Will Eisner's John Law by Gary Chaloner, Reviewed by Xaviar Xerexes
NOTE: This is a parallel review in which we have two reviewers looking at the same comic. The other review is by Andrew Leal.
John Law is a character, originally created by Will Eisner in the 1940s, whom he ultimately did not actually publish. Instead he repurposed the work he did for this character into stories for his more well-known comic, The Spirit. Despite some claims to the contrary, the full-fledged character of John Law only appeared in print when Eclipse Comics published a one-shot book in 1983 titled John Law, Detective #1.
So in almost every respect, this John Law is largely the creation of Gary Chaloner. Chaloner has kept Law fixed in a post-WWII time and a film noir-like environment and he largely nails the details right. The backgrounds, the cars, the clothes, all evoke our mental image of that era as derived from movies and television. In creating this version of the character, Chaloner acknowledged a desire to distance him from The Spirit visually. Mostly he did this by moving the setting to Crossroads, a generic West coast stand-in for Los Angeles and also by giving Law a much larger physical presence. In some scenes, Law looks like a Max Fleischer-style Superman.
Story-wise this is almost ur-noir, with Law as a tough, smart detective who is as likely to think with his fists as with his wits. The city of Crossroads is filled with two-bit hoodlums and mobsters, corrupt cops and lawyers, and of course, a loveable, orphaned shoeshine boy (with a cute dog to match).
Chaloner focuses as much on the action as the plot, and he handles his action scenes fairly well. Law is tough but not superhuman. The webcomic is episodic in nature and Chaloner has completed three stories so far and is in the middle of a fourth. The first, "Meet John Law" is little more than background exposition on Law delivered by a racist older cop told to a young rookie who immediately gets shot and dies in Law's arms. As background, it's not a bad way to start, but none of the characters are developed enough for the death to deliver a real punch. As you read further through the archives, however, you see signs that this young cop may figure into the John Law mythos in a larger fashion. Or maybe not. It's clear that Chaloner has put a lot of work into the backstory for his John Law world and he seems to enjoy dropping hints of things that might be important.
The second story, "The Opal Skull" is a fairly straightforward tale of some bad guys trying to move a stolen opal-encrusted skull which also turns out to be an Aboriginal relic. It's not entirely clear why Chaloner felt the need to make the bad guys or the macguffin come from Australia and in some ways it is distracting because it's not entirely believable that the Law we're just meeting would or even could chase a small-time bad guy half-way around the world. Law is supposed to be a police detective, not Bruce Wayne. Nevertheless, this story also helps to establish that magic and the supernatural will play a big part in Law's world, even if this story in and of itself feels a bit half-done.
The third story, "Law, Luck and a Dead-Eyed Mystic" is the first one to start to flesh out the main character. It does so largely by including a lengthy flashback to Law's love affair with Brenda Banks. Banks is a famous actress with powerful parents. Now she, she might actually be Bruce Wayne. The flashback reveals that Law was a lawyer working in the District Attorney's office until his father, a policeman, was killed. At that point, Law breaks up with Banks and although not spelled out, we assume it is also the point when he joins the force as a police detective.
The storyline itself concerns the kidnapping of Banks and the possible involvement of a mystic named, Mr. Mystic. Initially Law is skeptical of this seer's talents, but ultimately Mystic is the source of a tremendous amount of supernatural activity, and he even causes an earthquake in the process of battling malevolent forces. Even though this storyline felt a little rushed (take out the flashback to the love affair with Banks and it is essentially one scene, a sÃ©ance) it does drop a number of hints as to the truth about Law's father's death and the origin of Law's conflict with a character named Angel who is now a mobster, but was Law's childhood friend.
The current storyline "What Nubbin Knew" starts off promisingly with a classic scene done well. The mysterious dame enters Law's office with trouble to report. Law finds the orphan Nubbin hiding under his desk, and with Nubbin's help, Law tracks down the bad guy, Blatz.
Once again there is a tremendous amount of supernatural action as this tale progresses. Without giving too much away, it's clear that this storyline is much more than an arson scam gone horribly wrong.
Although this webcomic focuses on a detective, Chaloner seems much more interested in the character of Law, perhaps really the mythos of Law, than in the mechanics of a mystery or crime story. The entire series seems to be setting itself up for Law to explore the true reasons for his father's death and ultimately to confront Angel, who is portrayed as having been practically a brother to Law. All of which adds a layer of depth to the tales already published, but is also a bit frustrating as it will take awhile for Chaloner to actually construct a whole house on his well-laid foundation.
Xaviar Xerexes is the publisher of Comixpedia.com.