(Bret M Herholz/Rori Shapiro/Peter Simeti; 74 pages; ALTERNA COMICS; 2008) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT
In younger days, my parents and I would gather around the television on Sunday evenings to enjoy a PBS program called MYSTERY!, an anthology of murderous delights hosted by Vincent Price and, later, Diana Rigg. That sentence is relevant to this review on a few levels: First, this story is a murder mystery; second, it features artwork inspired, no doubt, by Edward Gorey, the creator of the original opening animation for the show; third, though the story takes place in Massachusetts, there is something very British – like most of the tales presented on MYSTERY! – about the style of storytelling used here. And, finally, of course, is the fact that the convergence of those first three, added to my already professed enjoyment of the MYSTERY! series, means that I really like A SINISTER AURA and would certainly like to see more of THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES.
The story itself is “loosely based on real events” that occurred in 1899, updated here to 1929 and featuring the fictional amateur sleuths Polly Plum and her very prim, very proper, very British valet, Montgolfier Handgraves. As befits such a tale, it is a dark and stormy night as the pair seek refuge from the inclement weather in a small town just outside Worcester. The intrigue is well underway upon their arrival, as the police have arrived at the Hampstead mansion across from the inn. It would seem that the Hampstead’s only son, Lionel, on the virtual doorstep of matrimony to Ivy Proust, the eldest daughter of the town’s other leading family, has committed suicide because, according to newspaper headlines, he was “to timid to marry.” Miss Plum is, apparently, much more than an amateur sleuth, as she begins to have visions of two men, one with a wound amazingly like the one suffered by the younger Hampstead. The visitors find the police to be vague, tight-lipped and just a bit shady. With minor subterfuge from Handgraves, Polly sneaks past the local constabulary and into the Hampstead home to investigate the scene of Lionel’s demise. Unfortunately for Polly, the one police officer who senses that all is not right, Detective Fiske, catches her moments before the man of the house walks into the room. Outraged, Mister Hampstead demands Polly’s removal. As the case moves into a second night, Polly has another dream of another supposed suicide, this time Ivy Proust’s mother; Fiske contacts her to join him at the cemetery, the scene of the… incident. Things begin to fall into place after Handgraves interviews a person close to both victims and Polly and Fiske confront Hampstead once more. The wrap up is quite satisfying without cutting any corners.
Herholz’ home town history and his imaginative retelling of the story goes a long way toward proving that much of the best comics and graphic novel material is coming from independent sources like the phenomenal Alterna Comics. Likewise, Bret’s art (ably aided by Rori Shapiro’s gray tones and the unique lettering style of publisher Peter Simeti) offers something beyond the Manga and drawn-by-a-five-year-old styles that are prevalent in some of the majors’ books (uh… cough, cough… Marvel!… cough). As mentioned above, his style reminds me very much of the masterful Edward Gorey; but, I also see elements of another master of the understated macabre… Charles Aadams himself (something about the eyes and the mouths and, of course, those creepy mansions). At first glance, the art doesn’t seem all that elaborate or complex but, dig a bit deeper and check out those odd perspectives and the minute details hiding in the background ink lines and cross-hatching. Miss Shapiro’s work on the original pen and ink adds a certain eerie depth to Herholz’ stark black and white art, a real plus on this particular story. Bret’s (and Rori’s) work is also on display in several other graphic novel titles from Alterna, including a Sherlock Holmes mystery and an anthology called CONFESSIONS OF A PECULIAR BOY.
As for this book, it does come with some “bonus material.” A message from Herholz regarding his desire to do something based around the 1899 murders in his hometown of Spencer, Massachusetts that became the focal point of A SINISTER AURA, in which he takes us through the creative process. Of note is the creation of the fictional members of the story, particularly Polly and Handgraves. It was always Bret‘s intent to make Polly the defacto leader of the pair, with Handgraves becoming, as he puts it, “the and… ” of the team. There’s also a bonus short piece called THE AUSTEREFIELD FAMILY REUNION, another bleak look into family dynamics. This time around, the story reads like a fairy tale and Herholz’ art is unadorned by the gray tones of the title feature, which seems to work best for this peek into the morally corrupt Austerefield clan. Unfortunately, the print version of THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES: A SINISTER AURA is no longer available but, you can still pick up a digital copy from ComiXology. Do it now… your eyes will thank you (and, by extension, me, so… you’re welcome).