Fantasy February and Magical March!
Empire Lanes #1
Character driven fantasy with a bizarre setting
Writer – Peter Gross
Penciler – Peter Gross with assist from Eileen Kajiwara p 30
Inkers – Peter Gross and Eileen Kajiwara with assist Bryan Vollman
Letters – Peter Gross
Editing assist – Barb Schulz
When opening Empire Lanes #1 I was unsure.
Here sat a book by one guy, a gent with an unfortunate last name at that, who appeared to have filled all the rolls that are traditionally held by a team of individuals that create a book. Peter Gross acted as writer and illustrator, inker, letterer and perhaps also doing most of the editing.
So many hats. Not to mention so many responsibilities. And no one looking over your shoulder to double-check your work.
That last bit is the important part. Yes, even more important than all the rest. Because an illustrator can speak with a writer if he doesn’t think a character, plot device, or setting isn’t working well. He can persuade a writer to change story elements that don’t fit together. Likewise, so can the book’s editor. And the inker can cover for bad pencil work or the editor can send pages back to inker/penciller that don’t meet his approval.
But you bundle all those roles up in one individual and seldom are the checks and balances in place to create really good comics. It’s just easier for one person to settle in one area because that’s not their strong point. Art becomes rushed looking. Characters aren’t fleshed out. Pacing is off. The story suffers from all sorts of weak elements. Hell, the lettering can look annoying, for that matter. And since there isn’t an Editor overriding when bad stuff happens, you end up with comics that stink in one way or another.
But Empire Lanes works.
Every bit of it.
It all just works.
I think it is the focus on the characters that makes the writing click. We don’t even see a real enemy in this, but the interplay among our party underscores the conflicts at play and explain the stakes and plot. As far as the art, Gross produces some of the most polished pages I have ever seen in a black and white book. I was knocked down to the floor over much of this and there isn’t one panel that shows signs of shortcutting or not fitting in the flavor of the rest of the book.
It’s pretty much a perfect book and if the Crapbox had a numeric rating system it would rate a 10 stars out of 10.
(For those of you that might ask, the Crapbox does have a rating system, but it is based on how many migraines I get while reading a book. Empire Lanes would be zero migraines and might even make up for a book that has given me a brain tumor.)
I’m itching to dig into this thing and show you why I like it so much, so here we go…
We begin with a knight in full armor addressing his party in a room we can’t see. He seems weary and asks if anyone has found a way out. Meet Arwin, everyone.
We next travel around the room to survey who makes up his group. With that viewing we come upon a dwarf surveying the collapsed exit from this chamber. Also on the floor is Magda, the party’s principal wizard, who appears near giving up the ghost. The group’s cleric holds out little hope for her.
Our dwarf is ticked at the masons who built the place, while the rest of the party appears worried about being cornered as they are.
Arwin feels their situation is hopeless. He mentions barring the door at the other end of the hallway he has come down and that the two thieves of the party are currently loading that door down with traps. As if by magic, they both appear, and Gross gives them the floor for a bit.
The pair then mention Arwin’s magic belt comes with a “side effect” which is a build up to a later tale as well as giving the knight some tortured backstory. Must be a good reason why Arwin would put on a magic belt that would grant him great strength but also curse him. The nature of that curse we’ll revisit later this issue. For now though, Arwin shakes the rogues to get their attention that Magda is dying…
…only for the priest Eric to announce that she is already dead.
Which unveils a bit more of the story…the dwarf, Hammerfoot, lets it slip that they are following the girl called Alarie who is the one true heir to the throne. Obviously a usurper sits on her throne.
Then, after they commit to dying on their feet and Alarie asks for someone to hide her jewel, which is some type of royal symbol of power, the wizard Zu’os says…
…that Magda had a portable hole that lead to another dimension. They can use it to leave this place, but where it leads them may be a world they cannot even survive in. Alarie is game since it will keep the jewel out of her uncle’s hands.
And as they take leave of this world, with Hammerfoot taking up the rear, we get a really quick lesson in what actual hobbit thieves would be like. I have to say that I love these little guys and I don’t even know their names.
Okay so the one with the beard is Renfield, like from Dracula. I’ll catch the other’s name next time.
Then we get two EXCEPTIONALLy well-designed pages where Arwin rushes in with the uncle’s forces shortly behind him and Hammerfoot decides to try collapsing the room upon the hole to cover it up.
I’m in awe over these symmetrical panels showing the action. They are detailed and understandable without feeling forced.
