harrison, dabbles in an ancient and possibly Satanic ceremony to resurrect his wife, Catherine. He basically worships her due to all the good work she did in life by saving thousands of lives through work in her charities. As you can expect, things go awry. Richard first starts hallucinating that everyone’s a zombie and goes on a neck-snapping spree. Richard then finds himself committed to a hospital. He finds out that his actions have brought a demonic spirit into the world, and while he’s confined to his bed, she’s taken his form and is running loose in the city.
If that weren’t enough, Richard is coming to grips that all this was probably for naught. Why did he want to resurrect Catherine in the first place? Was it for love? Or was it out of guilt? Flashbacks show that Richard and Catherine did not have a happy life together.
The first two chapters turned out to be a little confusing to follow. Part of this is due to Sam Ireland’s artwork. He has trouble depicting scenes that call for emotion, which mostly appear either staged or unappealingly flat. The awkward juxtaposition of hand-drawn artwork and 3D models — such as a scene that includes 3D rendered furniture or a parking lot filled with featureless vehicles that look like they were pressed out of a silicone Jell-O mold — will never fail to take me out of the story.
Wardhana’s work is much, much better. His work is rooted in more traditional black-and-white illustration, where gradients are used effectively to give everything, including half-formed ghosts, a sense of volume and texture. There were a few scenes that were breath-taking: a multi-faced statue, the transformation of a Ford Thunderbird from a car to an actual thunder bird, and the approach to the Twin Towers.
A disturbing thought occurred to me when I approached the Twin Towers scene. Haven’t I reviewed webcomics that have used 9/11 as a thematic element before? There sure were. Both Grim Tales From Down Below (reviewed here) and Jack (reviewed here) have infamously used the New York World Trade Center are a plot point. I also gave both webcomics one star. I’m not saying that 9/11 are so sacred that no one can ever use the event as a plot point. Writers, though, seem to have no idea whether to treat 9/11 as a traumatic event or as merely set decoration. Grim Tales‘ depiction was especially transgressive: Bleedman tried to have it both ways, chastising those who took the scene too seriously, and yet included the scene in the first place to give his comic a misplaced sense of emotional gravitas.
However, I have no problem with how the Twin Towers are depicted in Walking the Lethe. Despite talk about how the Towers are the focus of a billion people’s “grief, hope, and hatred,” they’re still no deeper than a set piece. It captures the morbid fascination of watching a real life tragedy unfold, yet in our shameful hearts equating the imagery to action movies we’d seen. Wardhana’s artwork is more than apt task. His heavy shading makes the illustrations of The Towers appear solid, monolithic. Walking the Lethe may be the only successful depiction of the Twin Towers ever achieved in webcomics.
Despite that, though, the actual plot leaves much to be desired. Both artists have a difficult time presenting a cohesive story, as if there were a there were a disconnect between the artwork and the narrative. The artists are being needlessly flashy when the story doesn’t call for it.
Here’s an illustration of what I’m talking about: multiple times, we’re introduced to a new character. These new characters come with a winning combination of interesting names and impressive character designs. Some show up as spotted leopard creatures, others are suicidal apparitions that appear from a bullet. Yet, beyond, their intros, they never do anything interesting, and all seem to fade into the background soon after. They’re disposable characters. Mr. Done, for example. Is it wrong to expect a lot from a guy with an ominous name like that who dresses in a white fedora and seersucker jacket? Yet, I don’t ever recall the guy doing anything beyond sitting around and texting. If he was just going to end up as a nondescript lackey, he’d be more successful if he were dressed less outlandishly.
The plot also lacks much needed urgency. A more prominent character is Astria, the she-devil who’s manipulating manipulated Richard. You know she’s the main villain because she’s even got Utos, an angelic being, pissed off at her. Yet after reading it I still got no sense that I should care particularly about the stakes involved. This proves to be problematic: understanding Astria’s motivations on an emotional level is a fairly crucial element to caring why Richard is on his mystical quest and why he’s getting assistance from various supernatural allies. Instead, I’m more or less tolerating Richard just to get at the pretty, pretty pictures.
I suppose when a comic deals with long-form storytelling, you can always assume that these characters will do something of significance in later chapters. However, there’s literally no character that makes the reader care about the story going forward. Pretty characters make nice tattoo templates, but unless they have personality, they don’t make for a good story. In Walking the Lethe, they’re just window-dressing in a comic that has felt hollow and light on plot since Chapter 1.
Rating: 2 Stars (out of 5)
Posted on October 18, 2010, in 2 Stars, action webcomic, fantasy webcomic, horror webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Walking the Lethe. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.