Let us here at PoP! guide you through a minefield of books that seem full of win from the word go, but which once you crack them open have you shouting… It’s a Trap!
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Minck Oosterveer
Published by BOOM! Studios
Usually the “It’s a Trap!” column intends to warn discriminating readers about comics that may seem good but are in fact awful. Today’s column is a bit of a departure in that it covers a book that in itself isn’t bad but doesn’t quite live up to the promise hinted at by the glowing praise plastered all over the front and back covers. When I found the hardcover collection of BOOM! Studios’ The Unknown Volume 1 at my local library, I was immediately drawn to the quotes on the cover from such reliable sources as Ain’t It Cool News and master comic scribe Ed Brubaker claiming that this is one of the best comics to come out in many a year. The first few pages of the collection feature an introduction by the great Gail Simone singing the praises of this four-issue miniseries by popular writer Mark Waid. With all of these endorsements from people and websites whose opinions I trust, I decided to give the book a shot, and in my opinion, the book did nothing to warrant all that praise. It’s not a bad comic, but it is definitely not a great one.
The main character of The Unknown is a brilliant, Sherlock Holmes-ian private investigator named Catherine Allingham who has solved every case she has taken. In the first segment, she hires former bouncer James Doyle as her apprentice because she admires his ability to read people and clearly see the truth behind any situation. Most of the book is seen through Doyle’s point of view, as he soon discovers that Catherine is suffering from a malignant brain tumor and has six months to live. After they travel to Europe to track down a mysterious artifact that was stolen from two bizarre physicist twins, Doyle finds out that Catherine took the case because she feels like it will enable her to decipher the secrets of the afterlife, which is the one mystery that she has yet to solve. Their quest ultimately leads them to a Gothic castle, where they come into contact with a secret society intent on protecting this secret, whatever the cost.
This is a really cool concept, and the idea of a character obsessed with solving an impossible mystery such as this is a good one, but for some reason, none of these things really gel into a truly satisfying read. Waid’s script is fun, and Minck Oosterveer’s art is bright and colorful, but we never really get to know Catherine and Doyle as characters because the book sends them off on their case seemingly right off the bat. Catherine’s tumor is personified by a vision she keeps seeing of a large, pale, ghoulish gentleman who looks like a cross between Tombstone and Lurch from The Addams Family. This phantom character becomes an important plot point later on in the book, but it’s quickly put on the back burner as Waid gets to the real meat of the story. All of these dangling plot points are sure to be picked up again in later installments of The Unknown, but in this introductory story arc, these aspects frustrated me. I know that ongoing series or recurring miniseries such as The Unknown tend to keep their readers asking questions so that they will pick up the next installment, but these aspects of the plot didn’t do much to entice me to keep reading.
That’s not to say that The Unknown is not worth checking out. It’s a decent read, but it didn’t hook me like the quotes on the cover led me to believe it might. I’m also confused by the way the main character is portrayed. She’s supposed to be a super-smart, tough-as-nails detective, but because this is a comic book, her blouse is always slightly unbuttoned to allow a little cleavage – because nothing’s sexier than a terminally ill chick. That’s just off-putting to me. Waid is obviously trying to establish some sexual tension between her and Doyle, as he keeps trying to talk to her about her true intentions regarding her impossible quest. The only trouble is that, at least in this introductory volume, there isn’t any considerable chemistry between the two characters, so it fails to establish any real drama or “will they or won’t they before she croaks” tension. If Waid can spend more time developing Catherine and Doyle’s characters in Volume 2 in order to make readers care about them, The Unknown may actually live up to the potential hinted at by its premise, but this first volume only gets 3 out of 5 Disintegrating Train Passengers.