Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Better Angels’

“There’s trouble on the street tonight, I can feel it in my bones; I had a premonition that he should not go alone”

While I was writing about Jeff Jensen‘s short X-Factor mini-series, I got this comic, which is also by Jensen and is, I think, the first thing I’ve gotten by him since X-Factor, so that’s a weird coincidence. Better Angels is drawn by George Schall, lettered by AndWorld Design, and published by Archaia, which is really Boom! Studios. Let’s have a gander!

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. There are some minor problems, but nothing horrible, and overall, it’s quite an entertaining read. Kate Warne, for those who don’t know, was the first female detective hired by the Pinkerton Agency. In 1856, she responded to an advertisement for detectives and convinced Allan Pinkerton to hire her (she did not, it seems, dress like a man to convince him, as she does in this comic). She died in 1868 at 34/35 (her birth date is unknown), but her legacy is secure, thanks to the story Jensen tells in this comic: she uncovered an assassination plot against President-Elect Lincoln in 1861 and helped thwart it, getting him to his inauguration alive and intact. Huzzah!

Jensen takes a while to get to the plot, because he wants to give us a good sense of Warne and her group of operatives, which she cultivates because she’s practicing what she preached to Pinkerton about women being excellent detectives because men don’t notice them (something that is probably still true, 160 years later). Jensen spends a long time on their first case, as Warne, masquerading as a medium, gets a man to admit to embezzling (and, of course, he beats his wife too). We get a chase through Chicago and Warne ends up in jail, but we’re introduced to her methods and some of her fellow detectives – an actor Warne admired and a black woman whose employer was the target of one of Warne’s investigations. Kate is sent to Baltimore because one of Pinkerton’s clients, a railroad magnate, is worried that rumors of secession will hurt his business. While investigating, Warne and a widow whose husband was high up in the government strike up a friendship, and the woman tells Warne about the plot to kill Lincoln when he stops in Baltimore on the way to Washington for the inauguration. Warne, of course, has to stop it!

Obviously, there’s not a lot of suspense in this book – we know Lincoln was inaugurated, after all – but there’s not meant to be. Jensen is more interested in giving us a portrait of Kate Warne and the other women she works with and what it was like for them, being detectives at a time when women were barely allowed to leave their houses. Warne herself is the prime example of what women are capable of, as she’s the star, but her actor operative is good at slipping into different roles, and the black woman who works with her is even better, perhaps, than Warne herself, as she’s black and a woman, so she’s even more invisible. Warne realizes during the course of the book that this works both ways – the woman behind the plot against Lincoln works the same way, as nobody takes her very seriously, either, but she uses that for nefarious ends. Even Mary Lincoln becomes part of this world, as she has to create a persona in order to be First Lady, and she needs to learn how to do that. Jensen does this effectively throughout the book – sometimes more subtly than others, but still effectively. Even before Warne becomes a detective (when this is probably more fictional than afterward, as little is known about her life then), Jensen does a nice job showing us how her mind works and how she constantly has to bang against the walls of the box men have put women into. Her mother, who taught her about freedom and urged her on, hasn’t the strength to break free, and her husband, who could have helped her, dies young, leaving her an even younger widow. So Warne has to do a lot on her own, with only other women as aides and confidantes, and Jensen does a good job showing how she does it.

There are a few issues I have with the book, but not big ones. There are a few obvious anachronisms – at one point a character says something “tastes like ass,” which I would be willing to bet a large sum of money on that no one in 1861 ever said, and at one point, Kew, Warne’s black operative, takes her to task because she’s so good at acting like a racist Southern woman, which Warne is very affected by, even though she’s, you know, playing a part. It’s a nice conversation and Jensen does a good job expressing Kew’s point of view, but it feels a bit too “modern,” and it also feels like Jensen is creating a problem solely to give Kew the speech. But it’s not a big deal. There’s a bit of confusion when Warne goes to infiltrate the assassination plot, as she mentions that Alice – the actor’s younger sister, who’s also working with Warne – is going to befriend the woman’s daughter, but we don’t even see her until many pages later, so when Warne narrates that, there’s some confusion over where Alice is at that moment. But again, it’s not that big a deal, just a minor annoyance.

Schall does a very good job bringing Civil War-era Baltimore and Chicago to life. They have a thin, light line, and they add nuance to the work by hatching quite a bit, but not in a haphazard, Jim Lee-esque kind of way, but in a very precise, measured way. This adds a bit of roughness to the work, which makes it feel more “olde-tymey,” as things were generally rougher back in 1861. When they want to make things a bit more genteel, they simply stops hatching so much, which is a nice trick. They do a good job making Warne and Hattie, the actor, look different enough that when they’re in disguise, we’re still able to tell who’s who, which is fairly crucial. They do well with some of the action scenes, changing the panel layouts to make them a bit more dynamic (they use angled lines to create triangles instead of simple parallelograms), and in one case, using lettering effects as panel borders (it’s a protest/quasi-riot, so they use a drum beat to separate panels and give us a sense of Surtur-like “DOOM” behind it all). They shine early in the book, when Kate chases her mark across Chicago. One double-page spread shows the two people running down the floors of the building she’s using, running into people as they go, with a bunch of interesting advertisements on the walls and other unusual stuff. As the chase goes outside, there’s a parade of pro-Lincoln agitators clogging the streets, and Warne herself gets chased by police because her mark – a man – claims she’s a “harlot,” and of course the cops don’t stop him, so Schall has all these elements to worry about, and the chase flows marvelously. Schall also does a nice job the few times the characters speak about their situations – even the villain and another slave-owning woman are drawn to be sympathetic when they talk about how hard their lives are without a man who cares for them, because having a man is the only way they’re taken seriously. It’s an interesting conundrum that Jensen brings up – they’re women, so they’re treated poorly, yet they’re still racist – and Schall does a good job making them more human.

Better Angels stands on its own, but Jensen does tease some developments that could be used in a sequel. And, of course, from 1861 to her death in 1868, Warne did get involved in other adventures, so perhaps Jensen has plans for more. That would be nice, but even if he doesn’t, that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good book to pick up. It’s a fascinating adventure with good and relatively unobtrusive social commentary, and that’s a pretty good mix!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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