Phantasmagoria (#1 – 5, Black Caravan edition) – El Torres

4 out of 5

El Torres was why I bought Amigo Comics. …While his running of that imprint definitely made me more favorable towards their titles, I’ll still admit that the ones I’ve held on to have primarily been his titles, but if Amigo started up again, I’d be right back in there, picking ’em all up. In short: Torres leans horror, but even when he’s not writing that, his works are always, reliably, a great balance of ideas and character, and manage to take some of the most expected tropes – zombies, for example – and inject them with newness thanks to that balance, and also without relying on some easy cover copy “twist” premise. That’s kind of why I feel he hasn’t necessarily taken off in the mainstream (from my perspective), because pitching a Torres book maybe makes it sound kinda standard, whereas reading it is transportative.

He also has the great fortune of matching himself / being matched with amazing artists, through and through. That’s particularly interesting here, with Phantasmagoria, a book he started at Amigo with one artist, and is now republishing and finishing through imprint Black Caravan (another respectable horror imprint) with a different artist, both very much bringing their own flavor to the text.

I’d say my first review, linked above, still essentially stands – it is the same story, after all. The notch in rating isn’t due to seeing that story to its conclusion – I actually think some small tweaks to the tone Torres made from the previous publishing make a huge difference in setting up the key character juxtapositions more intriguingly – but I did find Joe Bocardo’s digitally-touched art hard to parse at times, which slowed down some key scenes. While Joe’s ink-drecked art is much more visually horrific than the artists on the initial outing (and the consistency is certainly nice, since each issue in the Amigo version changed artists), the blending of possible photo-reference faces with the black-splattered look and then digital coloring (it’s not strict b&w, with many gray tones) plus digital spirit effects… Sometimes it can be hard to tell who’s who, or what the focus of a panel should be. These are ultimately minor hiccups, as Joe’s layouts are generally excellent, but enough to take note of.

Storywise, excepting a puzzling final shot – am I to know who’s pictured in the last panel, and the one person who it possibly looks like to me… why? – this is very satisfying, paying off on the tale’s main crux in a truly unexpected fashion. And maybe that last panel is just setting us up for another volume, which would be too excellent.

Phantasmagoria takes place in jolly olde 1800s-era England, and presents us with an occult-summoned spirit who escapes and begins to wreak havoc. Enter Professor Hawke, our “good” spiritualist, who stymies the police looking into the related deaths and begins to track down the spirit; and enter his seeming nemesis, Edwin Drood, who may be “evil,” and possibly seeks to control the spirit. And for all the well-written dialogue and groovy art aside, that’s a normal enough supernatural setup. Except in his updates to the book, the exact relationship between Hawke and Drood doesn’t square with good and evil as much, and as things go along, it’s a “typical” Torres bit of genius: their history is at first a trope, but then reveals itself to be much different than that, which helps to inform why the ending is so good.

I hope Black Caravan provides Torres with another stable home, and we can begin to see an increased roll-out of his works…