Evil comes in many forms … some seen and others not.
Writer: Brian Hawkins
Artwork: Donny Hadiwidjaja, Allan Otero & Eman Casallos
Colors: Maxflan Araujo, Jorge Cortes & Walter Pereyra
Letters: Kurt Hathaway
What They Say:
Legend has it that long ago, a coven of witches and warlocks sought to perform a ritual that would grant them immeasurable powers and eternal life for a cost. But this cost was not fully understood, and those who performed it were forever held between the veil of our world and eternity, cursed to watch the living and trapped with an insatiable hunger. They became known as the Darkwatchers! Along the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, there have been tales of beings who watch travelers from the horizon, and some say those who look upon them vanish, never to be seen again. With these stories said to have been happening more frequently, and as Gretel and Calabar are making their way through this stretch of land, they are about to be pulled into something not even the nearly three-hundred year-old witch hunter has come across in her life!
Content (please note that portions of review may contain spoilers):
In the rugged terrain of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, Gretel and Calabar find themselves tormented by numerous natural disasters, first marching through the remains of a wildfire which scorched the region and now buffeted by horrendous winds that whip the ashen remains into a disgusting torrent of muddy rain. However these occurrences are not caused by environmental phenomena, but instead generated by the elusive quarry which hopes to hinder them with these atmospheric assaults in order to pause their ruthless pursuit, a weather witch called a Tempestarii. But even as the two women who near their target find it hard to breath due to airborne particles, it is the goggled solider who stumbles first over uneven rubble, even as her blonde friend has an amused giggle at the cost of overconfidence of being sure footed with the area. But as this tumble lightens their stoic mood, it is at this time when their prey decides to take advantage of the situation, raising the air into a gale force burdened with debris to hinder their view, causing even the witch hunter to take hesitate her joking in order to gain a better grip of the situation. With hands now encased within mystical circles in a manner to defend herself, the Tempestarii now realizes she has no other choice than to fight with all the powers at her command, unleashing horrendous forks of lightning to strike down those who stand before her, with no mercy shown from either side. Although Calabar ties her best to snipe at this force of nature with a seemingly ineffectual pistol, the bothersome pellets do nothing more than enrage the irate menace, causing the malformed woman to strike back with deadly accuracy via bolts from the sky.
Shocked by both the ferocity of the energy and its owner’s malice to strike down her friend, Gretel feels the darkness within her heart take over, empowering an ever growing rage and need for vengeance, causing her accumulated magic to explode and overwhelm the weather witch. Forced back by a surge of power which prompts the Tempestarii to realize she has no chance of winning this one-sided contest, the once overbearing woman attempts to beg for mercy, however her rage filled opponent hears none of these pitiful pleas, instead answering with a roar of anger which is quickly followed by the ripping out of her prize. With the fight now over, Gretel wastes no time in taking a bite from her hard fought reward, only to hesitate in finishing after remembering the state of the other who lies upon this ruin filled battlefield. Rushing over to Calabar’s unconscious body, a futile attempt of healing magic does little to rouse the patient, causing the frustrated blonde to consider feeding her friend the bloody morsel within her other hand, only to be rejected at the last moment by the barely lucid mercenary, vehemently refusing to be saved in this manner and begging Gretel to find another way. Hesitantly escorting her companion down the steep footing to the base of the mountains, they stagger into an isolated village where the witch hunter feels an unknown power, only to be met by a kindly old woman who leads them to her house and hopefully a way to save a wounded friend.
