by Andy Wolverton
I have strong childhood memories of raiding my older brother’s stashes of Creepy and Eerie when he wasn’t around. Even though those magazines contained black-and-white stories (as opposed to the color comics I read), they were larger-sized publications and unapologetic in their depictions of horror — nothing was held back, and anything could happen. There were monster stories, ghost stories… You name it, those magazines had it. But the stories that drew me in most were the western horror stories. Maybe that had something to do with the plethora of TV westerns at the time, but none of those looked anything like the westerns in Creepy or Eerie. There was something both unnerving and yet oddly compelling about good guys in white and bad guys in black mixed with the supernatural.
The Dead Rider: Crown of Souls by Kev Ferrara (who has done work on Creepy, Aliens vs. Predator: Deadspace, and Deadlander) recaptures many of the elements that made those Warren Publishing titles so alluring, yet Ferrara isn’t simply imitating stories and styles from the past; he’s creating something unique.
As the book opens in Nevada in 1892, everyone is looking for a mysterious being called the Dead Rider. The U.S. Calvary is tracking him, a renegade gunfighter called Cobra is mowing people down to find him, and an Indian shaman keeps a close eye on him. All the while, the Dead Rider is seeking to evade them all while desperately hunting down the Bog Witch, who is responsible for the Rider’s unfortunate condition.
We soon learn the story of how Jacob Bierce — whose name reminds us of the writer Ambrose Bierce — came to be the Dead Rider, how he was tricked by the Bog Witch into giving up his soul to become one of the living dead. Jacob is set on getting back his soul and destroying the Bog Witch, but she has her own plans: to garner enough souls to activate the Crown of Souls, which will grant her immortality.
Kev Ferrara does it all here, story, art and lettering, and although his work in all three areas is impressive, the art is absolutely spectacular. Ferrara has definitely spent time reading the same Warren magazines I did, and you can see the influences of Frank Frazetta, Berni Wrightson, Angelo Torres and others, yet Ferrara is far more than just an imitator.
Consider the story’s very first page where we see Cobra leaning on a rock, watching the movements of the U.S. Calvary. The detail of Cobra’s long coat, the rock, the tree next to him, the way the shadows keep him hidden, are all impressive, yet Ferrara balances this detail with the spaciousness of the countryside he’s surveying. Add to this the spectacular color choices and the placement of Cobra’s speech boxes, which actually create a sense of confinement in an open space. All this from the first half of the first page.
Yet Ferrara also expertly paces, choreographs, and balances each page of his story. Page 47 gives us a glorious half-page shot of the Dead Rider, galloping up a mountainside, creating a feeling of movement and energy. What follows are three descending panels: an incredible picture of the Dead Rider’s eye as he considers Cobra’s moves, then next, in which the Dead Rider makes a discovery, another which shows the briefest of moments at the beginning of a gunshot, and the final borderless panel of that gunshot’s consequences. The Dead Rider is filled with such pages.
Ferrara’s writing is equally impressive. Each of the characters in the story contain more depth than we might expect from a supernatural western comic. Jacob is not only dealing with his present, but also his past and future, recalling a past filled with promise and mistakes, and a future he hopes that will allow him to regain some of his dignity and worth.
The Dark Rider (which collects issues #1 and #2 and the previously unpublished issues #3 and #4) is filled with other nice touches, including speech bubbles/boxes that differ in color and style with each character, the skull-and-crossbones bullets used by the Dead Rider, and a border of skeletons and gun belts that adorns each page. The volume includes a gallery of discarded pages, unused vignettes, and a few pages of Ferrara’s process from sketches to final product.
Get your copy of The Dead Rider as well as other titles mentioned in the review: