Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Written and Illustrated by: James Stokoe
Release Date: 23rd February 2022
Before I begin singing the praises of James Stokoe’s truly singular talents in the fourth – and seemingly final? – issue of Dark Horse’s Orphan and the Five Beasts, I think I need to take a moment to address the elephant in the room. Namely, the fact that the solicitation blurb’s claims that this issue brings the series to “a glorious conclusion” simply aren’t true. Like, at all.
Simply put, there is no conclusion to be had here. In fact, we only get to see two of the five titular “beasts” before the series abruptly ends with an admittedly rather amusing visual gag. It’s more than a little baffling, and to be honest, its initial impact was to sour what had been an absolutely stellar offering to that point.
Thankfully, that bitter pill is sweetened somewhat by Stokoe himself, who confirmed on Twitter that he’s currently working on the next arc. Great news to be sure, although it’s still fairly confusing that this fact isn’t acknowledged anywhere in the comic or on Dark Horse’s website. However, and skipping over this confusing mixed message, I’m going to do my best to review this latest issue for what it is – namely, an absolutely stunning showcase of Stokoe’s utterly distinctive visual and narrative talents.
When we last left Mo, our orphaned heroine, she had stumbled into the kitchen lair of Chopper Teng, the second of the eponymous five beasts, whose twisted powers had seen him slicing off choice cuts of his own flesh and feeding it to the local villagers in order to bring them under his thrall. As you do.
Excitingly, and with the exception of a few pages of our latest beast’s backstory at the beginning, the entirety of this 22-page issue is made up of a frenzied battle between Mo, Teng, and the brainwashed, zombified and grotesquely mutated inhabitants of the village. Stokoe keeps the dialogue to a bare minimum here, letting his dynamic and energetic artwork carry the flow of the battle. The comparisons with Geof Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy during these sequences are hard to ignore, with a fluid and visually stunning ballet of violence playing out on the pages.
The level of detail is breathtaking throughout, and the way Stokoe manages to convey both motion and impact is pretty much second-to-none. As before, there’s a faintly surrealist tone to the proceedings that ebbs and flows throughout the issue before coming to the fore in emphatic fashion in the final pages. Seriously, there’s some weird shit going on here. However, as I mentioned before, while the conclusion to the fight is immensely satisfying, the conclusion to the issue as a whole definitely isn’t, with things ending without any sort of hint that the story is going to continue. No vague tease of the next beast, no glib “two down, three to go”. Nothing.
As utterly sublime as Stokoe’s work is here, it’s hard to give this issue a perfect rating because of its deeply frustrating ending. Yes, the visuals are world class, and the story is just the right side of out-and-out-madness (you can decide for yourself what side that is), but it ends with a whimper rather than a bang. And while I’m sure the subsequent issues and remaining three beasts will more than deliver on the promise of this story, I still can’t help but feel a little let down here.
[PREVIEW ARTWORK – CLICK TO ENLARGE]