“You’re the star of the masquerade; no need to look so afraid”
This is the album cover of Holy Diver, the first Dio album, which was released in 1983:
Do you look at this album cover and think, “I wonder who that dude is, and why that angry-looking demon thing is chain-whipping him?” If so, then you might enjoy the graphic novel of the same name, in which Steve Niles, who never had a batshit idea that he didn’t immediately commit to paper, decides to tell us who that dude is and why that angry-looking demon thing is whipping him with a chain. He roped in Scott Hampton to draw it, Jennifer Anderson to color it, Troy Peteri to letter it, and then he got Z2 to publish it, and away we go!
I’ll be honest – I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Dio song (although Ronnie is in the running for ugliest man in rock history, so there’s that). I mostly missed the 1970s heavy metal explosion, so when all the dudes from that decade were making music in the Eighties, I was ambivalent toward a lot of it. So I know nothing about Holy Diver except the album cover, which I suppose is a perfectly fine way to come to this book. Niles might reference songs on the album, but it doesn’t get in the way of the story, because I didn’t notice it. So that’s nice.
The story itself is just okay – nothing awful, but nothing too original, either. At some indeterminate period in history – given the ship that we see early on, it could be any time from about 1200 to 1900 – Father Emil Berrett, whom we learn early on is a fairly extreme Christian, lands on an island determined to spread the Good Word. Almost immediately he comes upon a village where everyone is performing some sort of spring rite – dancing around a Maypole, you get the gist – except that half of them are completely naked and many wear hoods completely covering their heads. These are the kinds of shenanigans up with which Father Berrett will not put, and he begins preaching, only to have them completely ignore him. Then the dragon flies overhead, and Father Berrett is stunned that these people worship the actual Great Serpent. When they take their hoods off, some are horribly deformed, and he says it’s because they’re so danged sinful. They drag him to the village elders, who wonder why he’s armed if he comes “with the purest intent,” as he claims, and they throw him in a large cage in the middle of the town so he can think about what he’s done. Berrett is, naturally, not the kind of person for critical self-reflection, and he decides he must convert the children stealthily (because they’re always coming to check out the weird dude in the cage) so that they will turn against their parents. He also finds out that the dragon protects the village and they make sure it has nice goats to eat, which of course does nothing to dissuade him from his holy task. He manages to escape in time to get back to the shore, where the ship is supposed to pick him up (and then he plans to return with an army), but the ship smashes against the rocks, so he’s truly stranded. The village elders show him some kindness and invite him to stay, but only if he doesn’t bother them with his beliefs. Of course he agrees, but the village elders really should have known better. Father Berrett isn’t going down quietly!
If you look at the cover and know a bit about what dragons represent, you can probably figure out the rest. That’s kind of the problem with the book – its predictability. Now, I certainly don’t mind predictability in stories – one of the most annoying trends in storytelling is when writers desperately try to come up with “twists” just because they can – but when it’s just plodding toward a predetermined outcome, it gets tiresome. Niles does nothing with the story that even hints that Berrett might have some doubts, or that something might stop him doing what he’s going to do, or that he won’t have to deal with the consequences of his actions. The villagers being nice to him isn’t even that surprising – of course the weird pagans are actually cool earthy-crunchy types (although, to be fair, they’re not always cool earthy-crunchy types), so the fact that they let him out of his cage isn’t terribly novel. Niles does this a lot, unfortunately – he’s a great idea man, but the follow-through doesn’t always live up to it. He’s done some very good things, but most of the time, his work remains in the “entertaining, but a bit disappointing” category.
The same can be said for Hampton’s art, which is still pretty good even though it’s not as good as it used to be. I hate to be an old man yelling at clouds, but some artists don’t work as well in digital, and Hampton is one of them. His art style really hasn’t changed that much, and it’s still a nice, kind of medieval style that works well in a story like this, but his use of digital effects for, say, the cage that Berrett is kept in is kind of wonky, as it appears cut-and-pasted onto a bigger picture without any attempts at integration. He does this a couple of places, and it’s vexing because it’s clear that his line work is as solid as ever. The coloring differences don’t help – occasionally we get colors with a lot of rendering, which is fine, but there are some odd places where the colors are flatter, and it looks out of place. Anderson should have picked a style and run with it, because the two don’t blend very well. Some of the backgrounds were clearly not drawn by Hampton, simply colored, and that robs the climax, for instance, of some of its power, as the dark sky behind the scene is a bit distracting. Digital coloring has become much better over the past 15 years, so there doesn’t seem to be an excuse for the dichotomy presented here.
I don’t love Dio: Holy Diver, as is clear. But I don’t hate it, either. It’s not a bad story, just a bit predictable, and Niles’s attempts to get to that album cover are kind of interesting. Despite its predictability, I’m always interested to read a book about the clash of Christianity and paganism, simply because it’s such fertile ground. Niles doesn’t quite get into it as much as he could, but the underlying tension is still there, and that makes the book entertaining. It’s a weird concept, but not a bad one. I’m sure there are plenty of album covers that could spawn graphic novels, if someone wanted to turn this into a cottage industry!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