Wotjek is back with another detailed look at one of my books – this time he turns his critical eyes towards The Adventures of Gravedigger Volume One. He gives it 5 stars and titles his review, “There is a new pulp heroine in town and she is awesome!”
Here’s the rest of his review:
Despite being a huge fan of Barry Reese’s writing I was initially skeptical of “The Adventures of Gravedigger”.
I mean, his previous New Pulp heroes were at least in part based on the recognizable archetypes, with Lazarus Gray being cut from the same mold as Doc Savage and The Avenger, while The Peregrine was a part of the masked vigilante legacy started with The Shadow, The Spider and Batman.
But Gravedigger was a completely new and original character, having no classic Pulp ancestor, no previous legacy to lean on, which was a really bold move, since the whole New Pulp movement is based on the love that both writers and readers share for those old, nostalgic stories from the 30’s and 40’s.
The fact that Mr. Reese’s new character was also a woman, was even more risky. I mean, when we think about, there were very few female Pulp heroes, and most of them were either just archetypal damsels in distress to be saved by our dashing protagonists, or even more clichéd femme-fatales, who used their looks to charm men, like Domino Lady.
Still, curiosity had won, and I bought the first volume of “The Adventures of Gravedigger”, and was very pleasantly surprised, because Gravedigger quickly become one of my favorite New Pulp characters.
Our heroine is Charity Grace, a young woman from Sovereign City, born from the union of the poor prostitute and a patriarch of rich and powerful Grace family. Due to the fact that her father was afraid of a scandal, that might be caused by the fact that he sired an illegitimate child, he left his mistress and daughter, and pretended they never existed.
Because of that, after her mother’s death Charity was forced to steal to survive, and quickly became a part of Sovereign’s criminal underworld, filled with hatred and jealousy towards “perfect” Grace family, particularly her half-sister Samantha.
Goaded by her boyfriend, she attempts to blackmail her father, but that plan is soon stopped by one of Sovereign City’s heroes, an enigmatic adventurer Lazarus Gray. To rub some salt into the wound, her sister, Samantha Grace ends up working for the mysterious crime fighter’s organization “Assistance Unlimited”, soon becoming one of the city’s protectors, and gaining adoration, while Charity is left with nothing once again.
But then, one night everything changes.
Charity tries to rob the mansion of the rich, elderly antique collector, Joseph Goldman, but as she soon finds out, old man not only somehow knew she would attempt to rob him, but actually waited for her to do it.
Then, she is shot to death, and buried in the local cemetery. But it is not the end, but just a beginning.
Charity unexpectedly hears a mysterious Voice, that gives her an offer she can’t refuse. If she agrees to serve the mysterious entity for the next three years as an extension of it’s will, and a tool to punish evil, she would not only return to life, but also would be gifted with superhuman abilities, to help her with carrying on this mission.
There Is a catch however.
If during this three year period she would not atone from her past sins, she would die once again, and her soul would suffer an eternity of unspeakable torment and pain, without any chance of redemption.
She of course accepts and is resurrected as the latest incarnation of the ages-long legacy of Gravedigger. It turns out, that Joseph Goldman was also bearing the mantle of Gravedigger in his youth, and everything that happened to Charity during that night was an attempt to create a successor for himself.
Now, dressed in the distinct costume, and armed with an arsenal of deadly weapons and superhuman physical attributes newest Gravedigger becomes a symbol of fear in Sovereign City’s criminal underworld. But would she be able to redeem herself that way? And wouldn’t she lose herself among the bloodbath and violence?
Only time will tell…
First volume of “The Adventures of Gravedigger” not only does a great job with establishing a new, interesting heroine, but also subverts quite a lot of traditional Pulp tropes, while still retaining the spirits of beloved stories from 30’s and 40’s.
For example, most if not all Pulp heroes come from upper classes of the society, being either heirs of rich and influential families (Doc Savage, Green Lama, The Spider etc.), or self-made men whose talents and drive made them wealthy and powerful (The Avenger, The Shadow, Black Bat etc.).
This was of course a part of their charm, to make them more fabulous and impressive, but the fact stands. And, let’s be honest here, who would like to read about a blue-collar worker, or low-level clerk fighting crime, especially in the 30’s?
Charity on the other hand is a former criminal, and an illegitimate daughter of the prostitute who spent most of her life in poverty, struggling to survive. Because of that, when she suddenly gains access to Goldman’s vast fortune, and an opportunity to live in his lavish mansion she is quite overwhelmed, and more than a little uncomfortable.
In the old Pulps a character like her would at most be a hero’s sidekick, to act as his or hers source in the criminal circles, as it was done with Gary Brown from “Green Lama”, or various agents of The Shadow, but here she is a protagonist. It’s quite an unusual idea, but works really well, while adding originality to the character, differentiating her from the other heroes in the New Pulp genre.