Note that by that very last panel I have a bit of fear the Hammerfoot will let his anger override his common sense, causing him to attack the guards when he should be running for the hole. This is good storytelling, setting up an expectation in your audience’s mind of what a character should do and then putting in clues that show the character is tempted to do the opposite. Remember too that all of this is still being written, drawn, inked, lettered and edited by ONE GUY. Gross is a great storyteller, and I don’t say that lightly.
As the next page starts, we see Hammerfoot make the right choice and resist the urge to engage these troops in combat. With a pronouncement of vengeance, he finishes the room and jumps in the magic hole.
Now we see the results of hole travel as our first two jumpers, Alarie and the priest Eric, emerge in the pin setting room of an old-fashioned bowling alley. YES! The “Lanes” portion of the title refers to these fantasy characters ending up hiding out in our world in a bowling alley.
Of course, our band of adventurers don’t know that. The priest thinks there in some kind of thundercloud. However, the next set of arrivals crashes into the two figures in what I can only imagine sounds much like the strikes coming from the nearby lanes.
With the arrival of the two thieves and Zu’os things start to take shape. The wizard figures out that there is no way they are in a cloud, Reinfield notices the people bowling with “Thunderballs” and our second thief, Damon…
…well Damon falls into a pin setter, which threatens to do him grievous harm. He should really read all the OSHA guidelines before messing around with those.
This upsets Renfield, who rushes out onto the lane to stop the next bowling ball from turning on the machine…
…with predictable hilarious results. Oh, it appears a translation spell will be needed before anyone understands anyone here. Good. That should give some comedic bits to this part of our “fish out of water” troop.
And speaking of comedic bits, Renfield starts a war with the local gang…
…which should end well for him, perhaps? Or perhaps not.
Oh, who am I kidding? These ruffians are up against a guy who is a seasoned hand-to-hand combat veteran. The outcome was never in any doubt. Right?
Luckily for Renfield, Arwin arrives and just in time to use a bowling ball as a distraction…
…that impacts with the far wall with such force that it shatters into pieces. Our feisty combatants back off of the adventurers at this display of power.
With this going on, we turn to the owner of the place, a guy by the name Otto, who is an awful, abusive person and hopefully not long for this series. After smacking his daughter, he goes to confront our adventuring troop by pushing through the escaping throng.
While we wait for Otto to confront our heroes, we take a moment to develop three characters who will be part of the ongoing: Nelson, the guy that got kicked into the leather jacketed gang; Marliss, the spunky and smart young lady who I think is Nelson’s friend or sister; and Clarence, a potential love interest for Marliss who isn’t interested in her at all. I like these characters as I really don’t know how they fit together.
We have Marliss and Nelson exit before I find out anything more, right after Marliss tells Clarence that he wouldn’t know class…
And now we have this overgrown spud holding a shotgun on Arwin.
Not knowing the danger he faces, Arwin doesn’t back down, resulting in our knight taking a gun blast to the chest. The blow knocks him to the floor.
Which is where the rest of the group finds him when exiting the pin-setter room. Renfield takes the opportunity to remove the boom-stick from Otto’s hands, leaving him defenseless.
While Renfield and Otto chase each other back and forth, Zu’os finds a spell that will translate languages for the group and an unexpected last-minute guest arrives...
…a much beaten and bedraggled Hammerfoot steps forward, having blocked the group’s escape by bringing down the room on the hole.
While they tend his wounds and quickly gather round Zu’os, his spell of translation goes off and suddenly everyone can understand everyone else.
Gross makes it near impossible to cut some of these panels. His style is beautiful. That top panel echoes John Byrne in may respects and I see a little Simonson as part of his influences too.
Zu’os misreads this threat by Otto and the next thing you know he fires off a magical “fireball” that doesn’t kill anyone…
…causing Otto’s bowling alley to be slightly singed and smoking. Note that Damon save’s Otto’s daughter, which might be a lead in to some kind of ongoing friendship. However, all that has to wait as Otto hears sirens and has to hide his illegal keg before the police arrive.
Which gives us our setup for the series in the final two pages. Otto’s daughter Kate pledges to help our D&D troop as they begin their exile on modern-day Earth. The last bits here providing some tantalizing subplots for us to ponder…
…as Zu’os asks…
And sadly, over in four issues.
The story has a huge silver lining, however. Peter Gross went on to work for the majors, most notably for DC and Vertigo. He became the long-standing artist on The Unwritten, Lucifer, and The Books of Magic. It’s quite possible we’ll run across his illustrations again soon and I relish the opportunity to do so.
Empire Lanes is worth seeking out. There is even a trade of those four issues. I have issue 2 as well, but no farther. I’m saving it for a day when the Crapbox really lives up to its name. I can’t wait to see where Gross takes these characters and what stories he ends up telling with them.