The First Brush Stroke: Brilliant though he may be, Dan Watters isn’t always so easy to read. Coffin Bound, for instance, is this hugely layered, deeply metaphysical project that takes real time and investment to enjoy. Even his run on Lucifer delved heavily into philosophy and theology. With his latest project, The Picture of Everything Else, Watters leans heavily into those same tendencies for complicated, more robust worlds and accompanying narratives. Luckily, much like those other two projects, this one is as promising as it is ambitious.
Welcome to Paris: Pardon the bluntness, but my description of TPOEE is really going to be pretty straightforward. (And the only reason that’s worth noting is because there’s a few descriptions floating around online, and each one is both accurate and only reveals part of the puzzle.) TPOEE is about two friends/artists/art thieves, Marcel and Alphonse, mucking about in turn-of-the-century Paris. After stealing some goodies from some elites, the two become entangled with Basil Hallward, another artist and serial killer called the Paris Ripper. Dorian Gray is also referenced/involved, but it’s not 100% clear the extent in issue #1.
I won’t spoil too much more, but the issue ends in late 1899 as Alphonse and Hallward return to Paris after three-ish years and the old friends ready their union. I could spoil some other key bits, like how Hallward dispatches his victims, but I’ve already revealed too much. Just know it’s all quite visually thrilling and inventive in its supernatural spin.
The Heart of the Art: From all that alone, you may be either hugely intrigued or ready to go off and re-read old Superman comics. And I totally get it; this isn’t exactly the most accessible of series. It’s hard to tell what this series is about even in issue #1 — a meditation on art and the artist, a commentary on human relationships, a straight murder-centric scary story, or some combination thereof (it’s likely that last one). Plus, the setting, scope, and aesthetic feel especially niche, like having to watch a mostly accurate period piece.
Either way, this is the kind of book you likely have to trust in Watters, and hope that he delivers on the narrative itself. If this is something you half-ass, as it were, you’re not going to get much out of the series. Watters is building toward a much larger story, and even as the first issue unfolds with ample emotion and streamlined efficiency, it’s only a very small piece of the final painting. There’s going to be plenty folks who drop off in search of a more potent rush, and that’s absolutely OK.
A Show of Emotion: If you feel like you can stick around, though, there’s several things Watters does quite well in #1:
- The relationship between Marcel and Alphonse is amazing. It’s ripe with so much nuance and depth even in the early pages, and Watters makes it both a complex dynamic (with the introduction of a possible one-sided romance) and yet it still retains some of the ease and energy of two buds just pulling capers. Their connection will be the thing for everyone to latch onto in a big way as story evolves.
- The tone is utterly perfect from word one. Thus far, this series perfectly balances the vibe of crime thriller/murder mystery, coming-of-age story, and supernatural novel (with a dash vintage superhero tale, somehow). Even as it’s hard to wade through some of the early world-building, Watters manages to balance all these ideas and inspirations with true deftness. No one creates a mood and sticks to it quite like Watters.
- There’s just the right amount of twists. Despite my initial idea about how issue #1 would play out, Watters goes a slightly different direction. It all mostly ends at the same place, but there’s some other tidbits and boundary lines laid out that make things more compelling, and that really plays up the inherent tensions between Alphonse and Marcel.
Not Everyone’s Cup O’Tea: I said earlier that I’d understand why someone might want to bail after this first issue. It’s not just that Watters’ narrative/story might be a little too heady for some folks. It’s also that he tends to create characters that aren’t always the most accessible or relatable. Even with their great friendship facilitating so much of the first issue, it’s hard to feel a larger connection with either Alphonse or Marcel (especially individually). They’re not too good or overly evil; they just feel like two parts of a whole, and it’s that “entity” that has the appeal and charisma more than any of their “parts.” And because of that, it’s hard to root or cheer for anyone in this book thus far, which seems like a downside so early on. It’s this first issue we need to start laying the groundwork for character connections, and it’s more complicated than need be in TPOEE.
Similarly, the big baddie, the aforementioned Englishman, comes off a little one-sided, and more of a plot device for these evil machinations than any sort of deeply twisted, hugely interesting monster to explore. Will some of these issue resolve themselves in issue #2 and beyond? Likely, but as they are now, it’s much harder to care about these as individuals and not just some extension of a much larger story. To reference Watters’ Lucifer again, that character both A) perpetuated the story and Watters’ core motifs and B) came off hugely human throughout.
Art is the Heart: It’s not just Watters pulling off some big things within this debut issue. Kishore Mohan provides the art, and from panel one, he works just as hard to nail the same tone and aesthetic as his collaborator. Mohan’s art feels as if it were pulled directly from a Parisian artist’s sketchbook circa 1898, and it exudes both an old-timey beauty and symmetry, from the vintage line work to the rich, slightly dusty color palette. There’s a certain balance of both romanticism and grit to Mohan’s work, which not only furthers that larger aesthetic, but expertly plays on some of the core ideas and motifs of this story. (For instance, the nature of creation itself and the relationship between art and the artist.)
And, to a significant extent, Mohan’s work feels like a proper reflection of Watters’ story: there’s a kind of depth and complexity that the visuals are attempting to strive for, even as they seek to also remain accessible and display a more universal sense of humanity. The end result is not only a more aligned story, but also one that both challenges the reader while fostering a rich emotional experience that feels deeply important. The art helps Watters’ story retain its heft and edge while giving us something to follow (delightful characters) — without those, this may just feel like a deeply meta exploration of the creative/artistic process.
To a New Dawn: I’m a huge fan of Watters’ work, and I think TPOEE could be a great addition to his rich canon. It’ll take a few more issues to see if it gets tangled in its own meta explorations of art and creation, or if it can retain that nougaty core of emotion to make things fully interesting. It’ll be a journey regardless, and if Watters’ track record is any indication, he’ll be able to help pull of something interesting no matter. And if not, at least we can always say we’re smarter for having tackled this book.
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