Those still searching for a way into graphic novels might not find Salem Brownstone the easiest introduction. The prospect, though, is enticing – a 230mm x 300mm volume, bound in a textured purple cloth decorated with the dark, swirling frond-like shapes which we will often find crowding the frames inside. Perspectives shift from close-ups to distance shots, from within a character’s eye-socket to vertiginous viewpoints high above the action. Sometimes finding a tiny character among the serpentine lines requires patience. If the illustrations were in colour, their impact might be psychedelic; in black and white, they carry echoes of decadence and Beardsley perhaps, but with less open space to help define and focus upon a character.
The plot is tortuous. Salem Brownstone, owner of the Sit & Spin Laundromat, receives a telegram from ‘Lola Q’ telling him to check out a ‘towering mansion’ he has been left by his father, Jedediah, magician in Dr Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights. It’s ‘more House of Horrors than swingin’ bachelor’s pad,’ thinks Salem. Here he meets Cassandra Contortionist, guardian of the powerful scrying ball – an object much desired by the Dark Elders of Mu’Bric, the Midnight City, and their minions, the Shadow Boys. When the bad guys do show up, however, they’re dealt with easily enough – the contest is not in doubt. The circus freaks (the book’s word) who come to Salem’s aid appear to have been introduced to offer an opportunity for a fantastic illustration. Sometimes the plot itself seems to take a digression for much the same reason. Since Salem’s new friends from the circus never have to do much, tension and interest have to spring from within the illustrations. Although the grotesquery at first seemed repellent, repeated explorations of the images produced an increasing pleasure in their detail and wit. Re-readings of the text in turn sparked an enjoyment of Salem’s own cool idiom, the non-sequiturs of the plot, the unsolved riddles posed by the characters (just who is the taxi-driving ‘Lola Q’ with her eye-patch and her chat noir cigarettes?). Younger readers would probably be far more at ease in the genre; Salem Brownstone and his circus troupe might well develop a cult following, hungry for more of their dark escapades.