Jon Towers' The Heart of Abracax, reviewed by Damonk
Have you ever had one of those really vivid, epic dreams, one where the first thought that crosses your semi-conscious mind when you wake up the next morning is, "Damn... that dream would make a great book! Where's my pen, I gotta write this down..."?
When you try to write it out on paper, however, it comes out all clumsy, incoherent, and incomplete. You look at the words inked there and know that they are supposed to be brilliant, but you just can't seem to make that crucial jump from dreamagination to readality. Sound familiar?
Welcome to Jon Towers' The Heart of Abracax.
The first dozen pages of the story: the archangel Gabriel (apparently neither male nor female, according to the author – though it has breasts, long hair, and a feminine face) has fallen from grace due to an obsession with humanity, manifested through its fascination for a man named Jonny Axx. Gabriel's fascination ends up drawing all sorts of attention from both divine and infernal sources, and Axx quickly goes from enjoying a beer with a friend to battling demonspawn and being given some special treasure/secret to safeguard for the good of the Universe.
The rest of the book essentially has Axx trying to stay alive while Demon after Angel after Demon comes to him demanding this vital item. To make things worse for Axx, he finds himself with yet ANOTHER vital item by the end of the third chapter, meaning of course that even MORE baddies show up with demands or threats or bargains. All that Jonny Axx can really do in response to these unfortunate developments is try hard to not die.
The Heart of Abracax is Towers' first print book – actually a collected version of his original Jonny Axx story arc as initially published online at www.jonnyaxx.com. The online version has long since been taken down, and the site currently serves as a jump point for teaser previews, character and author information, and a store where you can purchase Stigmata Studios (Towers' publishing company) or Jonny Axx merchandise.
The entire story screams of potential – the not-so-new but interestingly presented Earth-as-battleground-for-angels-and-demons-as-they-run-around-spouting-thoughts-and-
helplessly-in-the-middle-of-it-all epic slant. While this has been done before, Towers infuses the theme with some decent contemporary Film Noir-esque narrative. In fact, his strongest bits in the book are usually the one-page chapter intros, where he lets Jonny Axx speak his mind about (his) life, the universe, and everything. These narrative bits serve as great character development, offering vital insight into the dark, disturbed mindset infused within Axx.
Axx is definitely the most vibrant piece in this graphic narrative puzzle: a punkish, nihilistic nobody of a man who's lived a crappy life, who's not impossibly intelligent or uncommonly strong or even remotely handsome (he's drawn wiry, gangly, with mild skin disease and a maniacal look permanently etched on his ugly puss).
Perhaps the best part about this character is that he's never shown to be "special" or "destined for great things" or "a diamond in the rough" (though Gabriel does tell Jonny that he is as strong as his grandfather, an unexplained tidbit suggesting something). Axx is very human, a raw reflection of the grimy, socially diseased urban beasts that skitter in alleyways and bars, trying to blot out the reality of their place in Existence – a reality of Pain, Hate, and Misery.
In this age of infinite ugly duckling anti-heroes, it's refreshing to have a protagonist who doesn't need to be redeemed or rise above something or other to end as an Unlikely ChampionTM. Though some similarities exist between Axx and Sin City's Marv – bottomless determination/endurance, and some kind of ability to withstand immeasurable pain – he is not a carbon copy by any means, and someone you want to learn more of, even if you wouldn’t want to get to know him personally.
Despite the creative promise, however, The Heart of Abracax is an exercise in awkward storytelling. While the usual problem with new/young storytellers is that they take too long to tell their story – bogging it down with unnecessary details, verbotic description, or pointless tangents – Towers' first book takes the opposite route, being painfully rushed and fragmented. No time is given to really set the stage or to flesh out the characters, or to pace out the action and plot. The story opens with one page of an angel looking at/thinking about a guy, two pages of the guy chatting with his buddy while having a beer, and then BAM – some demon lord shows up and everything goes to Hell – nigh-literally.
Unfortunately, nobody bothers to properly explain why or how this is all happening; all you get are action/confrontation sequences that tumble together one after another, to the similar effect of looking out a side window when aboard a fast-moving vehicle: everything's a vertigo-inducing blur, almost impossible to make out.
This same approach continues throughout the length of the book. By the end of the arc, you are really nowhere beyond where you started in terms of plot or evolution, except that there are a lot more corpses than there were in the beginning. A love interest pops up somewhere along the way – supposedly from Axx's past – but it's too convenient, contrived, and over too quickly. It's as if the author doesn't realize that he's forgetting to mention a lot of key information – as if he thinks that everyone should easily be able to fill in the blanks and connect the story dots, unaware that the vital story elements are still lacked away inside his head instead of being shared with the reader.
The art of Abracax is equally awkward, consisting of thick Sharpie marker lines with some patches of fine-tip hatchwork, and for the most part shaded in such a way as to make everything look the same mottled dark gray. Human/angelic/demonic figures are very grotesque – mangled, misshapen elastic beings that stretch from panel to panel. That said, they actually work, and work well – fitting the atmosphere and the tone of the story perfectly.
Common to many younger/newer artists, Towers can draw people well enough, but he is unable to create the world around them in an adequate fashion. The backgrounds are sloppy and rudimental: bar surroundings look hastily doodled and elementary; indoor and outdoor scenes likewise. Towers' art looks like it's trying to emulate a harsh Underground or Noir feel – a cross between Prisoner on Hell Planet and Sin City – but instead reveals a current struggle to depict environments successfully.
Action scenes are rendered well enough, but there are a number of times Towers must resort to a descriptive text box to explain what is happening in a particular panel, since the images themselves fail to convey the same information visually. The layout of pages is fairly simple, with computer lettering used to convey the dialogue and sounds. The bubbles and text boxes mesh with the art well enough, but the sound effects and added textual inserts sometimes seem out of place, their pristine symmetry incompatible with the gritty, asymmetrical art.
There are in fact definite signs of evolution by the end of the book: the art has certainly tightened up, with some improvement in coloring and the background generation, too. The writing is still pretty sketchy, but the pacing starts to set into an almost comfortable flow by the last two chapters. If anything, these chapters offer the hope that Towers will continue in this progressive direction, and reach the heights he is aiming for.
Overall, The Heart of Abracax can be considered as the first steps of a neophyte creator who shows signs of being able to evolve into something more, but who is currently in that awkward developmental stage where the idea is greater than the storyteller's ability to convey it. Axx himself says it well in the book, "What you think in your head though is different then [sic] anything you act out. The tricky part is that most times you don't even know what you think."
With some honing of his art skills – particularly practice with background and environment – and by getting into the habit of drafting out his story in full before starting to rush it out to readers, Towers could become a storyteller worthy of that potentially gripping story that is, at the moment, still waiting patiently to make the successful leap from his head to the readers' hands.