Halloween Review: Nocturnals: A Midnight Companion

Beautiful, lush, lavish. Those are the first words that come to mind when I think of this book. It’s billed as both a Nocturnals setting “bible” (i.e., companion to the graphic novels series) as well as a role-playing game (RPG). It’s a full-color, glossy hardback that includes a ton of Dan Brereton’s art from the various published books as well as a lot of new art, including a complete, all-new graphic story that introduces a new villain group of spectral serial killers. Good stuff all-around, and beautiful to boot. Brereton has also done something interesting and not a little surprising here: he really has given us a true “bible” for the setting, providing a lot of background and other setting and character information that’s never before been revealed in any of the published Nocturnals stories.

Value for gamers: Very high, assuming you want to run a game either set in the Nocturnals universe or running a game in the style of the Nocturnals. Is all the art strictly necessary to run a game set in the Nocturnals universe? No, but it’s certainly evocative. Are the lengthy background write-ups of all the major characters (and many of the minor ones) necessary for a game? Probably not, but again, they’re inspiring pieces and will be highly useful if you want to have any of these characters pop up as either protagonists or antagonists in your game. Mechanically-speaking, it uses the Mutants and Masterminds system, and it’s not a complete game, of course. To use these game stats, you’ll need the Mutants and Masterminds core book. I’d say probably only 15% of the book is devoted to gaming-related stuff, and many of those pages are actually discussions of the main themes, tropes, and inspirations of the Nocturnals universe that should be included in any Nocturnals-style game, so it’s readily adaptable to other systems. We’ve also got ten new pre-generated characters (nine of whom get portraits – where’s the missing one?) who are based on the original Nocturnals characters and provide excellent examples of the slightly different directions that other Nocturnals characters could go.

Value for non-gamers: Extremely high, assuming you are a fan of the Nocturnals. In many ways, I almost see this book as being written primarily for non-gamers. All the gaming-related material (short stat blocks for the characters, a few new feats, etc.) has been ghettoized into a small chapter at the back of the book. All the rest of it is entirely gaming material-free.

This is actually a textbook example of how to produce a role-playing game supplement based on a licensed setting, and if you’re a big fan of the Nocturnals, I recommend it, even if you’re not a gamer, as it will provide you with significant material of interest. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: Nocturnals, Volume 3: Unhallowed Eve

This is the third of the three Oni Press Nocturnals trade paperback graphic novels, collecting the Nocturnals: Witching Hour story from Dark Horse Presents #125-127 and the “Troll Bridge” one-shot.
Note: This review features mild plot spoilers — read at your own risk.
The book consists of two story arcs, one I liked and one I didn’t.  he one I liked was the first, “Witching Hour,” where young Halloween Girl (Evening “Eve” Horror) goes trick or treating in a strange forest and (predictably) winds up in quite a bit of trouble when she runs afoul of a witch and her goblin servants (who have bat heads but who wear carved jack-o-lanterns over their heads).  This was a charming, full-color story with art by Dan Brereton and really highlights that the Nocturnals really are a family who care about each other and help each other out, despite appearing to be “monsters.”  Good stuff, and classic Nocturnals.
The second story was “Troll Bridge” where Eve also ends up in a pickle (no, she’s a lot better of a character than Scrappy-Doo, I promise!) when she finds a magical artifact in a bridge troll’s hoard that send her traveling through a variety of dimensions.  The story is printed in black, white, and orange – which is cool for Halloween – but my problem with it is that each segment of the story is done by a different artist/writer using their own pet universes and characters, who Eve and the Gunwitch encounter.  So we have art by art by Ted Naifeh, Jill Thompson, Arthur Adams, Joyce Chin, Adam Warren, Bruce Timm, Jay Stephens, Stephen DeStefano, Stan Sakai, Eric Jones, Kieron Dwyer, and John Heebink, with special cameos by the characters Jingle Belle, Usagi Yojimbo, and Scary Godmother.  Many of these artists’ styles just did not appeal to me, and I;m not into anthropomorphic samurai action, so the lengthy action in the setting of Usagi Yojimbo, for example, did nothing for me.  I really missed Dan Brereton’s artwork on this story.
I give it 3 out of 5 stars, but only because of the art and weak storyline of the “Troll Bridge” story (I would rate the “Witching Hour” story much higher, probably a 4 or 4.5 out of 5 stars).
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: Nocturnals, Volume 2: The Dark Forever