And when we talk about companions, her aide and helper Mitchell also subverts quite lot of traditional tropes by himself.
At first glance he appears as just dumb muscle, described as huge, muscular black man with bald head, and intimidating presence, who works as Goldstein’s driver, bodyguard and servant. He is also revealed to be a former criminal whom previous Gravedigger spared and took under his wing.
Characters like that were also common in the original Pulps, since hero needed a non-white sidekick to be more “exotic” and interesting. Thus we got Tsarong, an old Tibetan monk acting as a servant for Green Lama, The Spider’s Sikh butler and sidekick Ram Sighn, or getting out of Pulps, Green Hornet’s driver and sidekick Kato.
To put it bluntly, just someone to show off how whites are superior to everyone, both in physical and mental abilities. Not to mention that most of those characters were exaggerated stereotypes, like African-Americans being portrayed only as dimwitted servants, butlers etc., that only spoke in broken, barely understandable English.
True, there were rare examples of non-Caucasian characters portrayed fairly and without utilizing racist stereotypes prevalent at the time, like Josh and Rosabel Newton from “The Avenger” stories, but such a portrayal of minorities were rarer than unicorns…
As I mentioned above, Mitchell initially looks like those characters, but it almost immediately proves to be a very wrong assumption.
As it turns out he is not only a well-spoken and educated, intelligent man, but also a lot more knowledgeable and experienced than Charity, who due to her circumstances never really got formal education. He is also an excellent judge of character, and soon enough becomes Charity’s emotional support and aide, curbing her more violent and suicidal tendencies.
Due to his years alongside Goldstein he is also a very capable crime fighter, well-versed in martial arts, a crack-shot, and an excellent driver. Actually, he is the one who trains Charity for her role as the newest Gravedigger, being both her instructor, sparring-partner and mentor.
The idea of Gravedigger mantle is also quite interesting, and rather original.
Due to the fact that numerous people taken up the role of Voice’s enforcer author can create and utilize other characters than just Charity, not only expanding his universe, but also showing how various people reacted to the fact they were resurrected as tools of supernatural being, who might or may not be God.
For example in the first volume of the series we glance on the Gravedigger of the late XVIII century, who clashes with the legendary Headless Horseman, and some of the exploits of Joseph Goldman during World War I are also mentioned.
It is kinda similar to the cult-classic comic book superhero The Phantom, with the title and costume being inherited, but when there it is based around members of Walker family, while Voice chooses people from different places and backgrounds.
Barry Reese himself also admitted that he was in part inspired by The Shadowman from Valiant Comics, as that particular hero knew when he was supposed to die, which in turn influenced his actions and character.
In “Adventure of Gravedigger” the motif of the deadline our heroine has to meet is also very prominent and influences characters greatly, which makes them even more interesting.
Charity herself, well aware that her time is precious practically lives with her mission, only making breaks to train and plan another missions, or when she is too wounded to go on. Her whole life centers around being Gravedigger, punishing the wicked, and fighting evil.
Her obsession makes her more withdrawn and disconnected from people, as well as more brutal and merciless.
Her friends try to get to her, try to make her consider her health and well-being, but it is not easy, as she still has problems with trust, and opening to others, due to her life on the streets…
Now, someone reading this may think that “The Adventures of Gravedigger” Is only about subversion of Pulp tropes, analyzing characters and whatnot, but it is not only that. In fact there is an abundance of fast, dynamic action, as well as thrilling adventures, just like in good old Pulps.
First volume of the series contains three stories, each of them setting Gravedigger and her companions against some vicious, and dangerous foe, as well as expanding the universe of Sovereign City a bit.
First story, “Rising Dark” gives us the origin story of the newest Gravedigger, and makes her face an occultist named Arthur Meeks, who is calling himself Thanatos.
He is a man consumed with obsession about power and prestige, who used the dark knowledge gained from his impressive collection of grimoires to gain supernatural abilities. Now he somehow gained possession of the legendary Necronomicon, and contacted a mysterious and powerful being calling himself Mr. Black, appearing as an Egyptian pharaoh.
If he unleashes the power of the forbidden tome, he would gain the ability to destroy the world, and change the whole humanity into slaves of the ancient race of entities known as The Great Old Ones, but to do so he needs two more artefacts.
Would new and inexperienced Gravedigger be able to stop Thanatos before it’s too late? Well, she would not be alone, because the case of mad occultist would also catch attention of one of Goldstein’s friends, Max Davies, also known as the legendary vigilante The Peregrine…
Second story, “The Strange Horror of Hendry Hall” is divided into two interwoven storylines.
The first one, taking place in 1793 sees an insurance investigator Mortimer Quinn working for The New England Insurance House, who arrives to Sovereign City looking for a man named Samuel Hale, who inherited quite a sum of money from one of his relatives.
