World-building is a beast. There’s been so much of it in fantasy fiction and games that many origin stories all seem to run together, forged from the same cloth, with versions of the same characters as costumed personalities going through the same motions. And that’s exactly why Sideshow Collectibles’ Court of the Dead mythos is so refreshing. Although all of the familiar elements are there: Heaven, Hell, death, executioners, fallen angels, and so on — the majority of the motivations and setting take place outside of traditional archetypes; thus, you’re never entirely sure what to expect.
If you’ve seen a Sideshow Collectibles display recently, you may have taken note of their new collection of original statues — an eclectic combination of reapers, ghouls, and warrior women in skull gear.
The vision has leapt straight from the cranium of Sideshow Creative Director Tom Gilliland, and it’s called the Court of the Dead. What’s more, these statues are part of an intricate mythology that has branched out into art books, sketchbooks, a board game, Mourners Call, and a graphic novel collection.
GRAVE TALES, a collection of shorter tales written by Landry Q. Walker as well as a few familiar names like Corinna Bechko and Joshua Hale Fialkov, acts as a fantastic primer to this new side of Sideshow Collectibles, giving brief origin stories of major characters and guiding the reader — through the use of a very handy court jester figure named Malavestros — through the new landscape. It almost reads like an RPG rule book — giving you just enough to go on to make up your own moral alignment and personal expertise in a larger universe, but not so much that there is a concrete protagonist, or even anyone to follow for more than a few pages. If you’re interested in picking up the Mourners Call game or purchasing a deluxe statue, it’s a must-read.
You may not want to stop with one volume, though. GRAVE TALES summarizes the status quo of the Underworld and its populace, but it doesn’t give those characters detailed story arcs yet. Given the unusual breadth of a mythos like this one, that’s not entirely surprising. After all, the only reason people are able to digest angel and demon epics at the drop of a hat is because the Christian mythology has been imbued upon us for so long that deconstruction of the lore is the next logical step. Court of the Dead takes steps far outside of PARADISE LOST or Dante’s INFERNO. There is indeed a war between Heaven and Hell as a background element, but the main characters have no interest in it, so entirely different motivations must be constructed for them — along with a history of the Underworld — so a reader can determine what they do have interest in; whether it be justice, revenge, mischief, soul-reaping, or simple entertainment.
To that end, GRAVE TALES succeeds, beginning with the birth of Death and his obligation to provide the celestial realms with “etherea” and moving through the reincarnation of a mortal into the siren spirit Gallevarbe, Kier’s birth as a deformed angel, Gethsemoni’s existential ennui, and the duties of each “faction”: Spirit, Flesh, and Bone (you can even take a quiz to find out which one you are here). This is all conducted in appropriately lofty language — sometimes difficult to parse out, as the dialogue is infused with a world-dependent vocabulary that likely becomes clearer with each successive read-through.
The strongest vignettes are in the second half of this admittedly hefty book (19.99 is a bargain for all of the content you get), so if the opening shorts seem stuffy and heavy with philosophical doctrine, I’d recommend that you keep going. One of the later shorts in particular about “osteomancer” Xiall, her preoccupation with strength, and how she has chosen to accommodate that obsession is properly fascinating (although one about “Executioner” Oglavaeil is less appealing — there are only so many times you can justify something by saying “the law is the law is the law”).
My only other complaint is that the art is a bit uneven between segments. The colors and lettering are strong throughout, but given the unique character designs and Sideshow’s incredible attention to detail on their statues, the comic art — pencilled alternately by Carmen Carnero, Ivan Koritarev, Manuel Garcia, and Andrew Huerta — lacks a unified vision, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell what’s actually happening.
By the end of this omnibus, however, you’ll certainly want to know more. Whether that knowledge comes from the brand new roleplaying board game, a hefty art book-slash-character guide called CHRONICLE OF THE UNDERWORLD, or additional graphic novels (coming soon!) is up to you, although the Court of the Dead graphic stories are not yet at your local comic shop — they are available exclusively through the Sideshow website (see link below).
Bottom Line: GRAVE TALES is rich reading and a fascinating building block for what is surely more to come in the Court of the Dead series. Given its nature as an introduction to the mythos, its focus is the establishment of original characters and their personal demons rather than depth of narrative.
To read more about Sideshow’s Court of the Dead, including interviews with Tom Gilliland and game manufacturer Project Raygun, pick up Famous Monsters Issue 290!