The Highest House #2
Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Peter Gross
Cover: Yuko Shimizu
Colors: Fabien Alquier
Letters: Peter Gross
Reviewer: Steve Sellers
There are some collaborations that create anticipation just when the names are mentioned. For me, one such collaboration is that between Mike Carey and Peter Gross. I have tremendous respect for their long run on Lucifer, which to me was always at its best when Gross was doing the art. At the time that Lucifer was ongoing, it was consistently one of my favorite comics being published until the title ended. I’d always hoped that they would do another major project together.
The result of their latest effort together is The Highest House, a fantasy comic about a slave boy with a mysterious and powerful lineage. He is purchased by a powerful wizard, Extat, who rules over a castle with its own mystic background. The result is the kind of fantasy adventure that might feel at home in a novel, but is a distinctive story when told through the medium of comics. The question is whether Carey and Gross could rekindle the same magic that defined their work together at Vertigo.
The Highest House more than fulfills that promise, as Carey and Gross deliver an enthralling tale of magic, faith, and lost innocence.
I always appreciate a cover that can tell its story within a single enticing image, and Yuko Shimuzu’s cover accomplishes this nicely. The focus is on the cover is moth, whose world is turned upside down with the revelations of this issue. The decision to have Moth inverted, then, is a good thematic decision that echoes Carey’s vision for the book. The expression and body language help to tell that story as well, as we see Moth holding an object that has fatal significance for him later into the issue. Beyond that, there is a ghostly and dreamlike quality to the background, especially with the castle and its many towers. Likewise, the depiction of the angel atop one of the towers looks ethereal and hints at another of Carey’s major thematic ideas. This is a cover that entices me to turn the page, but it’s also a cover that hints at the complex mythology and larger ideas that Carey and Gross are grappling with.
Peter Gross has evolved as an artist since the last time I encountered his work. One very striking element about his work in the interior pages is how painstakingly detailed the background work is in this comic. This is a story where the castle acts as a character in the story in a very real way, and the visual depiction captures this perfectly. Gross creates a strong sense of perspective in the establishing shots of each room in the castle; there’s one panel that establishes the chambers of Magister Extat that catches the eye immediately. Because there’s so much detail, it adds to the readability and re-reading value, as the panels slip in tiny but important details into each frame. Shots of the surrounding countryside from the castle roof hint at an exterior world that the story has yet to visit, but all these elements are visually interesting and grab attention. Even if the story wasn’t already laying groundwork for this setting, the visual cues alone invite the reader to learn more.
However, Gross has proven himself to be a skilled visual storytelling since his time on Lucifer, and this issue is no exception to that. His characters in this series look like normal, believable people, even though there is a stylized approach to his work. The character types are all visually distinct, and they move and behave differently as portrayed here. Facial expressions are clear and recognizable, and even subtle gestures help to establish character as portrayed here. Moth comes across as a small and slight person, for instance, which helps to establish how truly insignificant he looks compared to the grandiose presence of the Magister and the other more prominent characters.
While the coloring is quite solidly done, it doesn’t distinguish itself too obviously either. This is by no means a bad thing, as the attention falls squarely on the art and the words to deliver the storytelling. To the book’s credit, the lighting is probably the strongest aspect of the color work. Important characters are emphasized through the lighting, and time of day is evident through the background tones rather than any notable visual cues. However, it also does a good job of highlighting mundane elements, using earth tones to distinguish these scenes from the dreamlike quality of Moth’s magical journey. Background colors also highlight urgent scenes, such as one very notable story twist that becomes a life-or-death situation for Moth. It’s reasonable work that is worthy of the talent on display in this title.
Though Peter Gross is the artist on this title, he’s also responsible for some strong lettering in this series as well. One interesting aspect of his work is that the sound effects are kept to a complete minimum, making the sounds we do find that much more meaningful. However, the lettering also does a good job of establishing voices and even tones through fonts and letter balloons. The voice of Obsidian is distinct without being overpowering, and we can tell when Fless is singing through simple balloon choices. Beyond that, Gross spaces the words effectively with his balloons, and even though Carey’s script is complex, there’s a good sense of economy with them.
Although I’ve long enjoyed the work of Mike Carey, this may be one of the most promising arcs he’s done in years. One of the reasons for this is the superb and intricate worldbuilding that he and Peter Gross have accomplished with this setting. Although the art succeeds at showing the reader Highest House and the kingdom that we see, the writing hints at a much more elaborate world beyond that. The magic system hits that fine balance between intricate design and accessibility to the reader. There is a great deal that we still don’t know about this setting, but we know just enough to want to learn those answers. This title asks a great deal of questions, but the presentation is so seamless that the reader can sense that Carey not only knows the answers but knows when to offer them.
One of the reasons that a series like this works so well is that it understands Moth’s value as a storytelling device. On the surface, he’s a simple reader surrogate in the sense that Harry Potter is, and there are some parallels there. However, Moth is also a slave, and through his eyes, we see a broken society that is built on slavery and torture. He starts off from a position of weakness, and by showing us that vulnerability, Carey shows us a world that is built on faith but has abandoned the principles of that faith. Moth shows us what the smallest person suffers in a world like this, and that is valuable information, both in illustrating the world and Moth as a character. Beyond that, Moth is also heir to a powerful legacy that has deep ties to the world’s history, and Carey uses those connections to help the reader see how this society was built.
However, Carey is also a meticulous plotter who plays the long game, and this is clearly at work in this series. When Carey lays down a piece of exposition about the castle or about the world, it’s a promise of a payoff in future issues and even future storylines. Moreover, he is also a writer who has a firm grasp of how pacing works in comics writing, and this issue shows a calm understanding of what information needs to be imparted. Some of this information comes into play in ways we anticipate, but there are also powerful shock moments as the game changes completely. Just as Carey settles us into what looks like a new status quo, the story pulls the rug from beneath the reader. Though we know that Moth must eventually make his pact with Obsidian, it’s never at exactly the moment or circumstances that the story suggests. By the end, I was eagerly anticipating the next issue, wanting to know more, and that is the mark of a well-executed script.
There are very few books that I will endorse with complete and unreserved enthusiasm, but The Highest House is absolutely one of these. This is a veteran creative team that is producing some of their finest work in years. There is also the sense of real passion for this project on the part of the creators, who seem to only have scratched the surface of this setting. This book resolves questions only to present new ones, making the story that much more rich and dynamic.
Though this is a $5 comic, Mike Carey and Peter Gross have created such a compelling universe and a deeply complex adventure that it more than justifies that price. If you’re interested in a fantasy tale with a Vertigo-inspired flavor, The Highest House will provide that for you. Consequently, this title earns a spellbinding 9.5/10, with the potential of reaching a 10/10 if this arc concludes on this level of quality. This is the kind of comic we don’t see often enough, especially one that’s produced by one of the best teams working in the industry.
Written By Steve Sellers
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