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'Crone' #1 review: Epic fantasy with a bloody, beating heart

Comic Books

‘Crone’ #1 review: Epic fantasy with a bloody, beating heart

A tale of second chances and revenge begins with raw emotion and empathy.

'Crone' #1 review: Epic fantasy with a bloody, beating heart

What do you need for a great comic book? An epic storyline? Extended robot fights? Appearances by 1,000 members of a beloved fictional universe? Even more robot fights? Nope, just one good character, someone to get you caring about the odds and to give a hoot.

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Crone has just such that character, and it makes all the bloody difference.

Written by Dennis Culver (Burnouts), and with art by Justin Greenwood (Stumptown), Crone is the tale of the titular warrior queen, a Conan-esque fighter who once carved a path of evisceration through the land as Bloody Bliss. She’s older now, and thinking of her sweet release opposed to decapitating foes. Until an old threat emerges, and Crone must pick up her sword once again. It’s very much a book about second chances, in the vein of an Old Man Logan, a tight meditation on regret, death, vengeance, and shaping one’s legacy.

Issue #1 does an incredible job of laying out the Crone/Bliss character. From moment one of seeing her tempt fate on that icy mountaintop to her general demeanor, this is a woman at the frayed end of a long and bloody life. She’s got regrets galore, and she’s simply wants to be done with existence as a whole. So when this blast from the past does occur, we see within her some spark of life, and her once chilled core surges briefly with the promise of a final grand battle. Does she need that final glory? Maybe not. But this development could finally be her awaited end, and it’s Crone’s chance for the finality she craves.

Culver’s depiction of Crone is one where you not only empathize with her lot, but are nearly giddy when you see the final roll of the dice the universe has presented her. She is your stand-in for any feelings of remorse and longing, an avatar to cast aside the decay of life and seize destiny by the throat one more time. It’s a subtle thing to make a great character, but Culver’s efforts to heighten her misery and cast Crone as the ultimate tragic hero are truly magical. Maybe you don’t want to be her, but there’s a sense we’ve all experienced some amalgamation of these sentiments, and that’s both alluring and utterly terrifying.

'Crone' #1 review: Epic fantasy with a bloody, beating heart

Much of that has to do with the fact that Crone’s a woman. In my interview with the creators, even Culver noted that “this story wouldn’t exist without Bliss being a woman.” On the one hand, it makes sense from a purely fantasy-driven aspect — the genre’s full of Xena or Sonja types (which influenced the look and vibe of this series), these great warriors who are smart and capable, kicking dude butt and mastering their destinies. But there’s something more, and this book’s scope, a specific tale of vengeance, only works with a female protagonist.

Which is to say, someone measured. Look at, say, The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, Bruce Wayne/Batman is angry, and he wants to save Gotham from the ravages of mutants, but he’s so quick to leap back into his spandex suit and smash skulls. As stoic as Crone may be in the face of a new challenge, there’s still ample hesitation. She’ll fight because that’s likely who she is, but that doesn’t stop her from experiencing this profound disconnect. She’s done what she needed, with true ruthlessness to boot, and she’s been living this meager life, as she says, and that creates within her a magnificent distance. Who she is now and what she was are both a finger’s length away and on opposite sides of a vast ocean of time and emotion and memory. There’s tension with her, and it’s likely to grow and tighten through the next chapters. Watching Crone navigate this maze will be a great joy, and Culver’s built her to maximize the impact of what should be a daunting journey.

Of course, you can’t have a great hero without their polar opposite, a much-hated antagonist. Without spoiling too much (though perhaps you’ll connect the dots through this review alone), there’s such a heinous fiend for Crone in the form of D’Kayde. He sort of looks like every nasty fantasy black knight you could ever imagine, or if The Mountain and Bane had a child and that kid was raised by Sauron. He’s meant to be a kind of Jason-esque character, this relentless, nigh-unstoppable fiend who is nothing like the exhausted, remorseful Crone. But Greenwood made a great comment in our interview that stuck out to me, in which D’Kayde is described as “covered with armor that is much closer to who he is at his core.”

So while he’s very much a true terror, that comment hints at greater real depth, some shred of awareness of his humanity and his need for protection and projection. That may not be the creators’ intent, but it’s essential there be something under that helm for readers. It’s a way to humanize this nasty demon, to make his eventual defeat (or victory, who knows?) feel all the more resonant. He may be a violence juggernaut, but when Crone and D’Kayde do grapple, there may be some greater metaphysical or emotional stakes at play.

'Crone' #1 review: Epic fantasy with a bloody, beating heart

If my obsession with the characters in this book feels a little uneven, it’s only because there’s so many delightful layers teased with issue #1.  Yet the art is just as vital in telling this specific story in a very specific way. To some degree, Greenwood’s art (aided by the epic colors of Brad Simpson) feel like every fantasy comic/story we’ve ever read, brimming with larger-than-life characters swinging around blood-soaked axes. But there’s so much more there — it’s the grimace on D’Kayde’s face; Crone’s green peepers brimming with fire and still chilled by a long life; and even more subtle looks and glances form the supporting cast.

If a good character is a player in a much grander story, then the art equips these heroes and villains with layers of nuance and history. Their lives play out not just in the dialogue but their very faces. All that ties together to make this a deeply character-driven story, a tale of people and their actions and what it all means. Whether they’re cutting down baddies with a long sword, or conversing about the past, there’s so many great entities here driving the story onward.

If you want to feel what happens after the battle’s over, Crone can be your guide and paladin.

'Crone' #1 review: Epic fantasy with a bloody, beating heart
Is it good?
A tale of second chances and revenge begins with raw emotion and empathy.
A story in which large, emotionally-driven characters shine bright.
A fantasy setting that's both familiar and brimming with new life.
A hero and villain clash with real stakes and real baggage to boot.
A character-centric fantasy tale may be too slow for some.

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