Since it has been less than a month from the last time we saw our favorite witch hunter in Grimm Fairy Tales Myths & Legends Quarterly: Gretel Witch Hunter, I sincerely was not expecting much for this newest escapade of justified exterminations by the ferocious blonde, and yet I was willing to give this special a try especially after learning it was written by Brian Hawkins, a new scribe to welcome into the Zenescope family. However after perusing the introductory pages of this unusual narrative, it was immediately clear the story has something much more meaningful hidden within its stark pages, and perhaps it will resound through our heroine and the audience long after they finish this adventure – the benevolence which lies at the core of each person and whether they chose to ignore or embrace it. You cannot disregard how Hawkins purposely addresses this distinct human quality within the opening scene, allowing Gretel to question her own darkness once Calabar is struck down and if she should tap into those negative emotions in order to save her companion, until finally succumbing to those ominous feelings all in the name of finishing a losing fight. But even if the ends justified the means, it still leaves our heroine regretting that instantaneous decision and wondering if she made the right choice, all as the results of that hasty solution become manifest with the motionless heart of the Tempestarii lying in her bloody hand. To taste the muscular conclusion makes Gretel wonder if her path is the right one, as opposed to all the young lives which the witches she defeats are excusable in some twisted manner, only solidifying her resolve by knowing she is doing the right thing to save the unseen innocent. However when she tries to save Calabar by feeding some of the gory prize, her immediate rejection of not wanting to be like her friend is jarring, denouncing the way of life Gretel was forced to accept, but at the same time reflecting upon the same sickening darkness which she must consume to stay alive and continue their valiant fight. Even when they meet the old woman and learn about the Darkwatchers, it is this notion of those who feed off the dark emotions of witches which makes the tale all the more haunting, and in a way ironic since these now infected Shadow People who have given over to their baser intentions are what Gretel may become if she continues down her current trail of destruction, plus the notion of losing Calabar like she did her brother Hansel if or when that moment happens.
It is not until they enter the chilling cave which is the source of those terrors does our witch hunter feel the hollow emptiness which continues to haunt her, the sickening nothingness which threatens to swallow her up with every use of her power if she is not careful, but it is that same magic which makes her stronger and tempts this new monster which lurks in the shadows. While I would have liked some fleeting explanation why this medicine woman as able to see the Darkwatcher, that small inconsistency is unimportant once all have crossed inside and the epic fight begins, allowing her to become Gretel’s guide on how to exist within this world beyond the veil. It is his stereotypical villain speech which crystallizes the essence of this tragically moving tale – of how when these former sorcerers sought the truth, the essence of their journey was that light is an artificial construct with true power being hidden in and of the darkness, and the closest you get to it is through death, with mankind’s foul tendencies only feeding his kind; this cyclical philosophy also encompasses the witch hunter’s world: she must consume the hearts of those she has defeated, the people who in turn eaten from the innocent and turned themselves dark in the process, thus making Gretel take in their own vile intentions and power in order to continue the hunt for more who have taken the wrong path – making for a sickening and unavoidable circle of cruelty from which all are entangled and there seems to be no escape if they wish to continue their eternal existence, all until one side is finally vanquished. But even with this callous outlook of how the Darkwatchers survive, one cannot but hope there is a brighter side which is finally revealed as Gretel goes to save her new friend, and it is she who teaches the blonde protector of how to seek the positive light within herself, even it would be easier to surrender to the negativity which threatens to consume her, but then she would lose all which she values and never be able to save those who need her the most. You cannot but cheer once she reaches that inevitable revelation, even if this knowledge comes at a hefty price, one which both our heroes will continue to value for as long as they remember this decisive moment, of how our witch hunter opened a new horizon of hope.
With such an emotionally stirring narrative, this graphic novel it would fall flat if not for visual stimulation which is simultaneously repercussive in its grounded presentation of these striking circumstances, and we are forced to accept the roughness of these introductory surroundings due to the resolute illustrations of newcomer to Zenescope Donny Hadiwidjaja, with his sharply defined linework extenuating every element within each panel as if they were all equally important to the cumulative effect of the opening sequence. One cannot but stare in amazement by how much detail he has placed within what should be extraneous background imagery itself, and yet the subtlety of stone and flora textures plus atmospheric instability so wonderfully blends into the overall mood of the scene that it becomes an actor itself, interacting with our heroines so much so that it seems to be alive, all while trying not to take away from the skin tight costume of Calabar and Gretel’s alluringly exposed skin or revealingly placed tattoos. But what makes the artwork so apropos to the moment of charged tension is Maxflan Araujo’s muted selection of colors to communicate the stillness before a coming storm, and it is only then does he strike the spark which electrifies the instant when two combatants take to the field. The tensed muscles of our witch hunter become all the more striking due to a stunning palette, with a dusty neon pink and glowing eyes emphasizing the growing rage which is the basis for the story, allowing Hadiwidjaja to simplistically portray the anger on Gretel’s face via a slight downward tilt of her eyebrows, all without the need for a close-up to ruin the grittiness of her raw anger which is manifested within those pulsing hands. This primal struggle against the Tempestarii feels so feral, with the dark grey surroundings reflecting the same eclipsing darkness which continues to build within our dynamic blonde, only allowing those dusty pink neon ritual circles to be the only indication Gretel is putting up a good fight against the midnight blue abomination which she must face, hair curled almost like demon horns. This theatrical presentation grows in splendor as the special effect text only serves to amplify the ferocity of their battle, the delicate balance of light and shadows skillfully opposing each other and serving as a catalyst of what is to come once Calabar is struck down. The reader can almost feel the frustration slowly intensifying upon the witch hunter’s face, only to then explode forcefully upon the offender, materializing into what Gretel fears the most – seeing her darkness slowly consume her.
