As someone who was largely out to lunch when Neal Gaiman and friends conquered the world of mainstream comics with their darkly romantic fantasy GNs, I'm not the best man to play "Spot the Sandman Swipe" with Mike Carey & John Bolton's God Save the Queen (Vertigo). As a result, I'm forced to take this much-maligned new graphic novel hardcover in isolation, which may or may not work to the book's advantage. Still, any comic that utilizes the Sex Pistols' legendary anti-anthem as its title and thematic underpinning has got my attention, at least, so let's take our own look-see, okay?
Set in modern times, Queen focuses on a thought-free rebel London teen-girl named Linda, who falls in with an ultra-bad crowd: a group of banished faeries addicted to a blend of heroin and a very specific type of blood (the very fact of its specificity gives away several pertinent plot points). Linda's matronly mom Ava has apparently been pining ever since her husband left her, so without any clear-cut matriarchal influence, our heroine pushes her readymade victim friend Jeff into the world of hard-core drug abuse. (Bye, Jeff!) When the oh-so-pretty vacant faeries run out of "red horse," they bring our heroine to the border between our world and the land of faerie – where, of course, they ultimately abandon her. Within this realm, the haggish Queen Mab is seeking out the last servants loyal to deposed Queen Titania, who has also been banished to North London. Of course, the first creature Linda comes across is a fugitive servant of Queen Titania.
The highly addictive red horse, we ultimately learn, is being given to the drugee faeries by one of Mab's servants, Puck, as means of keeping the banished creatures in check. (Reading this aspect of the storyline, I couldn't help thinking back to the old left wing conspiracy theories which declared that the drug epidemic was largely the result of the CIA's attempts at decimating the black urban community.) Linda returns to North London to learn – to no one's amazement – that her mother Ava is not all she seems. A big Faeryland battle ensues, with mother and daughter in the front lines. When it's over, Linda says piss-off to the drugee faeries back in London.
Not an unfamiliar fantasy tale, but, then, plenty of familiar fantasies have made – and will continue to make – decent entertainments. If only Carey weren't so heavy-handed with his plotting: when you see a close-up of the christening spoon that was given to Linda by her missing father, you know it'll play a role in the big climax (and it does). When Linda comes to the wrong conclusion about her heritage after her first visit to Faeryland, we immediately know she's barking up the wrong branch of the family tree. To be sure, being one step ahead of the story's protagonist can be fun if that's the writer's intent (it's one of the central pleasures in P.G. Wodehouse), but Carey treats each revelation as if it's a big surprise for the reader. Ummm, no.
Much of this could've been rescued with a suitably decadent art style, I suspect, but though John Bolton has shown himself to be quite adept as going pre-Raphaelite in the past, here his painted art is too stilted and inconsistent to do the trick. (Never could figure out what age Ava's mom is supposed to be, but it varies by a good two decades throughout the volume.) We get multiple poses of Linda showing off her skinny legs and all, but when it comes to actual plot movement the visuals get pretty muddy: when a castle column, for instance, cracks and falls down on a character, it takes prolonged page study just to get what's supposed to've happened. At times, you get the sense that Bolton, the artist, is more invested in the full-page portraits that regularly grace the book than in the mechanics of telling a simple comic book story.
That noted, there were a few aspects of Queen that I enjoyed: though it starts out reading like a broad anti-drug polemic (my sense is that Carey was trying for a GN Trainspotting but instead wound up with Reefer Madness), in the end it attempts to toss a bit of ambiguity into the mix by making our heroine's red horse use a key to defeating Queen Mab. Too, the Queen our mother & daughter tie their allegiance to proves almost as imperiously treacherous as Mab: a believable character fillip that even I could recognize as Gaiman-esque. "If you're thinking of executing me for treason," one character warns Titania just before the battle starts, "you'd better pick a different venue." Clearly, this is not noble King Richard returning to Nottingham from the Crusades.
But these small pleasures weren't enough, unfortunately, to save God Save for me. Of the Vertigo hardback fantasies released within the last year, I found Bill Willingham's Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall to be more consistently entertaining (with better Bolton art in it to boot!) No Sex Pistols lyrics in Fables, but you can't have everything . . .