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'Ain't No Grave' #1 is a slightly uneven start to a hugely exciting desert sojourn

Comic Books

‘Ain’t No Grave’ #1 is a slightly uneven start to a hugely exciting desert sojourn

‘Ain’t No Grave’ is a bumpy but ultimately intriguing comics ride.

What’s that thing they say about first impressions?

In the case of Ain’t No Grave, things are a tad more complicated. Because what could’ve been a genuinely mighty start was a little underwhelming. But there’s also no denying that this book has heaps and heaps of potential to become a powerful slice of western storytelling with just a sprinkling of fairy tale delight.

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But before any of that, the logistical stuff. Ain’t No Grave features a rather star-studded creative team: writer Skottie Young, artist Jorge Corona, colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu, and letterer/designer Nate Piekos. The group’s united around a simple but compelling premise, as an outlaw-turned-mother (Ryder) must return to her old ways (and leave her family) to save herself from a slow, creeping illness. It is, as Image Comics promised, an “Unforgiven-style journey” that’s told “through a Guillermo del Toro-esque lens.”

Perhaps it’s best, then, to actually begin with the “bad” of this first issue — especially because there’s not as much. The single biggest “crime” in this issue is that even though it’s a double-sized offering, not a whole hell of a lot happens. Sure, we get Ryder’s backstory, and the reason for her perilous journey to the city of Cyprus. But there’s just not enough to really latch onto here. You’re often forced to get lost in the sprawling scene of what’s basically an extended horse ride. And, sure, there’s some rather compelling moments along the way, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much intention and guidance, and we don’t get to engage and connect with the creators in the way all really sharp narrative promises. I would have loved to see more happen in this larger issue, or it to feel even bigger, but there were times where it felt we got the bare minimum for even a standard-sized first issue.

Ain't No Grave #1

Courtesy of Image Comics.

And while this isn’t as much of a concern, I’m a little worried about the larger premise of this book. I don’t want to spoil exactly what Ryder’s end goal/mission is, but I’m torn between thinking it’s a little too gimmicky and that it’s a really poignant metaphor, and that indecision so early on feels a little uneasy. Similarly, while there’s some great elements to Ryder, she does come off a little one-sided, like the encapsulation of every edgy cowboy trope we’ve ever heard. It’s these issues that have me thinking about some real downsides down the road, and if cliches and stereotypes might limit the growth of a character with some real upsides.

And when I think of Ryder’s upsides, I can’t help but feel like Young really stepped up here. I often find his other works (Strange Academy, I Hate Fairyland) a little too sweet and syrupy, but here he’s crafted someone with proper layers. Ryder is torn between being a mother and returning to her outlaw status and what it all really means as she deals with events and emotions that she finds herself wholly unprepared to face. Yes, she’s a little too stunted emotionally, but the way she’s portrayed, there’s some powerful struggle in exploring that humanity amid her own doubt and shortcomings. As such, that adds texture and tension we don’t always see in these cowboy yarns.

She seems torn about who she is and who she was and who she’s becoming, and I love how that thread carried across this debut. It was the thing that upended some of the cliches/tropes with a real charm and sense of uncertainty — a reminder that this book is at least trying to buck certain ideas and trends and tell a more potent story about a person who wants only the peace provided by her small corner of the world and who is forced to reconcile with her life in a ugly, uneven, and wholly cathartic process.

Ain't No Grave #1

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Again, I’m a touch worried if the book can sustain this back-and-forth amid Ryder, and if less space in issue #2 and beyond is going to 1) diminish that focus or 2) actually leave it enough room at the sake of a larger plot/arc of action and other essential happenings. But for now, Ryder is just enough of a really powerful character to keep my attention.

And speaking of attention, we can’t talk about this book and not discuss the uniqueness and overt power of the art. I’d mentioned earlier about how this book almost forced us to meander around the scenery. While I made that seem like a chore, it’s not that at all. (Even as the real issue is some of the larger authorial presence.) Because I just love the look and feel of this world regardless of all those issues. From a design standpoint, it’s very much a super gritty fairy tale — Ryder’s hair is big and exaggerated, the buildings seem pulled from some Wild West fable, and there’s a solid mix of grit and fantasy baked into every corner and scenic vista.

I think that more playful, almost magical tendency of the art gives us something to engage with even when the creators’ ideas and presence don’t feel as robust. (Plus, I think it perfectly undercuts the supremely adult-centric perspective of the narrative, and it gives us a little more space to move around.) I don’t want it to seem like I didn’t enjoy moving through this world — even when I wished our journey felt more textured with some happenings.

Ain't No Grave #1

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Because there were some great creative decisions and other instances that made a solid journey through a barren desert feel all the more lively. Be it some novel angle of Ryder moving across a canyon at night, lots of wide shots that show her insignificance across a vast, uncaring terrain, or the watchful eyes of a group of native warriors, Ryder’s journey had heaps of unsung context provided and hinted at added layers. In some cases, these small but mighty moments landed bigger than some other plot points, like an emotional run-in with a woman and her daughter. However, it didn’t entirely mitigate the sense of too much space or time on our hands, and this first issue could’ve been so much more with a little more control and a firm hand on the reins.

It’s less that I’m torn about Ain’t No Grave at this point — you should absolutely read this at your very first chance. Rather, I think this book is a solid example of a few things: the need for more tight curation (we didn’t really need a larger debut); how really good books demand both our celebration and critique; how creators must exist within their own stories; and how the serialized nature of comics means that first impressions mean something different in these here parts. But if we’re still ranking this as a solid first impression or not, Ain’t No Grave is a firm-ish handshake that makes me want to do business all the same.

'Ain't No Grave' #1 is a slightly uneven start to a hugely exciting desert sojourn
‘Ain’t No Grave’ #1 is a slightly uneven start to a hugely exciting desert sojourn
Ain't No Grave #1
Despite some issues in this debut, 'Ain't No Grave' is a truly promising and potent slice of highly emotional, semi-magical western storytelling.
Reader Rating1 Votes
The art dazzles as much as it empowers the narrative.
Our lead, Ryder, promises layers and layers of emotionality.
There's solid fairytale underpinnings to this wholly adult story.
There's so many directions and angles left to play with in issue #2 and beyond.
We didn't need a semi-bloated oversized first issue.
This book may fall prey to certain cliches and tropes as well as a lack of authorial presence.
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