This is the second of the three Oni Press Nocturnals trade paperback graphic novels, collecting the Nocturnals: The Dark Forever mini-series.
Note: This review features mild plot spoilers — read at your own risk.
The story picks up a year after the events of Nocturnals: Black Planet and most of the members of the Nocturnals have been on their own, pursuing various goals and quests around the world.  They’ve all returned to Pacific City where dark events are unfolding.  The dead are walking the streets, the Raccoon has become an enforcer for a local crime family, Doc Horror is wrapped up in exploring the strange, inhuman city he’s discovered buried deep under the Nocturnals’ home.  The pyrokinetic Firelion and enigmatic Starfish have just rolled back into town, just in time to get involved in the mysteries and save the Nocturnals’ bacon.  Halloween Girl also plays an enjoyable role in getting the problems resolved.  I won’t reveal exactly what’s going on here as discovering that is half the fun. Suffice it to say, that in its long history, the underground city was home to two non-human races, one dead though still hanging around in ghostly form and the other very much alive and not terribly happy that humans are inhabiting their former coastal domain.
Characterization is very good, with the melancholic Starfish playing a particularly prominent role, plus it’s fun to see Halloween Girl in action, as always.  It’s also a very good mix of Lovecraftian horror and pulp action, as with the best of the Nocturnals stories.  Sure, there are a few elements that aren’t clearly brought together – why exactly are the dead walking the streets? – but it’s a great story, well-told and with terrific art, so if you enjoyed Nocturnals: Black Planet, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.  I give it 4 out of 5 stars.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: Nocturnals, Volume 1: Black Planet

Nocturnals, Volume 1: Black Planet by Dan Brereton is a really fun, creepy horror-themed graphic novel. This was my first exposure to the Nocturnals, and I’d recommend it as a good place to start the series (in fact this book collects the first six issues of the Nocturnals).
The Nocturnals are essentially a bunch of misfits and freaks (I don’t want to spoil any of their origins or specific abilities here, as that’s a major part of the fun in reading Black Planet) who have run-ins with both the mob and a strange alien menace. The group is led by Doc Halloween, who is joined by his daughter Eve (Halloween Girl) and companions Polychrome, Firelion, Starfish, The Raccoon, Komodo, and the Gunwitch.
Reading that premise sounds cheesier than it actually comes across, however. Outcasts from society, they band together and seem to form a real family, even though they are what most would consider to be “monsters.” The action, pacing, and violence are all intense, and the main characters are truly well-conceived and have some neat abilities. The book is plotted pretty tightly and flowed nicely; I found myself having to reread the beginning a bit just to make sure I understood what was going on and who the characters all were, but that wasn’t a big deal.
The book isn’t illustrated in a traditional “comic book” fashion, as I would describe it. Instead, each panel in the book is essentially a painting, and most are extremely well done. I don’t know a lot about art, but I’d kind of describe them as looking a little like watercolors, as there’s a lot of color blending and few sharp edges. They look very evocative, though definitely non-traditional for the comic medium. In addition to the six issues collected in this book, there is a pin-up gallery in the back that has all the covers as well as full-page color art by a variety of artists inspired by the series.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys horror comics, gunplay and mobster violence, pulpy action (of the more the violent persuasion, like the Spider), and Lovecraftian critters and weirdnesses. I liked this one so much I picked up all the other Nocturnals graphic novels.  I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers