With your Sandman and Hellboy and Fables being some of the most foundational works in modern fantasy, the insertion of fantasy tropes into contemporary, real-world trappings has become a sort of strong, proud comic book tradition in the last forty years. The juxtaposition of magic and the cold, concrete world we know makes for a striking canvas with which to critique society, modernity, and skepticism.
To find a unique, fresh place to play with this sort of story isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always successful; the very central gimmick needs to be rich ground in which to plant seeds for said juxtaposition. The Ward, from Cavan Scott and Andres Ponce, seems to have found the perfect setting: a hospital emergency room.
The medical drama is, by nature, steeped in scientific absolutisms: blood pressure, heart rate, and the mathematical units of living. Cranial swelling, lacerations, and humanity’s belief that understanding can lead to healing. This all runs perfectly counter to seances, crystals, and fairy dust. The medical profession is, at its heart, an attempt to prevent the production of ghosts, if not disprove them.
The first issue manages to hook the reader on both fronts immediately by refusing to spend too much effort in doing so. There is no hokey exposition introducing us to the nuts and bolts of magic and reality intersecting; instead, the scope of this underlying mystical world is introduced in one large splash image of the sorts of patients who need St. Lilith’s hospital to survive.
Any exposition left is delivered in tense emergency room action as a necessity of character introduction—this doctor is a ghost, that doctor can be in several places at once—and the establishing of simple superstitious truths—pure iron is dangerous to magical beings, ‘vibrations’ are more pressing than a heartbeat. This is delivered at pace, without obstructing the narrative flow.
Ponce provides a rich diversity of creatures while retaining a fixed style of reality, which further allows us to bypass any disbelief barrier: demons and drow in lab coats and scrubs look just as solid and integrated as heart monitors, gurneys, over-stocked nurse’s stations. The visual uniformity states that this is the world, period. There isn’t anything out of place.
The Ward is an instantly compelling book, and while it falters a bit in character development (central character Natalie makes the fairly life-changing decision to return to Spooky Medicine without much of a conflict of self), it delivers as perfect a first episode as any of the television medical dramas you might have ever seen. If the book works as episodically as E.R. or Grey’s Anatomy—in which a medical case or two-run as our central plots, with character drama and arcing plot running underneath—the book stands to be one of the most unique fantasy books on the stands. Doubly so, given that each case serves as magical world-building.
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