The Highest House #1,
The arrival of any new tale by Mike Carey is always going to ping my reading radar, be it comics, prose or his screenwriting; Mike has a wonderful ability to take elements you’d expect and want in genre tales, but to always twist them into something fresh and unexpected. Mike back in comics and working with his old collaborator from Lucifer, Peter Gross? Yes, that was always going to be something I wanted to read, and I grabbed it eagerly from the racks of freshly baked comics as part of my lunchtime reading haul.
The first thing that struck me about this first issue (apart from Yuko Shimizu’s lovely cover artwork, seen above) was the format – instead of the normal US comic book format this is squarer and broader, more like a Prog of 2000 AD. And I’m quite happy with that as it allows Peter Gross’s artwork to be shown off a bit more than the narrower pages of the standard US comic format would allow, and that is a Very Good Thing.
We open with a scene that could easily have come from a classic Hammer Horror movie (deliberately, I would imagine), the small, backwards rural village and the fancy coach and horses of a highborn person pulling into it, the locals kowtowing to the powerful and wealthy new arrival. But this is no lord, this is the Magister, a mysterious man who acts as agent for his lord, and who appears thoughtful and clearly harbours hidden secrets and talents that make him quite formidable, even aside his influence, station and access to wealth. He and his manservant are there to inspect possible slaves – not in the normal rough fantasy way (and indeed real world, often) of simply taking people into bondage by force, he hold court in the inn and the locals are all too eager to bring along those they wish to sell to him.
One such is a young boy, Moth, we’ve already seen playing by the nearby stream; his mother wishes to sell him and his sister. It’s like a scene from a dark fairy tale, like Hansel and Gretel being abandoned by their parents, and the reader feels sorrow for the children and anger that any mother could consider such a thing. But we soon find out the mother is racked with guilt, she has no wish to sell her children, but she has others and she simply cannot care for them all. As she begs their forgiveness the emotional bias changes from anger at any parent selling their child to sympathy for someone in such a wretched position that this is the best they can do for their children; it’s a clever switch and it has obvious overtones to the real world and the often desperate things some are forced to by circumstances.
Most of the rest of this first issue is taken up with young Moth and other newly purchased slaves being lead away behind the Magister’s coach to the Highest House where he will be given to one of the trades in the noble house. But it is clear Magister sees something deeper in this child, something Moth himself isn’t really aware of yet, and he has plans for his future, other than just being a new slave at the house. Along the way we also learn a little of the history of this world as Magister explains to Moth with a nice variation on a Magic Lantern show (a nice device to fill in backstory for the reader), of previous wars of religion and conquest, of the Highest House, those who once lived it in it (now gone, every one), the current great family and more hints of details and world-building to follow.
(please excuse the poor quality of the image here, it was too big to fit whole onto my scanner and I had to stitch two image pages together rather clumsily, it really doesn’t do it justice)
Peter’s artwork, it will not surprise you to learn if you know his body of work, is quite simply gorgeous here, the characters just on the right side of cartoony, the world he depicts somewhere between late medieval and the faux-Victorian of the Hammer movies. It goes from close-up character scenes to some simply gorgeous pages, the kind you just stop your reading flow at and drink in the imagery, such as Magister’s historical magic lantern show, a series of increasingly wider, page wide panels, each with some beautifully rendered lettering through the art, giving us a glimpse into the past of this world, how it came to be as it is, or a centre double-page spread reveal of the Bridge of Sorrows arching above a deep ravine (looking like some of those found in the former Yugoslavia) to the Highest House itself, tinged with that “mittel-Europa” feel to the architecture flavoured with nods to medieval and renaissance Italian hills towns too.
It’s simply ravishing to take in, a beautiful piece of fantasy art as Moth’s new home is revealed to both him and us. I’m looking forward to losing myself in the rest of this series…
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