Midnight Society: The Black Lake TPB Review

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Title: Midnight Society:  The Black Lake

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

Writer:  Drew Edward Johnson

Artist: Drew Edward Johnson

Colorist: Lizzy John (covers and chapter 1) and Daniele Rudoni (chapters 2-4)

Letterer: Steve Dutro

Review:  ★★★☆☆

Spoiler Warning!  This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed.  Read at your own risk!

A good way to pique my interest is a modern fantasy/supernatural yarn.  Doctor Strange is my favorite superhero, I’m quite the fan of Hellblazer and The Dresden Files, and a few weeks ago I made no secret of my great love for The Wicked and the Divine.  In Midnight Society: The Black Lake, I found an example of the genre with good art and an interesting world, but neither are quite enough to sustain the somewhat tenuous plot or give the characters much-needed depth.  It seems this is the first arc in a series of Midnight Society stories, and personally, I may have to pass on the rest.

The Black Lake opens with a flashback narrative with a mostly tangential relationship to the present day.  Though it introduces an important supporting cast member, Arcturus Finn, the flashback’s other protagonist, Kevin Kaycee, ends up a bit player at best and functionally not much more than the inciting incident.  The flashback does have a few things going for it, like the pulp aesthetic.  Drew Edward Johnson’s photorealism becomes hyperreal with Lizzy John’s dynamic lighting and general sepia feeling.  Arcturus wears gold, Rocketeer-like armor, replete with wing pack, and has an interesting dynamic with Kaycee, whose monocle and vest scream “gentleman adventurer.”  They’re friends and colleagues, but Kaycee is a status-seeking jerk and Arcturus has ideological differences with him, more concerned with preserving supernatural beings like the pixie they are hunting.  Therein lies another strength of this opening; it establishes a world in which the fantastic exists in an interesting way, where Arcturus and Kaycee pursue a winged, four-armed blue creature they describe as a pixie but is the same size as them, rather than a tiny creature a bit bigger than an insect.  It isn’t until later that the readers learn they had shrunk to the pixie’s size to traverse the cave system it calls home.

After this, we meet the main protagonist of The Black Lake, Matilda.  She is part of MI: Omega, which context implies is an arm of British intelligence that deals with the supernatural, led by Arcturus.  It would be easy for Johnson to relay all of this through an exposition dump, but also lazy, and instead he allows the art and situation to speak for themselves.  Arcturus assigns Matilda to a mission to rescue Kaycee, who went missing while looking for the Loch Ness Monster.  The pixie story is largely abandoned, except when Maltida eventually finds Kaycee, bleeding out and ready to die.  He is only barely relevant, and while his avaricious nature causes the Loch Ness Monster to run amok after he tries stealing its egg, I wasn’t invested in his rescue or what was happening with the Loch Ness Monster.  It was hard for me to decipher what Midnight Society is meant to be.  While it started out pulpy, it seemed to edge toward horror during the rescue mission, but never quite getting there.  There are interesting, exciting moments, like the Monster crushing a submarine in its jaws, and some moments work for building horror genre suspense, like a corpse smacking against the front window of Matilda’s submarine, but I don’t feel the pulp action elements mesh well with the horror elements.

Still, I do appreciate how Johnson draws the Loch Ness Monster: twisted, bulging, and fanged, not like the traditional plesiosaur depiction.  Underwater, everything floats very convincingly, and Johnson has a good grasp of the grotesque, evidenced by the Monster and the slightly ragged fins of Matilda’s mermaid tail when she uses it.  Daniele Rudoni’s colors bring a different feel than Lizzy John’s, but they still work with the art.  Things are a bit softer, but the palette keeps the mood by using deeper shadow lines.  I’m a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to see Steve Dutro make further use of special fonts, because the one he uses for the pixie screaming inhuman pronunciations of English words is aces, uneven white text on a black background, surrounded by a sickly green border.  On the other hand, however, there is at least one instance of the letters being poorly spaced and bleeding outside their balloon, which seems like something that could have been fixed in editorial.

Matilda was unfortunately less interesting than she could have been.  Arcturus found her washed up on a beach with amnesia and took her in, and I’m always wary of amnesia as a central component of a character.  With Matilda, it seems her only component until the end.  In a serialized narrative, there’s nothing wrong with sowing seeds then waiting for them to mature.  Later volumes will undoubtedly reveal both to Matilda and to readers more of her missing memories, but at this point, mainly it feels like a cheat, like she doesn’t need to have personality if she can’t remember who she is.  The most interesting characters are ones who barely appear.  Arcturus clearly led an interesting life between the pixie hunt and Loch Ness, and there seem to be subtle hints he may have been harboring an unrequited attraction to the married Kaycee.  A walk-on character named Andromache is some sort of legal liaison to MI: Omega and is implied to be from an island similar to DC Comics’ Themyscira.  The ending introduces a man named Michael Ludy, who apparently has multiple hims spread out across the world at any given time.  It’s with Ludy that Matilda starts to show the beginnings of character, when she expresses existential angst about working for MI: Omega and shows kinship and sympathy for the other strange things in the world, like Ludy, or the Monster, which she had to kill.  These beings, apparently, are the titular Midnight Society, named such by Arcturus.  But it’s only the barest hint of an interesting piece of worldbuilding that perhaps should have been more central to the story, rather than being added in on the very last page.

Though Midnight Society: The Black Lake contains a number of interesting concepts, it uses too few of them to make the world feel fleshed-out.  The protagonist’s primary character trait is “amnesiac,” and while there’s a glimpse of something more just at the end, that character work relies on worldbuilding not done in The Black Lake.  The art is good and fitting, meshing well with both colorists, but without a stronger story, I couldn’t connect with it.  The Black Lake is not a bad comic, but it does make me think of what it might have been.

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