Reviewing Will Morris’ ‘Gospel’ #1: Historical Fantasy And The Telling Of Tales
by Richard Bruton
Will Morris’ ‘Gospel’ #1 is so full of potential, a beautiful-looking comic that promises so much, a medieval quest for answers, magic and devilry, and more than anything else a comic about stories and storytellers. But it’s also another first issue that isn’t quite there yet. It teases and tantalises more than it hooks you in. It’s good, knocking on the door of great.
Will Morris‘ 5-issue series Gospel tells of “magic, action, adventure, devils, giants, assassins and friends that stumble, fall and rise again”. It’s trying and reaching and… doesn’t quite get there… not yet.
I first heard of Will Morris with his 2011 debut graphic novel from Blank Slate Books, The Silver Darlings, a tale of boys becoming men, and a tale of the beautiful and terrifying sea, a mistress all seamen learn to respect sooner or later. It was a beautiful book and marked Morris out as a name to watch for the future. Since then, he’s been published by Oxford University Press, Nobrow, Spirou, 2000AD, Vertigo and Freight Books for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. But Gospel from Image Comics will be his first big worldwide release, and one that looked rather special from the advance previews we’d been seeing.
According to Morris, it comes from the nature of ancient British magics of Cornwall and of the folklores that come from places like this, passed down generation to generation. Set in 1958, the England of Henry VIII, Gospel #1 features the wannabe hero Matilde and her storyteller friend Pitt.
Image’s PR describe it like this…
“When opportunity refuses to knock for restless hero Matilde, the devil comes knocking instead. Thrust into action by the hellish arrival, Matilde and storyteller Pitt will quest for answers – answers that threaten to tear them apart and trigger the toughest question of all: “Who am I?”
Inspired by the work of Hayao Miyazaki and set in the chaos of King Henry VIII’s reign, GOSPEL is a thrilling fantasy adventure that questions the truth behind the stories we tell.”
It all opens here like this, making you imagine it’s some huge fantasy where giant beasts roam the world…
But no, it seems that that’s not it at all. Instead it’s something far cleverer and potentially far more interesting. It’s a story about stories and a story about heroes and what it takes to be a hero, and more than that, what it would take to become that mythical thing whose tales are told for centuries to come.
So instead of those first few pages being fantasy of the genre kind, it’s fantasy of the personal kind, a retelling of events from the storyteller’s perspective, building up the hero’s bravery and deeds of wild bravery as they face down a gigantic boar, monstrous, perhaps even demonic as it rampages through the streets of the town.
But of course, that’s just the story we see being told in this story. The truth is far more mundane and down to Earth. So that’s where we meet Pitt and Matilde, apprentices working, dreaming, and wanting more than this life – particularly Matilde. She wants to be the sort of person, the sort of hero that she is in Pitt’s tales of her heroism, just like in those first few pages.
She’s just not that good at it, which is why, in reality, she’s less “vanquish the beast” and more the sort of girl who’d throw a pig into the potter’s workshop just to give herself something heroic to do… and then fail at that.
Anyway, through the pages of this gorgeous-looking comic, richly drawn and coloured, we meet the cast, find out more of their lives and their world, a world where religious upheaval is in the air and superstitions and folklore still dominates.
And it’s a good start to a series, one that’s got a huge potential to do some excellent things. But it’s just not as good a first issue as it could have been. Morris packs so much into it all, asks so many questions of the reader about the nature of stories and meanings that it feels like it’s all questions, questions, questions here and too many of them stuffed into a short page count.
Added to that, we have the problem with Gospel #1 that what’s been promised in the PR just isn’t in here – we already know that the entire story is about Matilde and Pitt’s quest for answers and one that will “question the truth behind the stories we tell” after the arrival of the Devil in their town.
Well, the Devil appears in the final panel of this first issue. We’ve seemingly spent so long setting things up here and introducing things that the meat of the issue, the hook that everything else feed off, has to be thrown in at the last minute.
But despite saying all that about what’s wrong here, there’s so much that’s right, or at least so nearly right. Morris’ concept is wonderful, fascinating, clever. His art is a delight. And there’s so many things that make you wonder whether things are quite what they seem here.
Case in point: about halfway through we suddenly jump forward to the obvious now, a harbour town, where Gita sits and interviews Mr Fisher, the paperwork for the guardianship to put him into a residential home right there on her clipboard. Thing is, Mr Fisher’s a self-proclaimed storyteller and well… he’s a little strange.
Now, what story he’s telling is completely unknown yet. Who knows what sort of thing Morris is spinning here?
But it’s certainly way, way more than you get from much of this first issue.
The teases are all there that this is something more, particularly with Mr Hunter. After all, maybe it’s just me, but a few pages after the few scenes with Mr Fisher and Gita, when we’re back in 1538 and you see this guy barging through the panel…
The beard, the red hat? Is it just me seeing too much here?
I don’t know. What I do know is that Morris has five issues of Gospel to tell his tale and it’s obviously a tale full of promise, full of potential. Problem is, here in this first issue that’s packed full of ideas, maybe too many ideas to fit the page count, that potential is merely glimpsed and teased.
Will Morris’ Gospel is another first issue where you can’t really come down and say whether it’s great or not, a fault of so much modern comics. But it’s definitely one that I can see me really enjoying more and more as the issues go on. Heaven knows it’s just looking to explode into wonder and magic. Just not quite here, not quite yet.
Gospel #1 (of 5) – art and story by Will Morris, colours by Holley McKend, cover by Ver. Published by Image Comics and out now.
More on Will Morris – website, Twitter, Tumblr.
Oh, and if you do get the chance to pick up a copy sometime, do get hold of his previous graphic novel… The Silver Darlings – here’s a little from that one –