After arriving to the city he is informed, that according to the locals Hale was murdered by the legendary Headless Horseman, a bloodthirsty wraith of the Hessian soldier killed during the American War of Independence. Being a rational man, he dismisses it as stupid rumors created by the superstitious fools.
His suspicions seem to be confirmed by the local dandy named Wilmer Grace, who informs him that Hale was fighting for attention of a local beauty, Karina Chapman with ruffian named Irving Van Brunt, leading him to suspect that schoolteacher was murdered by his rival.
Then it turns out, that Van Brunt was killed soon after marrying Karina, and that someone had cut his head… just as The Headless Horseman is rumored to kill his victims. So, maybe there is more to the legend just old wives tales?
Second part of the story takes place in 1937, and shows us Gravedigger and her team investigating the mystery of the mansion known as the Hendry House, rumored to be cursed, as well as being a scene of various incidents connected to the occult.
Some even say, that the infamous Headless Horseman, who haunted Sovereign City for years in buried somewhere in the Henry estate, in the unmarked grave, but no one was brave enough to check if it is true.
Nevertheless, when the family patriarch Maxwell Hendry had died, his relatives arrived to claim the family fortune, among them Li Yuchun, Charity’s friend and assistant, posing as a daughter of Mr. Hendry’s distant relatives, to act as Gravedigger’s agent in the old mansion.
Then it turns out, that some of the rumors about the old house were in fact true…
This story is less centered on adventure and action, instead being reminiscent of old horrors, particularly the works of H.P. Lovecraft, as Barry Reese uses some plot hooks, and tropes appearing in the stories from his famous Cthulhu Mythos.
True, in the end we see quite a bit of action, gore and so on, but for the most part we observe characters investigating the rumors, reading about the legends, and discovering hidden secrets, which in a way is a refreshing change of pace after “Rising Dark”.
Aside from that, we also get to know a bit more about the history of Sovereign City, some theories about the unusual things that seem to always happen there, as well as some additional information about the legacy of Gravediggers, so it’s a nice bonus too.
Third, and final story “The Ferryman of Death” matches Charity and her crew against the new contender for the title of most powerful criminal of Sovereign City, a mysterious figure calling himself Charon.
Enigmatic criminal is not only interested in local vigilantes like Lazarus Gray, Doc Daye, or Fortune McCall, but also seems to pay handsomely for all kinds of items with occult history, which seems to indicate some kind of plan, but no one knows what he is actually trying to do.
One thing is certain: Charon is certainly not an ordinary, overambitious crook trying to become someone powerful, because his personal bodyguard is someone, or rather something no sane person would dare to go against…
There is also another complication, that Charity/Gravedigger had not anticipated. Mainly that her actions would interest famous Lazarus Gray and his Assistance Unlimited.
Not only the enigmatic vigilante disapproves of methods used by the newest Gravedigger, but he also employs Charity’s half-sister, Samantha, whom our heroine hates with passion… All In all this does not bode well for their cooperation, and neither party would be able to defeat Charon on their own.
We also get another piece of knowledge about how Gravediggers function, and get a surprise visit from the character we had not expect to see anymore, which leads to a whole lot of questions…
In short, in the first volume of “The Adventures of Gravedigger” we get both action, horror and a bit of drama, tightly packed together thanks to the always great writing skills of Barry Reese. Actually, I think that in this particular book he honed his skills even better than before, so I was unable to put my Kindle down before finishing the book…
Great climate of the stories is further enhanced by the great illustrations made by the awesome George Sellas, who in a way is also one of Gravedigger’s fathers, since he designed her distinct costume. And who would not want to see our heroine decapitating two murderous pedophiles, or raise from her grave?
It is also worth mentioning, that I had not noticed editing errors or glaring typos prevalent in the previous books by Barry Reese, so either he changed editor, or the previous one was a bit more diligent this time around.
If I had to point any flaws of “The Adventures of Gravedigger – Volume One” it would be how short it feels. I mean, it’s really not that short with it’s 170 pages, but it hooked me so much, that I was able to finish it in less than two hours, wanting for more… And forcing me to buy second volume.
So, if you like New Pulp, or just well written, gripping action-adventure books with a bit of horror and supernatural in it, then just buy the first book of “The Adventures of Gravedigger”, and be aware, that it would make you buy the second too…
Thanks for the fantastic review! I’m glad you enjoyed the opening volume in Gravedigger’s saga – as you mentioned, it continues into a second book and then she will co-star in the crossover novel with The Peregrine and Lazarus Gray.
One quick correction – George Sellas did the amazing cover and designed Charity’s costume but the interior pieces are actually by Will Meugniot. Both guys combined to make Volume One a gorgeous release!