The Shadow Glass
by Aly Fell
Dark Horse Books, 2017
The Shadow Glass is filled with some wonderful artwork. The first page shows a view from the Tower of London overlooking a lovely harbor by the river Thames, a red and blue pennant flying, as a traveler named Thomas Hughes arrives. In night-muted colors an occult ritual then takes place at the home of John Dee, an actual historic figure of the time, with the Shadow Glass, a polished black mirror Hughes stole from pre-Columbian Mexico. The spell goes wrong, however, and the unwilling female subject sprouts tentacles. It’s a great beginning.
Unfortunately, the rest of the story left me wanting. I picked up the book because of the strength of the cover, picturing the adventures of a cross-dressing female swordsman in Elizabethan England. I thought it was a clever comment on the practice of Shakespearean theater of having female parts played in drag by male actors… no self-respecting woman would own up to being an actress back then, as it was synonymous with being a prostitute. I expected this gender aspect to work into the story somehow, assuming the writer and artist, Aly Fell, was a woman. Well, it didn’t; Aly Fell was a man, and the cross-dressing served no purpose or metaphor that I could see, save that the artist liked drawing young, hot women in doublets and hose.
I realize I’m being harsh on the guy; after all, this is a person I don’t know. But a lot of the story seemed to be generated from that aspect. It moved along like a storyboard for a movie production, rather than a comic where anything and everything is possible. Rosalind, the girl on the cover, is set up to be the protagonist of the story, yet she isn’t, really – she’s jerked around too much by circumstance, a puppet of those around her. She has no free will; the story just carries her along to her fate. She’s the daughter of Adam Larkspur, an old friend of Thomas Hughes, and her mother, it is revealed, is the woman possessed in the ritual of the chapter before. At 18 she learns that Thomas Hughes is her true father and goes to the home of John Dee to confront him, she being a student of his. While she’s there Hughes arrives as well and Rosalind secretly witnesses a second ritual with the mirror where an angelic being known as Madimi is summoned. Afterwards, she steals the mirror on Madimi’s urging. A hot angel-and-girl makeout session follows where it’s implied Rosalind has been sexually awoken. And the angel is revealed to be… a demoness!
All right so far. I expected the story to then offer some juicy twist, like Madimi and Rosalind run off together to create havoc at Queen Elizabeth’s court, while the men try to stuff the genie back in its bottle. But, no. Hughes is revealed as the villain and Rosalind is manipulated by both by him and Madimi. Both she and Hughes die while Madimi sails off into the sunset having possessed Rosalind’s body. It’s a fairly tropish ending, and the totally expected ending given that we are dealing with a female demon that possesses human females. Life’s a bitch and then you die. What was the purpose of reading the story again?
I suppose part of the problem is the story didn’t know what it wanted to be… supernatural horror, an adventure tale with a swashbuckling young female, or a historical could-have-been. It can be all three, of course, but ideally one element should have been raised over the others and given it some direction. I get the feeling that the author really wanted to write about John Dee and medium Edward Kelley, but got distracted by the girlflesh. Or a sexual splatter tale, but stuck in too much sedate conversation about fate and alchemy. I think it would have worked best as adventure, but then the protagonist would have to live. As it was, it was just a bunch of things that happened, tepid and without any deeper resonance.
Harping as a feminist here, I am really tired of seeing the virgin/whore, angel/demon dichotomy play out. It’s old and tired and lowbrow. Why does Madimi have to be one or the other? Why couldn’t she be her own being? Where are her motivations?
In the end I couldn’t root for any of the characters and the story was shallow. The art is beautiful, though.