The Book of Lost Souls by J. Michael Straczynski

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Book of Lost Souls, Volume 1: Introductions All Around by J. Michael Straczynski (writer) and Colleen Doran (artist)

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsI am so pleased I picked The Book of Lost Souls up off the shelf at Oxford Comics in Atlanta, Georgia. Though I am familiar with the writer, J. Michael Straczynski (often referred to simply as JMS), I’d never heard of this book or its artist — Colleen Doran. But I was immediately grabbed by the title and cover image of a forlorn young man clutching a large, red book. In the center background is a large moon with the nighttime skyline of 19th-century London on the left and 20th-century New York on the right. I did judge this book by the cover, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the inside of the book was even better than was promised by the cover. In fact, this book made such an impression on me that I’m writing this review less than ten minutes after finishing it, something I rarely do.

The book is a collection of the first six issues of a title that seems to have the potential to go on past the last page, while at the same time offering a sense of closure that satisfies on its own. JMS, as many comic authors do, must have made sure his first arc had a satisfying ending in case the second arc never got published, or written for that matter. I really don’t know anything about the history of the title. And though I would buy any other issues he wrote after issue #6, I feel the sense of thematic closure even if the plot isn’t fully resolved. I also feel strongly enough about how good it is as a single volume to recommend it as a 4.5 star trade collection.

lost souls 2The story is about a young man in 19th-century England who commits suicide by jumping off the London Bridge. We are shown in just a few quick panels that he is frustrated in his love life, academic studies, potential career, and relationship with his parents. As he stands on the London bridge, a man hands him a book to weigh him down; he clutches it to his chest, and then he jumps into the dark waters waiting below. The picture on the cover of the trade collection is showing him at the moment he jumps. The book this young man clasps in his arms has some sort of mystical importance in the larger theological picture. It is, after all, The Book of Lost Souls. And he has unknowingly committed himself to some spiritual duties after he has shuffled off his mortal coil. The souls of others become his new job, and he receives very little instruction from only two sources: a black-and-white speaking cat named Mystery and The Dark Man. Their instructions are less than clear; as a result, his new post-mortem duties will force him to make difficult decisions with consequences that cannot always be predicted.

Without any sense of being derivative, reading through The Book of Lost Souls gives off the feeling of having finished a top-notch Sandman story by Neil Gaiman. For example, JMS develops his own Endless-type allegorical figures. The Dark Man is one; the talking cat, Mystery, another. And in the case of the main character, his is a role played only temporarily against a being who has always had his role (The Dark Man). However, though the main character’s role is PLAYED temporarily, the role itself is endless. These allegorical figures are different from Gaiman’s in that there aren’t as many of them, and their roles are less clearly assigned. However, like his figures, they interact with the human world. Some of these interactions are quite clear, particularly when the dragon out of a fairy tale is effectively blended with a modern-day woman living with a modern-day domestic dragon. Many of these stories are very human and realistically touching. But, as in Gaiman’s Sandman stories, even the most didactic messages are lifted to the level of the sublime through the use of the fantastic, the fairy tale, the magical.

lost souls 1Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the final section in which the cryptic cat tells us the story of creation and gives an alternative version of the events that took place in the Garden of Eden. He even tells of the first words spoken in defense of what the cat believes are falsely accused humans. In other words, the book’s unique myth is tied specifically to the myth of the Garden of Eden, and JMS uses the book to express some theological problems that are reasonable to ask about the potential logical flaw in labeling as sinful the actions of the two first human beings in the Garden. None of this theological questioning comes off as didactic, in my opinion. The book is more about asking questions — including ones about the possibility of free will — than it is about providing clear answers.

Though I would never describe this book as one about suicide, my only warning is that those who don’t want to read anything about the subject of suicide might want to avoid this book. If you can read about a main character who has committed suicide and if you can deal with the subject with philosophic distance, you’ll be fine. I don’t think JMS is using the book to actually say anything realistic about suicides and what happens to their souls. I believe he uses the subject of suicide as a narrative device to talk about choices we all make — once again, it operates on an allegorical level.

lost souls 3I will be rereading this book very soon. It’s like Sandman — it satisfies on a first read, but you know there was so much missed in the art and writing in this first encounter with the book. And while in the history of art, some allegory is obvious and clear in its message — historically, much Christian allegory, for example — the allegories in Gaiman’s Sandman and The Book of Lost Souls are the types of modern allegories that I love: Meaning slips and slides all over the place, forcing one to think. As soon as you make The Dark Man mean one thing, that forces an opposing character or type logically to slide into position representative of another meaning that is equally clear. But once you do that, the new meaning — of the speaking cat, let’s say — may not feel right, which forces one to rethink the meaning of The Dark Man. Note that in this case, we are discussing only two characters. Basically, there is an entire web of characters in logical relationship, and if the meaning of only a few of these keep shifting, the meaning of the others are forced to shift as well. The possibilities, if not endless, are certainly enough to warrant multiple readings and much thought. Finally, in a world where comic book runs frequently last 50, 100, 200 issues, it’s refreshing to sit down with a relatively-speaking, short six-issue arc. It’s like sitting down with a Shakespearean sonnet after being lost in the immensity of a Hamlet.


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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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2 comments

  1. I had not heard of this title, I assume it is relatively new? Is this an ongoing title? I realize this is a self contained arc, but one of the main complaints with JMS is his ability to start with a bang and end with a whimper.

  2. Brad Hawley /

    The series is from 2005, and from what I can tell, this arc is all he ever wrote. I doubt he’ll return to it. I’m actually fine with that. It’s a perfect little arc actually. It would have been more frustrating if he’d written 12 more issues and stopped. I think that would have created MORE loose ends. But with the way it ends here after six issues, though, there are enough shorter stories that are ended to provide some clear points and a sense of closure to satisfy, while still leaving some, but not too much, ambiguity to keep one thinking after finishing the book. I’ve actually already reread it. It might already be out of print. Amazon offers it only through third party sellers I think. If you’re at all interested, I’d pick up a copy while they are fairly affordable.

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