Above Snakes by Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman and publisher Image comics brings to you a stylish western comic that is equal parts of action and whimsy. The story drops us thousands of feet right into the story, where our protagonist is waking up in the middle of the desert, talking to an imaginary bird. We are told little about our protagonist, who is he, why is he imagining a bird and what got him here. We only know that he seeks revenge from the Above Snakes gang. He talks about how the west is an accursed place, full of sad sacks hunting clues about their lost loved ones. He remarks that they are all seeking revenge which they will never find. Ironically, right after saying this, he receives a tip from his imaginary feathered friend about the Above Snakes gang that murdered his family, kicking off the adventure for the first issue.
I must say that I found this issue to be very cleverly written. There is a good balance of character evolution and story progression. Western genre tropes have been explored by a plethora of other works, but Above Snakes takes a self-aware, indulgent, and slightly whimsical take on it. The self-awareness is not played for laughs or patronizing, and that craftiness keeps it from crossing the border over to being a parody.
The imaginary bird is a clever mechanic to have dialogue only involving the protagonist but not turn it into an expository monologue. I am partial to this specific story mechanic since I grew up reading and watching and loving Vikram-Betaal tales that involve similar dialogue between a king and a corpse. In Above Snakes, our hero wastes no time getting to the next clue, and it involves having to rescue someone. Without spoiling much, our hero succeeds, but the important thing to notice is the theme. In the beginning, we are made aware that the protagonist is reluctant to help folks because they have their own revenge to pursue. However, this clue to being able to exact their revenge involves them having to help someone, and that is the through-line of this story. In the end, our hero asks if this is what helping people feels like, indicating that is the arc our protagonist is going to follow. The story also hinted at another subplot involving a character pursuing revenge, and I would bet on their worlds colliding.
A special mention must be made for the art, which looks heavily influenced by European comic art style. The panel layout keeps things interesting. The coloring is especially exciting and draws your eye to the action pieces through color choices. The perspectives and panel layouts manage never to make the story seem flat but with a measured and controlled effortlessness. My only critique, which is honestly a nitpick, is that sometimes the exact action is not very obvious like in the climax and could’ve been dealt with a bit larger canvas. The lettering helps out here, and it could be because Hayden is both the artist and the letterer, and it is just a matter of them flexing different muscles.
Above Snakes has the makings of becoming a classic and fan favorite. Much like the protagonist finding their purpose when they were seeking something else, this is a story that I didn’t know I needed. I cannot wait to read the next issue.