Criminal Macabre:  The Iron SpiritWhen retired Air Force Captain Richard Clayton shows up in the dead of night on Cal’s doorstep, supernatural detective Cal McDonald doesn’t know exactly what to expect. What can this military man want with him? He soon finds out, as they descend deep under the Earth where Cal discovers that, “here there be ghosts” — and the ghosts are not in a conversational mood. All they want to do is kill the Captain and Cal, but little do they know that Cal isn’t really alive and he’s got some ghostly friends — such as ghoul assistant Mo’Lock — who are ready to help at a moment’s notice. Can these dead soldiers be put to rest or will Cal end up dying twice?

This short illustrated story is different from all the other crime and horror graphic novels I’ve ever read and it sure is enjoyable. Printed on cardboard pages, it’s not really illustrated like a “typical” graphic novel or comic. Each large page has a drawing that kind of encompasses what you’re reading on the page. There are no panels or speech bubbles, just a free form style of writing that flows all around the huge illustration on each page. Yet, this style completely fits in with the story being told — a story of mystery and horror as well as ghosts and ghouls. The story is different and muddy, and the illustrations perfectly mirror the confusion and sort of murkiness that exists.

Writer Steve Niles, creator of the 30 Days of Night series, is a master of horror comics and this story was definitely fun. It has all the best aspects of a horror comic: underground nightmares, mysterious old men, and ghouls and goblins that you don’t know are right around the corner. Illustrator Scott Morse is perfectly paired with Niles. Morse’s watercolor illustrations are spooky in sepia and rough around the edges, no clear and straight lines here, and they perfectly complement this short story. Cal and the Captain are both cloudy and clear —  the watercolors add cloudiness to their characters, and Scott brings his pen in to sharpen up the images to make them recognizable as men.

Adults and older teens who love a bit of the spooky will appreciate this story that reads pretty quickly, but leaves readers with a lasting uneasy feeling. I had never read a Cal McDonald story before and I thoroughly enjoyed this brief glimpse into his “life.”  It definitely intrigued me enough to seek out his longer stories. For both new and experienced Cal readers!

Criminal Macabre: The Iron Spirit
by Steve Niles
Art by Scott Morse
ISBN: 9781595829757
Dark Horse, 2012

  • Traci

    | She/Her

    Traci has been a graphic novel selector and collections coordinator for kids and teens in libraries in Arizona and Oregon since 2005. She served as the chair of YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens selection committee, and served as a member of the Great Graphic Novels for Teens blogging team. She previously coordinated the Oregon Young Adult Network’s Graphic Rave list, OYAN’s yearly list of the best graphic reads for teens. Traci is a member of ALA, YALSA, and GNCRT. And, she achieved her greatest dream ever by serving as a judge for the 2019 Eisner Awards.

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