Column: Retronomicon: Tell Me, Dark

By J. Keith Haney

Wagner, Karl Edward; Rieber, John Ney; Williams, Kent. Tell Me, Dark. DC Comics (September 1, 1998).USD $11.99. ISBN 13-978-1563890888.

Anyone who has been in love past the initial crush stage can tell that, the more you know somebody, the harder it gets to stay in love with them. All the good stuff you saw in them may or may not be true. What IS true is that there are a lot of bad things you didn’t see about your romantic partner because you weren’t aware of them, or just overlooked them. But there comes a point where you have to make a decision: Are the differences you see in your partner too big a gap to jump, or can you accept the ugly aspects about them and love them, anyway? That question, more than anything, lies at the heart of the graphic novel, Tell Me, Dark.

It is a very curious artifact, predating the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics by only a few years (where it would have fit right in) and, unlike a lot of earlier works that Vertigo appropriated, never folded into the mix, to the best of my knowledge. Why that is so is puzzling. If anything, the self-billed “love story that kills” would have fit right in. It even has John Ney Rieber (who made a name for himself as a writer on Vertigo’s “Books of Magic”) doing the dialogue and Kent Wiliams, one of its most-frequently-used artists, for the art and concept (alongside the late, great Karl Edward Wagner on the concept end of things). But its slipping through the cracks is an excellent reason why I am writing about it for this column.

The story follows Michael Sands, fallen American rock star…literally. Three months before this story starts, he took a dive off London Bridge in an apparent attempted suicide. One extended hospital stay and 48 stateside play dates later, he comes back to London to find something he left behind…his girlfriend, Barbara Flick. He keeps dreaming of her. The details of the dreams vary, but the basic plot is always the same. He finds her. She kills him. Sometimes, it’s a blade. Sometimes, it’s a gun. Michael always wakes up in tears. It’s not that she kills him…it’s that he is without her all over again. His only friend in London, Ricky, does his best to dissuade Michael from tracking Barbara down, filling him in on all the nasty details of what she’s become since he went away: heroin, S&M, and an ugly cult that Barbara hangs with. Ricky may as well be talking to a stone wall…Michael is hooked too badly for that to matter.

But it’s worse than either man truly knows. Behind the cult, behind their repulsive high priest called “Dark”, is a darker power, a literal fallen angel. It gets into Michael’s head early, chittering in the back of Michael’s mind with ugly thoughts of hate and rage. Through the channel of “Dark”, it uses Barbara for bait to lure Michael towards it, straight into damnation. The finale ends on an unsettling note that suggests that this may never be over for as long as either Barbara or Michael are alive.

Given the complex way the story was put together, the script itself is perfectly seamless. Unless the reader actually looked at the credits, he would be well within his rights to assume that the script was the product of one man. Most of the story is told through dialogue and thought captions, with frequent dream sequences and the occasional flashback. Sometimes, the thought captions overlap in a way that may have been inspired by Matt Wagner’s Grendel: The Devil Inside. When “Dark” is doing his best to override Michael’s thoughts, it creates a clashing effect similar to what you see in the conscience voices of The Suffering video games. Trips down Memory Lane are brief and to the point. Some pieces may be unclear (such as the REAL reason why Michael went off the bridge), but the answers come forth in a timely fashion.

Michael is a believable-enough burned-out rock star, a man who knows what the price is for what he wants and is willing to pay it, anyway. Barbara comes off as a bit more opaque, but that’s more by design than anything else. On the one hand, she is convinced that she is so beyond redemption that there’s no point in even talking about it. On the other hand, she clearly still loves Michael, and everything they had, too much to let him fall into the clutches of her soul jailers. The character of Ricky helps ensure that the whole experience never once strays into Twilight territory. Though Williams has one painting of him, where he resembles Luke Perry, Ricky calls to mind none other than Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, in his cynical-but-prudent reality checks. Get past the bravado and you see a man who is doing his best to make sure that his friend lives to see another day.

Kent Williams’ artwork is nothing if not moody and impressionistic. His vision of London is a decaying, ancient city full of secrets older than man. Its great age is conveyed by his frequent use of black, shadowy figures and backgrounds of unhealthy yellow. Many of the buildings he paints are photorealistic, with weirder, uglier linework reserved for unmasking the demon behind the human faces (though Dark’s mask is ugly enough, kinda like Oogie Boogie in Nightmare Before Christmas, minus the cuteness). The fallen angel is never more than a blur in reality itself, a filmy outline of red, black and white. If you stare at any individual element of the art, you think it wouldn’t work. But the asymmetrical patterns of Williams’ work come together for just the right feel for each scene.

Too much supernatural romance focuses on the first blush of love, the romantic triangles, the tragic deaths, and the happily-ever-afters. Tell Me, Dark goes to the places of the human soul where those leave off. It dares to ask the question, “Can you live with the knowledge of who the one you love truly is?”

Tell Me, Dark is available from Amazon.com.