Way of the Rat #3: Haunted Zhumar
by Chuck Dixon, Jeff Johnson, Luke Ross (Checker, 2007)

This is one of those stories where in medias res suits the experience in getting the story. While Haunted Zhumar collects issues 13-18 of the short-lived Way of the Rat series (formerly published by CrossGen and now available through Checker Book Publishing), one need not have read the two previous volumes to get into the story.

A thief named Boon Sai Hong stole the Ring of Staffs, which gives him mastery over any staff weapon. He reluctantly has an odd traveling companion, the enchanted Monkey Po Po. Other characters that play a part are Tei Su, the Silken Ghost; the magical and appropriately-named Old Mother; the deceased-but-still-power-hungry Judge X'ain; and Kung Kung Yi, a ravenous spirit. Although the genre is certainly mystical martial arts, the story is told in such an entertaining manner that one not need be a diehard fan of said genre.

While these may seem like a lot of characters with specifics and particulars to keep up with, the chapters have very useful recap pages. These recap pages do a great job of providing background information and context while the story itself moves ever forward with little reliance on what's previously occurred.

It's clear throughout that the writer and the artistic team understand what the story needs, in terms of visuals/imagery as well as text and dialogue. In some instances, Jeff Johnson does such an amazing job of facial expressions and character posing that Chuck Dixon abandons the use of dialogue, allowing the images to portray and pace the panel sequence.

And the colors in this book just might be the real star, moreso than writing or pencils. There's an interesting use of color contrast that turns convention on its side. Typically, in dealing with the living and departed spirits, the living are shown as alive and the specters with a colorless hue. In the case of this book, the spirits are portrayed with vibrant hues of green, red, blue, orange and gold; while the living have their fleshy pale and various shades of taupe for clothing. From the storytelling perspective, this only adds to the eye/attention-grabbing when Kung Kung Yi or Judge X'ain appear.

This is a graphic novel that proves the strength of a visual storytelling medium. It is very unfortunate that such a great series wasn't allowed to continue, but thanks to Checker, at least readers can get what little material was produced in a collected form. And what good thing that is, because Haunted Zhumar is certainly a graphic novel worth getting.

review by
C. Nathan Coyle

15 March 2008

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