However while these raw illustrations and drab colors serve to exemplify the desperation of seeing her friend being harmed, it is the following memory which strangely seems out of place due to Allan Otero’s, and I cannot believe I am saying this, overly sexy portrayals of our heroines, especially considering since this is supposed to be a flashback of the friends’ second outing as a team. To think that Gretel would remember themselves as being depicted in skin tight outfits with provocative curves is unusual, since more functional costumes would suitable in their fights to the death; and while one cannot complain since these pages are geared toward a male audience, this placement serves to distract and detract from the seriousness of Calabar’s injuries, with captivating glimpses of ample cleavage and shapely legs made all the more appreciative due to Jorge Cortes’ playful dance of moonlit shadows helping accent every alluring feature and the neon gleam of mystical energies finally reminding us these women are extremely deadly. But even as we return to the moving gravitas of Hadiwidjaja’s imagery and Araujo’s somber colors, you cannot deny the heartwarming recollections of the old woman as warmly depicted by Eman Casallos, giving a lonely young girl such innocent charm, only to watch it sorrowfully slowly erode with each passing panel into concern as to what will happen to herself and her grandmother, made all the more tenuous and moving due to Walter Pereyra’s soft shadows surrounding her face framed by dark silver hair and charcoal robes. This essential insertion into such a stirring narrative reinforces the foundation which her fears are based on, with every page serving as a framework to build upon the realization of what is happening around them, watching her witch neighbors slowly becoming corrupted, all as the ebony Darkwatcher echoes within each chilling panel while they are gradually consumed and transformed into Shadow People. The unfolding tragedy builds upon what we already know from our heroines’ first exposure, and made manifest once the terrified girl closes a pitch black tent flap around her and it is clear her fate as been sealed.
Grimm Universe Presents Quarterly: Darkwatchers Featuring Gretel is a monumentally moving tale of how unknown forces can shape a person’s destiny, but if one recognizes what may be a doomed existence, they can shape what they wish to do with their life – to surrender to the darkness or allow themselves to fight the dying of the light. However while this sobering foundation may seem rather one sided, it is the introduction of Gretel’s parallel struggle which expands upon a standard idea and allows it to grow into something more moving and sincere, eclipsing the sentimentality we may feel for our heroine once it is overcome by rewarding her with a fleeting sense of accomplishment which evolves from its tragic conclusion. However it is the resolute illustrations and grounding colors that transforms what could have been a straight forward narrative into something which has a more profound impact upon those who remember our witch hunter’s painful past, and while there are a few stumbles artistically which distract us from the seriousness of the tale, for a majority of this special we are visually captivated by the suffering of all corrupted by the Darkwatchers. But as readers finally recognize the understanding compassion of Gretel as opposed to the callous sense of duty she usually displays, it is maddening to realize our heroine can only fathom such a supportive lesson through the sacrifice of another, finally being allowed to appreciate that when things are at their most dire, she must also embrace the hope which will escape if she is swallowed by darkness. This the truest motivation of a hero: through misfortune and adversity one learns, and if she does not allow such wisdom to drive her forward, it will be the loss of the most valiant which will be the greatest tragedy of all.
Rating: T (Teen)
Released By: Zenescope
Release Date: February 17, 2021