Review – Death Head #5 (Dark Horse Comics)

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Story: Zack and Nick Keller
Artwork: Joanna Estep, Kelly Fitzpatrick
Release Date: 16th December, 2015

The first thing that strikes the reader when coming to the Death Head series is the beautiful cover artwork. The moody, painted style is a wonderfully nostalgic fusion of the covers from favourite children’s adventure/mystery stories, featuring Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys, and the pulpy covers of 1980s horror novels from the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Shaun Hutson and Richard Laymon.

Even the theatrical tagline harkens back to an age of stylised Hammer horror, with the latest episode beckoning the reader to: Enter the cathedral of the crow and pray for your life! Unfortunately, previous instalments of this mini-series were lacking in the horror department. This latest instalment does provide several satisfactory scenes of horror – this instalment recounts a tragic tale involving a cursed child and ends with the bloody execution of a regular character – but, instead of being left with a sense of dread and foreboding on the final page, the reader is left wanting just a little more emphasis on the horror elements expected by the title and the front cover design.

This isn’t to say that the comic isn’t successful as a supernatural mystery: Zack Keller and Nick Keller’s plot, which involves the interwoven stories of the members of the Burton family as they battle and delve into the secrets of the curse laid upon them, is an intriguing tale. Niles Burton, unbeknownst to his wife and children, has returned to the town of Reyes, where he found the cursed mask, to solve the mystery once and for all. In the darkness of the caves under the town he discovers the much-anticipated identity of the Plague Doctor, the murderous figure haunting the family, as it becomes a fight against time for Niles to save his family from their cursed fate. The story even travels briefly to Venice to provide an historical insight into the mask, which was originally associated with the Medico della peste or Plague Doctor, who used the mask and accompanying black cloak and stick as a preventative measure to stop the spreading of disease – the beak of the mask was filled with aromatics – when attending plague victims in the 17th century.

As the fifth, and thus penultimate instalment of the mini-series, this episode starts to tie the various strands of the stories together via some nice character development, particularly in the adolescent relationships that siblings Bee and Maggie have with peers. The strength of the writing lies in the believable dialogue uttered by the children, which isn’t an easy feat to manage; as a result their distinct and realistic reactions to the curse and growing up in general are not only credible but also endearing.

A fan letter included at the end of the comic refers to the artist’s ability to render different faces in identifiable ways – highlighting that this shouldn’t need to be mentioned but unfortunately was noticeable in comparison with other new comics – and artist Joanna Estep’s pencilling is both light and simple, elevated by the rich hues of Kelly Fitzpatrick’s dream-like colouring in fantastical hues of vivid red, purple and blue.

Overall the story arc of the supernatural mystery has developed well across the mini-series, building up to what promises to be a satisfactory final instalment with plenty of action which, hopefully, will also be punctuated by a bit more horror.

Rating: 3/5

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The Writer of this piece was: Rebecca Booth

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