Dungeons & Dragons: Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle

Celebrity endorsements and a pandemic that forced many to stay indoors has helped the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) achieve a kind of resurgence. While enduring in an age of Xboxes and Playstations, its current popularity boost has created a smorgasbord of D&D tie-in media, even whole universes that exist under the D&D umbrella. One such universe doesn’t even use a dragon. The Ravenloft universe of D&D has its players typically fight vampires and werewolves rather than fire-breathing dragons, but this world does provide a lot of storytelling opportunities, as demonstrated in the book D&D: Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle, written by Casey Gilly and illustrated by Bailey Underwood.

The opening of this story might be very familiar to some: a dark, foreboding castle; flashes of lightning, and a creation that has just awakened. However, it is not Dr. Frankenstein who has brought his creation to life. The doctor in question is Viktra Mordenheim and what has awakened has no memory of who she was before. She chooses the name Miranda, and she mostly obeys Dr. Mordenheim’s rules, particularly that she should stay on the castle grounds and never venture outside, but Miranda is desperate to learn more about her past, even if it could cost her the new life she was given.

This book could initially be dismissed as heavily plagiarizing Frankenstein. However, the dynamic of Miranda and Viktra is just the wraparound story, and the majority of this collection features stories about other Ravenloft inhabitants encountering ghosts, sea monsters, and other creatures that stalk the night. These stories might vary in quality from one to another, but they all involve characters meeting gruesome ends, which brings to mind horror anthology films that also keep their individual terrifying tales tied together with a wraparound story.

The artwork itself is restrained, using a more spooky atmosphere rather than relying on visceral, full-on horror. The designs of the various characters even show a slight manga influence, which signals that the target audience of this book are young adults who are familiar with the world of Ravenloft and of D&D. There are characters that appear to resemble elves and halflings (or Hobbits, a term familiar with Lord of the Rings fans), meaning that Gilly and Underwood expect their audience to have at least a basic familiarity with the universe their characters occupy.

This book is definitely for a specific audience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a niche one. There are plenty of people that, if they’re not currently playing D&D, then they remember playing the game and having fun, and there are still those who have fond memories of or wish to learn more about the Ravenloft setting. To see if this would be a good purchase for your library’s collection, look for signs in your own library. Does it have a Dungeons & Dragons group? Do you have the rulebooks and adventures for the game, and if so, how often do they check out? This book is a solid collection of creepy stories, but the entryway into them requires knowing something about the book’s dark and dreadful universe.

Dungeons & Dragons: Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle
By Casey Gilly
Art by Bayleigh Underwood
IDW, 2022
ISBN: 9781684059560

Related media:  Game to Comic

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)

Ghost Book

Everyone knows that ghosts can be terrifying. Many can rattle off stories about wandering spirits and vengeful entities that chilled the blood, but some might forget that ghosts aren’t always scary. One could point out that being a ghost is like having red hair or being double-jointed; it’s an aspect of that person’s (or spirit’s) character but it’s not the totality of it. The overall ghost story might tone down the terror for the audience or because the author wants to tell a different kind of story involving ghosts and the afterlife. Such is the case of Ghost Book, written and drawn by Remy Lai, a book about ghosts that speak to kids while also tackling some complex topics like grief and friendship.

The story begins with two children who were born on the same day, and are tied together due to some cosmic shenanigans. July Chen is considered eccentric by many of her classmates, when they notice her at all. She has what’s called Yin Yang eyes, which allow her to see ghosts, including the hungry ones that come out during Hungry Ghost Month. Despite her father’s insistence that ghosts aren’t real, she still sees them and William, who is not a ghost but a wandering spirit caught between the realms of the living and the dead. July tries to help her new friend get back to his body, but the price to save him may be too high.

Young readers will find a plucky protagonist in July Chen, who is considered by many of her peers to be “weird” but is still a brave, resourceful heroine when it counts. She is also dealing with the loss of her mother, who died when she was born, and a father who practically refuses to talk about July’s mother. As July tries to protect William, readers will also see a friendship that begins because both children are terribly isolated (William, because of his condition, and July, because of her reputation), but that bond grows more as they go on a quest into the realm of the dead where many terrors await them.

