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Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery
Written by Dave Roman; Illustrated by Jason Ho, Raina Telgemeier, Jeff Zornow, Dave Roman, and Jen Wang
SLG Publishing; $10.95
I keep seeing the same discussion every time someone asks a bunch of Hellboy fans where the best place is to start in the series. On the one side, you have those who are really interested in the whole mythos and character development and discovering the secrets behind Hellboy’s origins. On the other side are the folks who prefer the standalone short stories and feel that Hellboy’s personality and humor comes through best in these mini-adventures unhampered by the darkness and heavy drama of the longer works.
Of course, every Hellboy fan will agree that it’s the combination of the two types of stories that really makes the series fun, but there’s still that polite disagreement about the best way to ease into the whole thing. I bring that up because Dave Roman faced a similar choice in introducing readers to the world and adventures of Agnes Quill and he made an interesting decision. It’s not the one I would’ve made, but I’m not sure it was the wrong one either.
Roman has obviously put a lot of thought into Agnes. Though the stories in this anthology are mostly unconnected, standalone mysteries, bits of Agnes’ back-story keep creeping through. Her dead grandfather, the family castle he left her, the events surrounding his death, and the reason why he still appears occasionally to talk to Agnes all loom over the girl detective and affect her stories. We’re not given concrete details about any of it; in fact, we never actually see her grandfather appear. We’re just told that he does sometimes. I like though that there are unanswered questions and a deeper mystery to pull me into future volumes.
What we are given is a collection of four stories: two of them short, cartoon-like tales and two of them longer, moodier pieces. The short ones are illustrated by Raina Telgemeier and Roman himself. Telgemeier’s story “Lost and Found” has Agnes going into the catacombs beneath the city of Legerdemain to retrieve a dead girl’s doll. Roman’s “Invite Only” show’s Agnes’ being invited to a party under false pretenses (a dead boy really wants to hire her to help him move on to the next world, but has to be sneaky about it out of fear of the poltergeist who controls the house).
If you haven’t figured it out yet, Agnes can see dead people. Like the kid from Sixth Sense she helps ghosts resolve their unfinished affairs so that they can move on to the afterlife. The difference is that with the help of a voodoo practitioner who may or may not be a spirit himself Agnes has built a business around it, operating out of the curiosity shop on the ground floor of her castle. Her dead clients will direct her to hidden treasure or family heirlooms or whatever as payment. It’s a cool set up, more for the readers than for Agnes who always seems to be having trouble making ends meet. Ghosts aren’t always the most reliable clients, especially when they have the tendency to disappear and move on once you’ve helped them.
Telgemeier and Roman’s stories are fun and cute (Roman’s has Agnes fighting a possessed teddy bear, for example), but it’s one of the longer ones that’s my favorite in the book. It actually has two names, “The Mummified Heirloom” and “The Divided Man,” reflecting the two cases in it that Agnes is trying to solve simultaneously. In “The Mummified Heirloom” Agnes is trying to help the spirit of an old woman named Beatrice retrieve an expensive necklace before her wicked nephew can take it. “The Divided Man” has Agnes looking for the lower half of a man’s body after he’s accidentally sawed in half at a magic show.
I love “The Divided Man” mystery mostly because of the solution to it, which of course I won’t reveal, but Beatrice’s story is great thanks to Beatrice herself. She’s funny, but tough, and her spite for her nephew is matched only by her fondness for Agnes. I’m sort of in love with Beatrice, so it makes me happy that she sticks around after her case is completed to assist Agnes with some of the others.
The fourth story in the book is another two-in-one piece called “Zombie Love Trap” and “Buried Homes and Gardens.” Unlike the other one though, the stories in this piece don’t overlap much. “Zombie Love Trap” is mainly just a teaser before the main story about an underground city whose vampire-like citizens (they aren’t vampires, but they shun sunlight and their leader has a romantic charm about him that’s commonly associated with Anne Rice-style bloodsuckers) are in danger of being destroyed. I’m tired of zombies and Anne Rice-style anything is something I tend to avoid, so I had a hard time connecting with this one. Not through any fault of Jeff Zornow’s wonderfully atmospheric artwork though. Zornow’s version of creepy, Victorian Legerdemain is a place I want to visit and though I’d think carefully before going inside his haunted house, I could certainly sit on the sidewalk outside and stare at it for hours.
Here’s the thing though. While I enjoyed each of these stories on its own merits for different reasons, it was when I got to the book’s back matter that I grew dissatisfied. Not counting a beautiful gallery of Agnes interpretations by a widely diverse set of contributors, the back of the book is made up of an Agnes “field guide” and pages from her journal. These are all very interesting, but I got frustrated when I realized that this was how I was going to get Agnes’ back-story.
Roman still leaves most of the mystery about Agnes’ past unsolved, but we learn way more about her grandfather here than in the stories and there are other aspects of her life – like her parents and her miserable experiences at her current school – that the comics portion of the book barely touches on. Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate knowing this stuff and it makes me very happy to know that Roman’s thought so much about it and has this all figured out in his head. But I’d much rather read about it in comics form in a future volume.
With this first book Roman had a choice between diving right into the heavy mythos stuff and just showing us some more-or-less random adventures. I think he chose just fine, but I’d rather he left the mythos stuff a total mystery for later books than reveal it in journal entries. The thought of reading a full-length graphic novel in which Agnes explores her own background is a thrilling one to me. And maybe we’ll still get it. I just think I’d enjoy that hypothetical book more without knowing everything I learned in the text pieces of this real one.
Four out of five possessed teddy bears.