Am I A Western? Looking at High Moon

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As a fanatic of westerns, I felt that it is appropriate that the same love for those films carried over into my graphic novel readings. In the wake of the current craze surrounding East of West, which I admittedly did not enjoy because of its pretentiousness and overbearing dialog, I read the first volume of High Moon, a former webcomic from DC’s online comic branch, Zuda. In 2009, High Moon was selected from a pool of webcomics published by Zuda to be transferred to the print format. After reading the first print volume, I cannot say that the print transition was a bad idea for Zuda, maybe just not the best.

High Moon Volume One

High Moon centers around a man named Macgregor in the opening of its first chapter. Macgregor is a former Pinkerton detective who now has more of the appearance of the archetypal man without a name. He is somewhat of a bounty hunter, and in the tradition of the many bounty hunters of westerns past, he speaks little with the few words he says tied to questions around getting more information on the man he is chasing. After talking to many of the town locals, we find out that there is a little girl missing and that there is something causing blight on the cows and the cowboys around the town. In parallel to Macgregor’s investigation, we get to know more about the the man he is after, Edward Conroy, and we find out that the hunter and the prey are far more similar than Macgregor would believe; both are werewolves who are able to tame their transformations, and both are trying to save the little girl.

As the chapter progresses, the true villains of the Texas town emerge and Conroy and Macgregor, in a very abrupt moment, battle together against the monsters who are the source of the destruction and the massacre in the town. And in a bizarre twist, Macgregor is killed and Conroy absorbs and bears the identity of Macgregor. In the next chapters, we see Macgregor version 2 on his adventures in Texas. On his path, Macgregor runs into traveling performers, bartenders, arguing family members, and train robbers, the universal western peripheral crew. However, he also runs into the supernatural: other werewolves, a Native American tribe with the ability to transform into bird-like super beings, and oddly enough, steampunk accomplices and assistants to Nicolas Tesla.

High Moon is a bit of a tough graphic novel to review. While the main idea of the bounty hunter werewolf is interesting, there are almost too many supernatural elements to the story. By the time the Tesla assistants emerge and use their seemingly mystical robotic weapons, the story loses its greatest strength, its core character. As Conroy Macgregor continues to encounter more monsters in his journey, he defies death more and more. We begin to get the sense that he is invincible, and thus, every monster and supernatural challenge he faces becomes less interesting and engaging because we know that he is going to definitely survive.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that having an invincible protagonist is not necessarily a bad thing, but given that the physical challenges the protagonist will face will have the same outcomes, there must be further attention given to the exact persona of the character in order to keep the reader interested. For example, we never find out why Conroy has decided to become a protagonist in the first place. In the first chapter, we know that Conroy has committed serious crimes, and in the second chapter, we found out that he is the reason behind the death of another young girl. However, we never get a sense of the origins of his change of purpose. Without the layers of character construction, the entire narrative gets reduced to a bunch of moments of big fights and victories, which get all too boring too fast.

I don’t think that the creators David Gallagher and Steve Ellis were oblivious to the fact that they were not building characters. They give us the history of the warring brothers in a town; they give us the history of  the steampunks, Tristan Macgregor and his wife. However, they just do not give history and complexity to their center character, which is a very strange decision because he is the one who warrants and rightfully deserves the most attention.

In terms of a formal style critique, High Moon has dialog and narration written in a very abrupt style. The artwork is beautiful, and I think in order to preserve the art, there are few sentences on each page. Consequently, with few words used to guide the story, there are some events that happen in the narrative that are not relayed to the reader in a clear way. I found myself too often reading a piece of narrative that did not have clear motivations or that did not make sense given the previous events.

High Moon is a messy graphic novel. It has a strong core narrative, but it feels as if someone talked to the authors about avoiding alienating non-western loving audiences, and consequently, they added all of these other elements ranging from steampunk to love triangles to try to pull in a more general audience. All of these additions lead High Moon to become a bizarre mix of stories with an identity crisis.

There is one remaining layer that is the most bizarre of all: the race politics. When we meet Macgregor version 1, he is an Anglo American, again, the archetype of westerns in the past. Then, Edward Conroy, Macgregor version 2, is African American. The authors made this explicit decision to change the race of the bounty hunter, but they did not seem to consider to try to change the clear racial stereotype tied to Conroy’s past: his criminal activity. There is some political statement trying to be made here, but it is cloudy and conflicted, which is probably the deepest, though not necessarily last, nail in the coffin for High Moon.

High Moon has some interesting ideas in it, but the execution sadly leaves the reader wanting more. The artwork is excellent, but the lettering is too sparse. The main character is interesting, but more attention is given to the peripheral characters. There is halfhearted commitment to both traditional western and werewolf narratives. It’s really a shame. High Moon had the potential groundwork to become a magnificent series, but it just got too ambitious and too confused, which is why I suspect that it ended at the beginning of 2011, a little over a year after the first volume of the graphic novel was released.

High Moon Volume One is available via DC Comics. 

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