Where exactly? Still the United States (and still unfortunately no word about Europe or the rest of the planet, although once again New York is prominently mentioned, but not seen), but Detroit this time, not Chicago: Post-rapture, young mother Ella’s boyfriend has left her – ostensibly to aid the resistance against the Angels, but probably to get away from his responsibilities as a father – leaving her to deal with their infant son alone. When her house burns down, she moves in with a bunch of urban farmers who try to deal with the collapse of trade and food shortages by returning the soil to its original purpose. Simultaneously, a man who appears to be the reincarnation of Famine (of Horsemen of the Apocalypse fame) arrives in town, and starts preparations to make sure he lives up to his name.
When I reviewed Therefore Repent, one of my complaints was that there were too many tangents, and not enough time was spent on either developing the supposed main characters’ personal lives, or the underlying mythology and background story arc. Well, Sword handles this a whole lot better and is a more satisfying read as a result.
That’s not to say there are no detours — depending on what your priorities are, there are quite a lot of detours. Or, put another way, the book does not have a single main storyline or a single lead character. Ella and her baby are our introduction to the farming co-op, but the book branches out from that point and shows us the lives her housemates and some of their friends lead. (Some other people whose appearance I don’t want to spoil also show up.)
The Famine storyline notwithstanding, there is almost no development in the over-arching mythology of the world, nor in the larger plot of “humans fighting Angels”. I still want to get some resolution of this aspect, but I’m willing to wait for another instalment of the series (which, as far as I’ve been able to find out, has not yet been announced). As far as Sword is concerned, I’m fine with staying in Detroit and following these somewhat-kooky characters around. In fact, the one plot-heavy element of the comic, the Famine character, could have been excised from it without much trouble; it’s not needed. Because so little time is spent on him, towards the end I was somewhat afraid the book would leave me hanging just like Therefore Repent did and end on a cliffhanger, but Munroe does manage to tie up this storyline after all. The characters who most need resolution in their personal lives get it as well, or at least start on the road that will hopefully lead them there, thematically echoing the urban farm project. That’s the primary reason why Sword is a more satisfying book than its predecessor: it’s quieter, it’s a little more focused, and it feels like a complete product.
The art, by Shannon Gerard, is unexpectedly different from that of Therefore Repent, but I suppose it underscores how this is a different story with different characters. It’s much sketchier and less polished in a way, but also more fluid and experimental. Gerard does away with traditional panel divisions and lets one moment flow to the next without stylistic delineation (click on the picture above for an example). It does make it a tad confusing for the reader to figure out what’s going on at times, but I feel this is not necessarily a disadvantage. It makes you really look at the art instead of just reading the word balloons and skimming the drawings, which in the end makes for a richer reading experience. It turns out that Gerard used lots of real-life models and photographic reference for the characters, which is obvious in hindsight, but which did not occur to me while reading; I associate photo-reference art with static and undynamic images, an accusation one can’t make about this book.
A final note: I don’t like digital literature very much, because I much prefer the feel of a physical book. I suppose I also don’t feel much of a sense of ownership for a file, which is, after all, just a bunch of zeros and ones; I like to hold a book in my hand and know that it’s mine to do with as I please. It’s the same reason I’m hoping the studios’ attempts to phase out DVDs and go streaming-only don’t pan out.
Anyway: I think the way Munroe handled this story’s roll-out is worthy of emulation. From what I can gather, the initial comic issues were released online for a digital subscription ($6) or a pre-order of the collected edition ($12 plus shipping); and said physical paperback contains a code for a) a free pdf download and b) the digital issues (mostly) as they were originally released, online-only.
That online version is formatted like a webcomic and features commentary by the writer and artist. It is not particularly insightful in this instance, with many pages not getting any comment, and most of the rest only being accompanied by a sentence or two. When I first read about this (in the back of the printed book) I imagined something akin to a DVD commentary, but that’s not what this is (at least, not a good DVD commentary). The annotations are very tangential and more concerned with the character models and with the Detroit neighbourhood that served as inspiration for the comic’s setting than it is with commenting on plot and characters. But still, it’s something that could/would be a great bonus future, and even if the execution is lacking in this particular case, the concept is solid and could serve to tie readers closer to the creators (similar to the way webcomic artists already use Twitter to interact with their audience).
There’s no reason this model can’t work for other independent creators, or, for that matter, big publishers. That way people who are only interested in the story can read it for half the normal price, and people who want a printed version can have the advantage of reading each comic installment early and still get a physical product once it’s published. (Or people like me who purchased the book first, can go back and read the online version for easy access; I did so while writing this review, for instance.)