Salem Brownstone – Just your usual art-deco gothic fantasy children’s book…
by John Hattis Dunning and Nikhil Singh
“A wonderfully imaginative and stylish piece of work and a perfect example of the adventurous new directions that comic books should be taking in the future.” Alan Moore.
That Alan Moore quote on the back of this children’s book pretty much sums up Salem Brownstone for me – because from the beautiful hardback cover to the Aubrey Beardsley influenced / inspired artwork and the decidedly dark and unsettling story of Salem Brownstone, it’s pretty obvious that this is a children’s book for decidedly grown up and possibly slightly strange children.
This is something for the teen discovering unusual art, dark moods, the work of Aubrey Beardsley, Lovecraft, Gorey, Tim Burton films and Neil Gaiman fantasy characters – indeed the style and especially the characters are very reminiscent of Gaiman – make the characters as weird and unusual as you can – and then back it up with great storytelling.
First impressions here are very, very strong. It’s wrapped in a gorgeous purple flock hardback cover, large enough to feel like a Euro comic album or perhaps some exotic spell book. Flip it open and it’s very different to your normal teen book; great organic font throughout, matching perfectly Singh’s art that wouldn’t be out of place in some 70s underground comix:
(A children’s graphic novel or some bizarre 70s comix work? Look at the lovely detailing – the art-deco, that raised eyebrow. Wow. From Salem Brownstone © 2009 John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh)
As you can see from the art on display across this review, it’s a lush, delicious mix of gorgeous clean line work on the figures, all big open white faces and an incredibly detailed background technique that includes art deco / art nouveau stylings, masses of shadow, tons of cross-hatching and much more. Gothic meets 70s Underground. The darkness of the backgrounds merely emphasises the incredible moments throughout the book where Salem’s flights of imagination or moments of magic take him to a pure white backdrop – it’s visually jarring and brilliantly effective stuff.
(Perhaps not what Salem was expecting he’d find in his father’s house – meet Cassandra Contortionist. She wont be the strangest person he meets this night either. From Salem Brownstone © 2009 John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh)
The story’s a simple one really – young man discovers his dead, largely absent father had a mysterious other life, goes to investigate and finds himself imperilled – classic teen fiction really. Salem Brownstone, a young man of modest means receives word of his father’s death by telegram that instructs him to take possession of his father’s house and it’s contents – something that will irrevocably change Salem’s young life. Because his father was no ordinary man and within moments of venturing inside the house he discovers his father’s strange tastes in interior décor, his magician’s costume and a strange contortionist girl sitting inside a pentagram with his father’s scrying ball. This is just the start of Salem’s new life – a life filled with surprises and new dangers – as he soon finds out when the mysterious and deadly shadow boys pile in through the windows of the house and he and Cassandra Contortionist are forced to flee to the nearby circus which has had dealings with the Brownstone family before …. it seems his father’s legacy to Salem also includes an unfinished battle with some mystical and deadly force from another world.
And that’s just the first 10 pages or so. It only gets stranger and better from there. The opening half of the book, maybe three quarters of it is just wonderful; strange, dark, intriguing, packed with delicious possibilities and interest, lots of great characters thrown in front of us and the prospect of an epic battle for Salem as he takes his father’s place and continues his fight.
(Salem meets Cassandra. The night gets stranger and stranger. Loving the artwork again – those backgrounds, the detailing, the organic and slightly threatening smoke. More wow from Salem Brownstone © 2009 John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh)
But it all slightly falls down in the final quarter and the reason it fails is that the story spends so much time doing all those wonderful things I’ve just described that the ending comes off as a rushed, inconclusive and messy thing. After it did so well to begin with – relaxed, intriguing, full of bizarre little detailing and ever so beautifully illustrated the rush to get to the end is such a let-down. If only the book had another 20 or 30 pages it would have been absolutely wonderfully entertaining and strange stuff. I’m assuming that this is merely the start of a series, but that still doesn’t ease my disappointment at the rushed ending.
In some ways the criticism of the ending is magnified simply because, on the basis of the first 50 or so pages in this 80 page story, this could have been, should have been wonderful. But if I told you that the pacing problem still doesn’t ruin it, just makes me wish they’d had those extra 20, 30 pages to get it absolutely right I hope you get an idea of how very good, how deliciously strange and wonderful Salem Brownstone is. The story may be too short and the pacing may be off, but the characters steal the show, beautifully illustrated by Nikhil Singh and perfect for anyone, child or adult who likes a little bit of strange gothic fantasy in their lives.