Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Crossing Midnight v1 – Cut Here

Mike Carey, Jim Fern, Mark Pennington
Vertigo (

Crossing Midnight is built from the folk tales of a culture not often explored in Western literature – the old Shinto belief system of Japan. While Japanese culture is hardly ignored by the West, particularly in the anime-loving fringes of geekdom, it’s rare to see a work of fiction by a western author attempting to explore Japan on its own merits rather than re-casting the narrative in a more western-friendly context.

Cut Here, the first of three volumes, begins elegantly. We open on its young heroes – Toshi and Kai Hara, twin brother and sister – as they await the coming of some sinister figure. Then we rewind to 1945, and the bomb which fell on Nagasaki; leap forward, to the twins’ bomb-scarred grandmother and her insistence that her son pray to the Kami for a healthy birth.

From the birth onwards the narrative progresses in a more linear fashion, but such chronological hopscotch in the first four pages of the comic rattles you, puts you on the defensive from the off. Even without the twins’ dread, you can’t help but feel there’s something out of sorts here. It’s a clever piece of writing, planting the seeds of unease without giving the reader a focus on which to project their fears – there’s only ‘him’, who is coming for Toshi. It’s clever writing, foregrounding the theme of cause and consequence which winds through Crossing Midnight; it’s also storytelling which leans heavily on the strength of the art.

Thankfully that aspect of the novel is more than adequate – the imagery is rich and distinct, painting the city in monochrome cloud and overlaying the dark, organic shape of the mushroom cloud with the unnatural lines and bright colours of the Kami’s shrine. Elsewhere in the volume, the lamp-cast shadow of a hand stretches up and curls over into the threatening form of a dragon. Such effects are beautifully scripted, and the bold colouring gives the shadows an inky menace.

The art also provides an effective sense of time and place. Flashbacks to feudal Japan and the origins of the Hara family are stylised and sketchy, perfectly accompanying the imprecision of the oral tradition through which they’re related. There’s innovation, too – watch as a dreamer in hospital is threatened by demons, which break the fourth wall to rip and crumple the comic’s framing of those idyllic dreamscapes.

If the art of Cut Here is excellent, the writing comes close to matching it. The relatively untapped well of Japanese mythology gives the story an imaginative freshness, while the narrative itself it constructed with meticulous care. All this is raised higher by a supporting cast of top-rate characters, given a depth of personality which both makes them memorable and adds to the richness of the setting. Take, for example, the blind, wizened leader of the gangsters which threaten Toshi and his father towards the end of the book; he is accompanied by the human equivalent of a seeing-eye dog, who answers his master’s cries of ‘Nicholas, describe’ with blandly-delivered commentary which nonetheless seems obscene in its penetrative clarity. Then consider the moment when Nicholas’ voice fails him, a silence which presents the reader with an unexpected flash of humanity: the sense that this, too, is a man, with all the complexity such a label brings. Cut Here seems to delight in such complexity, in the murky greys which lie between clear-cut good and evil.

If the book has a flaw, it is that there seems little effort to craft a story which stands along in its own right. While a final narration pays lip service to the idea of closure, there’s no attempt to disguise the fact that this is merely the first act of a larger story. As such, even as the dazed narrator struggles to comprehend what’s occurred over the course of the preceding pages, his fevered dreams present the reader with tantalising images of what is yet to come. And yet, for all that the narrative is only just beginning to kick into gear, there seems a certain thematic completeness to Cut Here. As the book ends Toshi and Kai are casting off the mundane world of the everyday, stepping out into an uncertain world their  parents can do – and have done – little to prepare them for. As they leave their parents behind, it’s hard not to see the twins’ embrace of the supernatural world as some kind of metaphor for growing up. Whether that’s a reading which will stand up once the story has run its course remains to be seen, but either way Cut Here is a fresh and powerful opening – one which makes me eager to return to Crossing Midnight.

This review was originally written for