James Maddox is the indie writer you haven’t heard of but should definitely look into. He’s written a series of one-shot comics including Blue Nemesis, The Horror Show, and his latest release, Clown. Maddox is currently writing the on-going series The Dead, and has even participated in Gail Simone’s Comic Survival Kit project on tumblr with his piece on self-publishing comics.
I recently received the opportunity to read two of Maddox’s stories, his recent one-shot Clown, and his on-going The Dead. In both stories Maddox establishes a very clear writing style. His characters are well established and relatable.
In Clown, the protagonist, Jared Bastian, is a very blunt and self-aware man. A former journalist, Bastian is realistic without coming off as overly cynical. After losing his job, he worked as a freelance writer until landing a gig as a circus clown. Bastian never appears bitter over this development, merely compliant if dissatisfied.
When the circus troupe has to put on a specific show to honor their country’s royal monarch, a resistance party crashes their show and takes one of the performers hostage. Bastian saves his captured companion and becomes the nation’s hero.
Within the span of a day, Bastian is thrust into the high class world of the aristocracy, moved from his tiny run-down circus trailer to a high rise flat with a view. The Crown wants to reward him for his service and give the public the hero they’ve been cheering for. Bastian accepts these luxuries, even when they want him to dress up as a clown and perform a reenactment of his heroic deeds in front of the country.
Bastian has a nice monologue detailing his employment history. It serves to establish a background explaining his willingness to go about life constantly pursuing the simplistic goal of better pay, easy life. Which makes the climax of the story all the more satisfying when Bastian refuses to compromise his integrity for that very goal.
Reading Maddox’s Clown I was reminded of a book a I love by French author Albert Camus called, The Stranger. Both Bastian and The Stranger’s protagonist Meursault have a similar indifferent attitude about them. This attitude leads Meursault to being accused of murder, while Bastian’s attitude leads to him living an mediocre life.
What attracts me to both characters is their final acts of defiance. Meursault refuses through his indifference to play into societal niceties and thus is punished for it. Bastian refuses to play into his monarchs power games and thus is punished for it. Both characters reach a state of catharsis through these acts and finally find a sense of pride in who they are.
Maddox’s real strength is in his world building, which particularly shines in his on-going The Dead. This is a story that follows the afterlife adventures of a colorful cast of characters that live in a mysterious place called The House. The House contains a series of rooms that belong to various dead individuals created through their own thoughts and imaginations. Beyond the rooms lurks a wide variety of creative and disastrous monsters that can kill The House’s inhabitants, sentencing them forever to an afterlife as part of a huge wave of other dead souls.
The story opens with Sam Coleman, recently deceased, awakening in his very own pitch black room. Before he has a chance to begin recreating his room in his own image, he finds himself running from the wave of lost souls that travel through the house. From there he meets Alex, a mysterious man who is on a desperate chase for a man known as Arthur. Alex saves Sam after he is nearly eaten by desert rats, but abandons him soon after in Devi’s bar.
Devi, a well respected and shrewd businesswoman, created a “game” called The Bottle Snatch. The game was created to relieve some of the boredom of the afterlife and distract the populace from the more horrific aspects of the house. Players volunteer to snatch rare bottles from various rooms within The House and bring them back to Devi who sells and distributes them in her bar while also encouraging other participants to place bets on whether the players will survive or not. In reward for their services, players achieve social status as well as information about The House through Devi. Their target goal is her covenant bible; a collection of all the information gathered about the house.
Sam takes Devi up on her offer and soon becomes a celebrity by bringing a series of rare bottles. Meanwhile, Alex seeks Devi’s assistance in finding the wayward Arthur. Devi and Alex strike up a deal, Devi will provide Alex with assistance if he–with the help of others–can capture the monsters that roam in The House and fill up her prison turned zoo.
Which is where the story, at an easy to start seven chapters, is currently at. The world of The Dead is intriguing and well built. The story is mysterious without being frustratingly vague. The characters are all very distinct from their motivations, from the way they speak and act. While little has been revealed about the characters themselves, Maddox has a knack for establishing distinct personalities in each of them.
What I personally loved about The Dead is that the concept is so interesting and the characters are all very gray. There are no real good guys or bad guys, and the antagonists vary between the more obvious monsters of The House and the characters themselves. Devi is neither good, nor evil, she is just a business woman seeking to make profit within a desolate afterlife. Sam is no hero, merely a man seeking answers. The side characters, such as Velouria a realist hatchet wielding loner, and Kate a ten-year-old ball of mass mayhem, are quirky and fun organically.
I also liked the inclusion of religion in the story. While not overt, religion does play a part in the comic from Devi’s own Bible, to the Christian Bible, and even a discussion of a “God” room that exists in the house. The use of religious lore within the book is executed in a refreshing way that’s not heavy handed, but not frustratingly vague either. As a reader I simply became curious and wanted to seek answers much like Sam did. Arthur, the man Alex is so desperately seeking, appears to be some sort of religious metaphor himself as soul who may have God-like knowledge and ability in the house. Since Devi has knowledge, but tempts souls into dangerous acts to earn it, does that make her a Devil, or the real God of The House?
These sort of questions intrigued me about the world of The Dead. The characters kept me entertained, and the concept kept me engaged.
Preview art from The Dead #1.
Both books are worth picking up at Comixology, though I found myself preferring The Dead more. Maddox is certainly a writer to keep an eye on. While dialogue may seem stiff in a few places, or there’s too much exposition, overall his work is worth looking into. The Dead is probably one of my new favorite indie comics to date and I can’t wait to read more of the series.
Maddox is a strong example of the fact that with talent plus a lot of hard work, you can self-publish a great comic and start carving out a place for yourself in the industry. If you want to seek more information about Maddox take a peek at his site and check out some of his other work.