The art does depict some unsettling images of hungry ghosts. Looking like rejected sketches while Edvard Munch was painting “The Scream,” their empty eyes and repetition of the word “hungry”—all drawn in a sickly gray speech balloon—make them seem even more inhuman and terrifying. They become especially frightening when they are drawn toward William as a potential snack. However, the book balances the frights with lighter fantasy elements, like the bumbling Ox-head and Horse-face, who look exactly like their names imply. They are collectors of wayward spirits and are also pursuing July and William, but they are also more interested in eating dumplings than meeting their quotas.

The book exists in a world of Chinese mythology while also dealing with some universal truths. Ghost Book is a Orpheus-like descent into a fantastical underworld while also serving a moral about the hold grief can have over the living. Its simplistic artwork does imply that this story is for children, those who might see a little of themselves in William or July, but it also doesn’t pander to its audience and should be a part of any children’s graphic novel collection.

Ghost Book
By Remy Lai
Macmillan, 2023
ISBN: 9781250810434

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12 years

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Indonesian,

Purgatori: Witches Get Stitches

The nineties were a time when a company could sell a comic simply on the artwork, of what many would call style over substance. It was a time of holographic covers, collector’s issues, and the gorgeously-rendered characters within these books all possessed a gritty, acerbic aesthetic and attitude (in short, a typical ‘90s attitude). Some might look at these kinds of characters with a feeling of nostalgia while others might simply find them exhausting. The main character in Purgatori: Witches Get Stitches, the latest Purgatori collection written by Ray Fawkes and illustrated by Alvaro Sarraseca, highlights this dichotomy. 

The character of Purgatori looks more devil than vampire, complete with fiery red skin and leathery bat wings. She is a thousands-year-old vampire who sustains herself from the blood of others, not only stealing their life essence, but also their memories. Feeding adds to Purgatori’s own skills and abilities, but it also leaves her with a swirling cacophony of memories and emotions all struggling for dominance. A coven of young witches seek to take advantage of this and use Purgatori for their own selfish purpose. Purgatori must stop them before she begins to lose control of herself. 

Ray Fawkes inserts some interesting folklore creatures and the people who hunt them, but the very nature of Purgatori, and Fawkes’s rendition of her, makes Purgatori a character that doesn’t seem capable of having her own identity. Purgatori is basically a cypher who absorbs the memories and personalities of those upon which she feeds to the point that she is swept away on the experiences of her victims. She even comments on how she feeds on bad people for awhile, until she becomes bad, then she feeds on enough good people to point her moral compass the other way. Purgatori has a distinct lack of agency in her long-lived existence, and with her dialogue being mainly snarky and suggestive one-liners doesn’t allow her to be a multifaceted character. Purgatori’s dialogue also affects the story. When humor is purposefully inserted into horror, it creates moments of levity in what could otherwise be suffocating darkness. When humor is used too much, it saps all the tension from the story.. 

Sarraseca’s artwork offers some eye-catching horror moments, such as the shapeshifters Purgatori encounters and the witches combining more than just their energies to attack her. However, it doesn’t detract from the scantily clad, centerfold-adjacent renditions of the heroine, whose uniform is a black leather bikini. Purgatori isn’t contorted into unnatural shapes that defy physics and anatomy, but there’s also no denying that Purgatori’s pin-up looks are a major part of the book’s appeal. The book tacitly admits this in their cover gallery by inserting photos of a few professional models dressed up as Purgatori among the other sexualized drawings of the book’s star. 

As for this book’s purpose in a library’s collection, it might find some circulation among other gen-X and millennial males who spent their hard-earned money at their local comic shops, and in that vein, it could even be considered an artifact of a long-ago age. But unless a library has a collection featuring other pin-up fantasy comic heroines like Vampirella and Lady Death, this book could probably stand to be lost to history, or at least passed over when making selections. 

Purgatori: Witches Get Stitches
By Ray Fawkes
Art by Alvaro Sarasecca
Dynamite, 2022
ISBN: 9781524121679

Publisher Age Rating: 13 and up

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Canadian,