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‘The Many Deaths of Barnaby James’ OGN (review)

Written by Neil Gibson & Brian Nathanson
Art by Piotr Kowalski, Brad Simpson,
and Saida Temofonte

Published by Dark Horse Comics


I’m not a big Stephen King fan and yet some of the best horror novels I have ever read have been by King.

The Many Deaths of Barnaby James from Dark Horse is not in any way connected to Stephen King but it gave me the exact kinds of visceral thrills one gets from King’s well-written nightmares.

It’s a layered tale set in a uniquely dark world and a city that has been clearly defined long before we readers were ever introduced to it.

This is a fact borne out by the back matter of this book.

Our young protagonist is Barnaby James, a grave digger and a circus boy in the creepiest circus you ever saw, run by the distinguished, powerful, and somewhat evil Azlon.

Azlon, you see, has a magic wand of sorts that can bring dead folks back to life. Barnaby, who we are told died many years earlier, begs Azlon to bring back to life his long-dead one true love, Delilah. As he has in years past, the cryptic ringmaster refuses. This time, however, Barnaby steals the wand and decides to go and do it himself. This, of course, does not sit well with Azlon who sends an inhuman bounty hunter type called The Fiddler after our hero.

But that’s just it.

Barnaby isn’t really the hero of the book, only, as noted above, its protagonist. In his determined quest, he meets some of the most insane characters I have ever seen in comics and several of them get what amounts to their own story arcs. In fact, Barnaby is killed again (not a spoiler. See the book’s title) and thus unavailable for one long section.

The book is quite violent. It’s not quite to the level of, say, Ed Piskor’s Red Room series, which is the most violent thing I’ve ever encountered that I’ve actually enjoyed. That’s because Ed’s books are so well-written. This one is, as well, and is actually much deeper than I had expected.

There are not only uniquely crafted settings and characters but also a number of completely out of the blue twists, all of which add depth to the characters. I gather from the editorial material in the book that The Many Deaths of Barnaby James was a very real collaboration between its creators: Neil Gibson, Brian Nathanson, Piotr Kowalski, Brad Simpson, and Saida Temofonte. Every single one of these names was new to me going in but they’re on my radar now.

With a beginning, a middle, and a very definite (and yet openly ambiguous) end, the story deftly uses literary devices such as flashbacks, multiple perspectives, and foreshadowing. It plays with the reader’s perceptions, gives us false leads and false hopes. It even helps if you know some Latin! The book’s hero, as noted, is shown not to really be a hero, but so, too, are the villains—as bloodthirsty as they are—shown not to be entirely evil. Well, some of them anyway.

All in all, The Many Deaths of Barnaby James is a very adult, NSFW product in almost every way it can be—well written, well-paced, well-drawn, and just another good example of what can be done with the comics form by truly creative people who don’t rely on redoing everything that has come before.

Booksteve recommends.

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