Friday, March 24, 2006

Durham Red: The Scarlet Cantos – review

Written by: Dan Abnett

Illustrated by: Mark Harrison

Contains spoilers

The “Scarlet Cantos” is a “2000 AD” graphic novel, based on the character Durham Red. The character was once part of the Strontium Dog series, born and raised in the mutant ghetto of Milton Keynes in the 22nd Century. She joined the Strontium Dog bounty hunters, a group made up of mutants. Durham’s mutation was vampirism, thus it is not of a supernatural origin.

This is all before the graphic begins, in the novel it is 1200 years later. Red had put herself into suspended animation, as she was disillusioned with life. Since her sleep the Bloodshed occurred, a devastating war between humans and mutants. A false peace fell across the galaxy, but a religious resistance sect of mutants, the Tenebrae, have begun to worship Red – or Saint Scarlet as she has become known – as a goddess.

The humans have also fallen into a deeply pseudo-religious society, and have a ruling force known as the Iconoclast – a futuristic inquisition. Red’s animation chamber is found and she is awakened by Tenebrae agent Judas Harrow. When Iconoclast forces try to kill her, confused that their vampire wards do not work against her, she bites Matteus Godolkin. He believes that he must be in her thrall and thus must obey her. This is a fantastic concept, Red’s vampirism is not at all supernatural and it is his belief that forces him to serve her.

The novel follows the adventures of the three as the second Bloodshed falls across the galaxy in Red’s name as a false Red leads the mutant forces against humanity.

Whilst there are plenty of science based vampire stories/movies, and even some involving extraterrestrials, this is a space opera in the grandest scheme of things, actually fairly rare as a vampire genre piece, and it has beautiful artwork worthy of the vast vista it paints. The story, in itself, is very good and many of the rules of the game become readily apparent.

It is perhaps better read with some knowledge of the back history, and though there is a précis at the front of the novel and some excellent exposition when the companions search out artificial intelligences from Red’s time, a full background from the comic books is probably worthwhile.

The language can be unusual at times, whilst the setting is the distant future, the religious dialogue is almost medieval and this might put casual readers off. That said, juxtaposing the religious overtones of the majority of the characters with the down to Earth dialogue of Red works very well indeed.

Many of the concepts are wonderfully bizarre. The planet Wodan, an engineered wooden world is a unique creation and I love the symbolic weaponry wielded by the Iconoclast forces; the bolter, which blast fires a staking pin, the burner that cleanses with flame and the silver blade that severs the neck. I also love the idea that Red insists on using an antique weapon, from her own time, that often jams.

The “Scarlet Cantos” is not a casual read; I found I gained a lot more from it when I re-read the novel. It is the sort of graphic novel that would cost an absolute fortune if it were to be ever translated to film. 8 out of 10.

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