This is one graphic novel that’s, unfortunately, all too easy to dismiss. Its author, Chad Michael Murray, is better known as a male model and star of the CW Network’s night-time drama One Tree Hill. Not exactly someone you’d automatically think of as prepared to write a great comic. While it certainly has some small issues, Murray displays the talent of a writer early in his career with a gift for big ideas and solid storytelling.
When the book opens, readers are thrown into two pages of detailed pseudo-history pulling together odd pieces of Occultism and Hollow Earth theory. Although a confusing way to open, the details do play an important piece in building the world. A page turn leads us to an action-packed scene “somewhere in the Holy Land,” with two men fighting in the desert over an ancient scroll. After this setup, we finally get to the namesake of the book, as well as some details that tell us exactly what’s happening.
The Apocalypse is fast approaching and Derek Everlast, a taciturn and enigmatic figure in a billowing trenchcoat reminiscent of the nameless heroes in so many Westerns, serves as a soldier for a secret organization that seeks out the 144,000 souls meant to journey to Heaven, or Haven as they call it here. Everlast possesses a sixth sense that allows him to detect and track down these perfect souls and then protect and guide them until they reach the gateway of Haven. A new tickle from his Nudge-sense leads him to Naomi, a twenty-something no-nonsense bartender. Protecting her brings forward clues that hint that a former soldier named Stavros might be leading a group of demons to prevent souls from passing over into Haven.
Visually, Everlast is a mixed bag of styles, although purposefully so. To help delineate changes in perspective between the main characters, Murray elects to change the artist with every shift in point of view. Whether it’s the Hellboy-inspired approach of Robbi Rodriguez, the chaotically kinetic style of Andrew Huerta, or the painterly methods of J.K. Woodward, all of the artists have strong storytelling chops and do a solid job in making the characters feel the same within these very different looks. The method largely works, but does stumble when the transitions are not quite so clear. This problem seems biggest whenever Everlast shares a scene with one of the other characters. Some of the less traditional art styles may not sit well with some readers.
Like many writers early in their career, Murray tends to put his influences out in the open. We learn most of the details through the character of Everlast, who delivers information to us in a dead-pan Noir-style narration that feels a little too much like Frank Miller. And there’s something about Everlast’s overall situation and attitude that evokes memories of Hellraiser‘s John Constantine. Murray also seems conflicted in developing pacing and how to deliver the pieces of his story. Much of the early details come through by telling us outright instead of having the world shown to us in a more organic, fully-realized style. In contrast, sometimes the motivations behind the characters and their relationships, especially between Everlast and Naomi, move too quickly to let us develop real depth in our attachment as readers.
Despite some of these shortcomings, Murray really stands out through some clever world-building. In a clever twist, Haven sits not in the sky, but buried deep in the center of the Earth, while demons descend upon the mortal world from above. Stavros’s motivations as the villain are not quite as black and white as they first appear and they drive this dark fantasy into a unique, near-magical place.
As part of Archaia’s Black Label, the publisher lists the title as Teens 13 and over. Personally I would push that to 18 and over. Not because of high levels of violence, gore, or anything else, but because the dark tone of the story and Murray’s voice will turn off most readers younger than that. Fans of Hellboy or other dark fantasy and horror comics, however, will likely enjoy Murray’s own take on the genre.
A prose short-story set in the world of Everlast ends the book and Murray offers a second story for free on his own website. I’m taking this as a hopeful sign that Murray will return to this world and expand it further. I, for one, look forward to coming back and seeing what he can do with it.