You’ve heard this story many times before: A man whose family is murdered is out for vengeance in a western genre setting. Yet, Above Snakes by Writer Sean Lewis, artist Hayden Sherman, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou is anything but uninteresting. I reviewed the first issue of this series and came out impressed, which made me return to read the rest of the series and review it.
When we first meet our protagonist, Dirt, he is on the desert ground and down on his luck. The only person in his life, his tether to humanity, his wife, has been murdered, and he is out on a mission to get revenge on the Above Snakes gang that killed his wife.
Dirt is accompanied by a talking vulture. As the story progresses, it becomes clearer that the vulture is a stand-in for his grief, his motivation for revenge. The best part of the book is the dialogue between Dirt and the vulture, which is really witty and a masterful addition to the western revenge story trope. If Dirt ever takes a moment to move on from the grief or feels self-pity, the vulture brutally criticizes Dirt and keeps pecking at him to fulfill his revenge. This exploration of the inner dialogue of a man who is wronged through a proxy like a vulture makes this book unique. The inner dialogue is neither just a bottomless pit of sorrow, nor is it always anger and stoicism. Externalizing this grief makes this exploration more humanizing. Later on, Dirt comes across another character whose entire tribe was murdered by the Above Snakes Gang. The reader is informed subtly of the greater grief this person must be suffering from simply by having their vulture be larger and fiercer.
Other than the vulture, there are several interesting characters we meet along this revenge journey. However, I wish they were slightly more fleshed out. It felt like in one issue, I would learn about their motivations and connection to Dirt. Then suddenly, they are discarded towards the end. Would it have been better if all the avengers banded together for a giant showdown with the Above Snakes gang? I am not sure. Does revenge only feel good if it is exacted by the lonesome? I don’t know the answer to that, but I wish there was more time with some of the characters.
The antagonist, Doctor Tomb, has an interesting design, and him being the narrator in the prologue of most issues was a great idea. However, his motivations are unclear and unsubstantive at best and derivative at worst. We learn that his entire plan was to teach Dirt that life is unfair, which, in my opinion, doesn’t make for a convincing motivation since there is no reason for Doctor Tomb to care what Dirt learns. It also muddles what we are supposed to glean from the, “life is unfair,” idea. Does it mean that if Dirt can find justice, life is ultimately not unfair? A far more interesting approach would have been if we were told Doctor Tomb was a cold-blooded quack who had a specific reason to do what he did. Would’ve been cooler still to have the manifestation of his cruelty be a snake and have it explain his motivations.
The first couple of issues take an episodic approach with a showdown in each episode which I loved. In fact, in the first issue, it is set up that in his journey of revenge, Dirt will be helping out people on the way. This is partially paid off, but the series is too short to fully realize this. I wanted more showdowns and, perhaps, smaller “boss fights” along the way. Overall, the first few issues are great, but the plot abruptly brings us to the final showdown, which resolves in more or less expected ways. I do appreciate some of the time the middle issues take to dive deeper into Dirt’s past and delve into the topics of guilt, revenge, and resolution. It is in these issues, however, that sometimes the humor feels a bit repetitive and flat, and the tension loosens up. I would’ve loved Dirt to be in peril and beaten up and dusted, only to wriggle his way out at the end through all the issues and not just the last. Though the final showdown is a bit cliche in its execution, the final moments amp it all up to a nice crescendo. The bombast of it all makes it feel thrilling and satisfactory.
Above Snakes has spectacular art and lettering. The colors keep things exciting and bring a vibrant yet rough quality to the story. Hayden Sherman effortlessly juggles storytelling and keeps things interesting. The art makes you want to look again. Similarly, Hasan’s lettering is immaculate and innovative. They say you don’t notice lettering unless it is done badly. I disagree, and this book is a testament to what can be done if the lettering is not just an afterthought but very much one of the main ingredients. I would love to see more creative teams do this and let the letterer cut loose.
If you are hankering for a fun western that has a good mix of dark comedy added into the western revenge tropes and interesting characters, Above Snakes is the perfect book for you.