Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Raptor’

“And I dream I can spread my wings; flying high, high, I’m a bird in the sky”

The last Dave McKean book I read was Celluloid, which certainly was … something. McKean is a fascinating creator, and anything he does is worth checking out, so of course I was going to check out Raptor, which is from Dark Horse.

McKean subtitles this as “A Sokół Graphic Novel,” as the main character is called Sokół, although it’s not quite as straight-forward as that. I’m not sure why McKean does this – it’s the first time this character has been seen, so it’s not like it’s a selling point, and it doesn’t feel like the kind of book that lends itself to multiple stories with the character, although I suppose McKean can do what he wants with it if he so chooses. It’s a bit odd. But it’s fine.

We begin with our protagonist, who wears a hard mask (it looks plastic, but as the book is set long before plastic became a thing, it’s not … it just looks like it), has a pet bird of prey (a … raptor, if you will), and apparently fights monsters. The first part of the book is beautifully if a bit pretentiously narrated, as Sokół stands on a beach and his bird fights what appears to be a giant crustacean. After the fight, he finds an ancient coin on the beach, the holder of which gets to be “maer” of the town, but Sokół doesn’t want it and gives it to one of the townspeople. So far, so good.

But then we shift to a church graveyard and a small house, where a young man named Arthur has just buried his young wife. His brother visits him and convinces him to come with him to his meeting of some kind of secret society, where they draw tarot cards, stand in weird alignments, and try to communicate with things beyond this world. As this is fiction, we naturally think this will lead to disaster, but other than Arthur having a vision, nothing seems to happen. Meanwhile, Sokół wanders in a wood, finds a ruined building, takes a book off the shelf, and begins to read it. The book feels a bit familiar to us, and later, when Sokół is at a pub, he realizes that the words in the book have changed since he read it a few hours earlier. It turns out that Sokół is the character in Arthur’s latest book, and when Arthur changed some of what he had written, Sokół saw the changes appear in the book he’s reading. They each figure out pretty quickly that they can “communicate” in this way, and so the book takes a slightly more metaphysical aspect. It’s not a unique trick, but it’s not a bad one, either.

The book is partly a meditation on grief and loss and moving past it, as Arthur is depressed about his wife’s death and doesn’t know who to live without her. His writing about Sokół becomes cathartic for him, but if his character is self-aware, how much catharsis can there really be, and does Arthur have any right to put Sokół through anything dire? Sokół seems like the kind of person who enjoys fighting monsters, especially as, in a not-terribly-subtle moment, McKean shows that he’s comfortable fighting things that don’t look like monsters but are nevertheless monstrous (it’s odd that the two best graphic novels I’ve read so far in 2021 – this and Barry Windsor-Smith’s Monsters – use this “Oh, no, the true monsters look like us!” theme and use it effectively), but again, we know he’s a construct of Arthur (yes, I’m aware that they’re both constructs of McKean, but I’m talking about, of course, within the “reality” of the narrative), so how much of Arthur is in Sokół, and does Arthur’s desire to fight monsters translate to “fighting” whatever killed his wife (the book is set during the 1800s, so whatever killed her could have been as minor as the flu) and striking back against those who perhaps did not do enough to save her? McKean keeps it opaque, for the most part, but what makes the book so good is that the subtext is there, and as Arthur works through his grief, we can see how he perceives the world a bit better. Sokół, for his part, wears his mask and does his job, but he slowly opens up to the world, and in doing so, realizes that he can have a larger purpose in it. That his first decision turns out to be a bad one (unbeknownst to him, but still a bad one) isn’t his fault – the point is that he’s able to engage with the world a bit better, implying that Arthur is ready to move past his wife’s death and the weird secret society that drew him in and live in the present. As I noted, it’s not the most unique story in the world, but McKean tells it very well.

Given that it’s a McKean book, the art is amazing. For the parts starring Sokół, he uses a thicker line, with a lot of chunky blacks and intricate folds in clothing and feathers on birds. His monsters remain shrouded in fog, but their scale is impressive (and he does give us more details on the second monster, although it’s still not as detailed as the other characters). When Sokół wanders in the woods, the trees are twisted and textured, creating gnarled mazes through which our hero must navigate, and the pub where he discovers the book’s secret is rustic and homey, with salt-of-the-earth patrons. McKean contrasts this with the more wealthy section of town, which is medieval but opulent, hinting at the rot underneath. Sokół works in liminal spaces, guarding the frontier of the “civilized” from the shadowy creatures that threaten it, and McKean does a wonderful job showing that while also showing that civilization isn’t always the best thing in the world. When he switches to Arthur’s story, he uses a much thinner and softer line, which allows him to blend in Arthur’s reminiscences of his wife much more easily and also implies a certain “softness” of the characters – in the story, after all, Sokół is a “doer” while Arthur is a wistful dreamer. He uses more shading, and the figures are slightly more abstract – Sokół and the others in his story are a bit distended, too, but because McKean uses stronger lines, they have a weight that Arthur and the others in the “real” world lack. McKean also has a few pages that turn out to be Arthur’s dreams, and they are even more abstract, as he uses brushes to create almost cubist figures, making the dreams a bit creepy even as they become more hopeful. It’s a wonderfully drawn and colored book, turning McKean’s tale into an epic of romance and tragedy, hope and foolishness. It’s a stunning work of art.

Raptor is an excellent comic, and it’s always neat to see good creators pushing themselves to do interesting things. McKean has always been an interesting creator, and he has never rested on his laurels, so a new book by him is always good to check out. So get to it!

(I apologize for the slightly wonky images. The book wouldn’t fit on my scanner, so I had to take photos of the pages I wanted to show!)

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

One comment

  1. tomfitz1

    BURGAS: I’m familiar with McKean, mostly through Gaiman’s Sandman covers, BLACK ORCHID, ARKHAM ASYLUM and CAGES.

    So, I’ll keep an eye out for this book, mostly because BURGAS says it’s good.

    Maybe we’ll see some more SOKOL stories if the book sells well.

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