Review: The Dead Rider: Crown of Souls by Kev Ferrara (2015)

The Dead Rider

The Dead Rider: Crown of Souls
Dark Horse, 2015 (some material published previously)
Writer/Artist: Kev Ferrara

Review by N Emmett.

It is 1892, and Nevada is stalked by a frightful vision. The Dead Rider was granted immortality by a witch, only to realise too late the high price of this condition. His body continued to decay even as he lived, and after a period of gunfights, desert journeys and attacks by vultures, the man continued to walk the West as a decomposing husk. Worst of all, the Dead Rider is forced to keep on killing against his wishes…

Many of the old-school Westerns had a fatalistic touch to them. The black-hatted lawbreakers were doomed to be defeated by the white-hatted lawman: that was simply their lot in life. The rigid demands of formula manifested in the storylines almost as divine providence.

The Dead Rider: Crown of Souls by writer-artist Kev Ferrara takes this phenomenon to a new level. When the hero kills a villain, he genuinely cannot stop himself: his curse forces him to shoot people dead, even as he apologises.

dedrid2  But while the Dead Rider operates according to a black-and-white moral code, he is all too aware that things are more complicated in reality. At one point he is forced to kill a mob of townspeople who hold him at gunpoint, including a young boy who believes that the undead gunslinger may be honest after all.

He yearns to see an end to this bloodshed, but that will only come with the breaking of his curse: and that, in turn, requires a confrontation with the witch.

Admittedly, the clever premise of a character trying to escape from the framework of his genre is not explored to its full potential. The Dead Rider is really more of an artist’s piece than a writer’s – and artwork is an area in which it excels.

dedrid1The book is simply sumptuous to behold, with every panel – no matter how small or incidental to the narrative – positively oozing care and affection. Even the gutters surrounding the panels are crafted into gothic borders.

Ferrara is clearly a disciple of the EC stable, and does a remarkable job of channelling the likes of Graham Ingels and Jack Davis. His illustrations show the same melding of body horror and caricature, the macabre and the humorous merging into an almost tactile whole. Added to all of this is a dash of Frank Frazetta, whose painting style would have been impossible to replicate with the rudimentary colour printing available to EC Comics.

Ferrara’s storyline could have come right out of the horror comics of the fifties. These latched onto dedrid3the figure of the decaying revenant years before cinema did, and showed a fondness for the theme of the Faustian pact – to major ingredients in The Dead Rider.

The most obvious connection to pre-code horror comics is the story’s driving supernatural force: the witch. Multiple artists at EC and elsewhere had their own variations on the stock figure of the crone, and Ferrara’s would have fit in right alongside them. It is odd how such a familiar character can become exotic when placed into a certain setting – here, the old American west, not a place people associate with witches of European fairy tales.

Anybody with a love of fifties horror comics owes it to themselves to get The Dead Rider onto their shelves. Kev Ferrara has truly kept the flame alive.