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'Ain't No Grave' #3 lays all the cards on the table for a great midway point

Comic Books

‘Ain’t No Grave’ #3 lays all the cards on the table for a great midway point

The more you gamble on ‘Ain’t No Grave,’ the more it seems to pay off.

Ain’t No Grave sure is an odd choice of title. (No, it’s actually utterly perfect on several levels but please just follow me regardless). Because this Skottie Young-Jorge Corona-crafted story is truly alive and kicking. Sure, issue #1 had some issues with its sense of commitment and overall momentum. But issue #2 was an especially interesting development, as the story of Ryder’s journey to confront Death came alive with new depth and power.

And issue #3 of Ain’t No Grave is the most lively and accomplished run of this wonderful little existential western.

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A lot of that has to do with the visuals from Corona (as joined by colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu and letterer Nate Piekos). Having made it to the ominous riverboat casino, Ryder spends the bulk of this issue tempting fate via a short but potent game of old-school poker. And while this boat is just a snapshot of the whole wide world, a place that we’ve gotten to see enough of already, it feels like the most shining case of what this book’s aesthetic practically nails. Which is a solid, extra gritty western married with something fantastical like a slightly more grounded Pan’s Labyrinth.

The end result is something filthy but fun, shady but playful, and serious but absurd — a slice of avant-garde western that feels almost like a slightly more mature The Nightmare Before Christmas in that it uses the cute to subvert the creepy and vice versa. As an extension of that, the wordless intro and even the attire here (Ryder in a poofy dress!) both further drive home that dynamic and also play up a certain kind of fantasy-esque element that’s a neat addition.

It’s a place with real personality and power, where the boundaries between life and death, our world and another, really blur in a way that mirrors Ryder’s continued immersion on a path that grows ever more unfamiliar and unknowable. In that sense, we’re following her closely, and we’re not only a rider in her “posse” of two, but we can start to see what this journey really tells us about her and even ourselves.

Ain't No Grave

Main cover by Jorge Corona. Courtesy of Image Comics.

Can you ever really escape death, or are you merely delaying the inevitable? Is the pursuit of life worth not being able to actually live? How do you define a life, and are we the sum of all the good and/or bad we’ve done? It’s a really powerful feeling to connect with the world in such a succinct but effective manner, and this is the time where Ain’t No Grave seems to feel like it’s not just a story but this whole living entity demanding our attention.

And with a really rich world to occupy and play around, the storyline really felt like it also hit its stride. It helped, perhaps more than anything, that Young tried to mirror or match some of what was going on in the boat when it came to flashbacks. So what we got was a lot of insight into Ryder’s tendency for taking the easy road and her penchant for violence and manipulation, and the fact that it played out in such a forceful but cohesive manner did wonders for our immersion.

It’s through that process that we see the larger bent of Ryder’s life, and what she’s really trying to get out of this journey. Not just a second chance, but perhaps a new lease on life as a kinder, more deliberate person. Yet we also get the sense that, through this larger arc, this whole “chase down Death” plot may be just another one of her harebrained schemes, and that fosters a sense of doubt and uncertainty that’s absolutely delicious.

Still, it wasn’t just the whole mirroring aspect that made this chapter of Ain’t No Grave so emotionally resonant and profound. We got to see more stuff with Ryder and her husband, and the side of a marriage most folks would rather hide. It’s the kind of deep, cutting insight that lets us truly see Ryder, her downsides and tendencies, and how she may be locked in some path that not even she can fight/shoot her way out of. And the fact that it’s her hubby fostering all of this is just extra important and potent.

Ain't No Grave

Variant cover by Skottie Young. Courtesy of Image Comics.

It was a tad more obvious than some of the elements here — the whole poker analogy/thing is perfect to fully understand Ryder — and yet it was so important to see that it’s not all romance and fairy tales back at the homestead. Ryder’s fighting for a real life, one that’s hard and imperfect, because that’s what it’s really all about.

In that way, no matter how fantastical her journey, it’s ultimately informing something very real and wholly relatable, and that just brings us in even further. It’s so important that we connect and relate with her across this wild sojourn, and this issue managed to give us the kind of familiarity that doesn’t ruin the magic but shows us how we all hope for a quick or magical fix to life’s many problems. We are all, in a way, Ryder on this impossible journey, and we’re just trying to find our way home despite our perpetual stumbling and flailing.

After issue #3, Ain’t No Grave almost feels like a different book. Sure, the first two issues were solid enough, but it feels like we’ve got added emotionality to engage with, fresh layers of history and context to explore, and a path forward for Ryder that’s solid but nonetheless tenuous and tantalizing. That’s because we can now mostly see her destination on the horizon, but it’s also because this book has gotten more assured and determined with each new issue, and we can feel it firing on every cylinder to bring us into this world with its grand intentions and visual wonders.

At this rate, issue #4 of Ain’t No Grave may be capable of even more impressive and robust storytelling heights.

'Ain't No Grave' #3 lays all the cards on the table for a great midway point
‘Ain’t No Grave’ #3 lays all the cards on the table for a great midway point
Ain't No Grave #3
It took a little time, but 'Ain't No Grave' is really coming into its own as this wild, potent story about how we can be our own worst enemies and how life doesn't alway wait for us to live it.
Reader Rating1 Votes
The art here really understands its goals and aesthetic and gives us something wholly novel and yet familiar.
We're seeing more of the characters churning at the book's center, and we get to engage with them in interesting ways.
The creators' growing comfort and curiosity have helped this book shine with each new issue.
You really need to take the time to allow this book to unfurl slowly and deliberately.
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