If you meet enough fans of this medium, one of them will inevitably tell you that "Dark Horse Presents" hides some of the best new comics in the mainstream market. The ongoing stories in this anthology often pass under the radar, since they're even more serialized than their competition. With fewer pages per month and a steeper price tag, it can be tricky for a single story to draw any readers in on its own. Dark Horse has found a way around that problem for Steve Niles and Menton3's "Nosferatu Wars" by collecting all the installments from "Dark Horse Presents" #26-29 in a one-shot.
The collection format lets the reader immerse herself for 32 pages, a real gift to a series whose chief strength is its atmosphere. The vampires Moria and Tarquin aren't exactly fascinating characters. They're a standard, humorless set of immortal lovers; heady with passion and unchecked in strength, they're arrogantly isolated from anything but meeting their own narrow needs. But even though I don't care why they're doing it, it's involving to watch them exercise their power together.
That's mostly because artist Menton Matthews III, better known as Menton3, is astounding. He mixes pencils that look like sketchbook snapshots with hazy, digital shading that looks like something out of video game concept art. The effect is unlike anything I've seen recently; when asked to draw the Middle Ages, few artists come back with a desolate mixed media hellscape. My only complaint is that at times the colors look obviously rather than artfully computer-generated.
Compliments aside, all of this would simply be pretty to look at it if Menton3 didn't have a real way of giving the characters motion. Moria and Tarquin leap naturally into unnatural movements. Their actions only look inhuman in the way that those of ravens or lions look inhuman. I was initially worried when I saw that their bodies were mostly black blobs, a technique which lends itself to static stage pieces, but instead Menton3 takes advantage of the fluidity that gives him.
"Nosferatu Wars" also has no real sense of time. It's supposedly set during the height of the Black Plague, but the lord they attack is dressed like one of Mozart's contemporaries. It's entirely possible that the team just messed up, but I'd like to think it's a bit more artful. What fashions were in vogue when seems like precisely the sort of thing that vampires who'd lived for thousands of years would mix up. I've only been alive for 20-something and I can barely remember what clothes I wore in high school.
Niles' script overcomes its more well-worn plot elements by doing less with them. His narrators don't expound or elaborate on any of their statements, so clichés like "Enemies in life. Lovers in death" don't feel as if they're meant to be particularly meaningful. When a writer isn't betting on the cliché to carry the story, it doesn't detract as much. The spare, declarative tone matches his characters' arrogance, and it's complemented by the surprising, subtle choices in Menton3's panels.
However, there is something unfinished and disappointing about "Nosferatu Wars." It's clear that the creative team was gearing up for a bigger arc, as the text is full of foreshadowing for it. When I reached the surprise reveal at the end, I finally saw where they'd been headed. Unfortunately, since this is a one-shot, it seems that they won't get to expand that idea.
Still, this is a beautiful short story. The mystery doesn't ruin the experience; it simply makes this a glimpse into Tarquin and Moria's world rather than a history of it.