Will is an avid comic book collector based in Denver, Colorado. He is Crazy About Comics!
A Fine Line Between Reality and Insanity?
Heavy spoilers follow.
Crimson Flower is a series from Dark Horse Comics. Prolific writer Matt Kindt takes readers on a trippy, propulsive ride in Crimson Flower #1. The main character and narrator, the titular Crimson Flower, is an antagonist for the ages. She's a successful career woman seeking vengeance for the murder, years earlier, of her father. It's a set-up that would hook anyone.
But is everything as it seems? Kindt does a good job of dropping subtle (and not so subtle) hints that something may be awry with the story we're being told. The fact that Crimson Flower is suffering from some kind of mental illness (schizophrenia, perhaps) is obvious pretty early in the goings-on.
The story told in this first issue has a haziness to it, as if it's all happening in some kind of amped up dream (nightmare) state. It's all very straightforward until the reader realizes it really isn't.
The art by Matt Lesniewski serves to amplify the idea of an altered reality. At first, the art seems jarringly strange. Did the artist forget how to draw anatomically correct human bodies? Everything is just a little out of proportion. Bodies don't bend that way. Soon enough, it becomes apparent that Lesniewski is playing with perception and that there's a method to his madness.
It all works astoundingly well. Kindt's clever story and Lesniewski's off-kilter illustrations blend to become a singular exercise in what we've come to think of as "mystery box" storytelling.
Who Is Crimson Flower?
The main character in the story is a woman we're going to refer to as Crimson Flower because we never learn her real name, at least in this first chapter. She lives in St. Petersburg and is the top sales associate for Cardinal Perennial Pharmaceuticals.
And she probably has schizophrenia.
We meet our hero as a child reading a book about Slavic folklore in her father's study while he works at a desk nearby. It's their ritual; he tolerates her presence as long as she's quiet, and she gets to be close to him.
Kindt manages to plant a lot of clues about what he's up to in this first page of Crimson Flower #1. As the child reads, the narrator describes her as "always eager to find a room. A portal ... to some different reality."
In a surreal sequence later in the book, we learn that her father was killed in his study, while she watched helplessly, by a mysterious intruder.
Twenty years later, she is using her job to track down a suspect in her father's murder. "She visits between five and ten clinics a day with her sales pitch," the narrator tells us. "Always on the move. In her sales zone. Every town between St. Petersburg and Moscow."
She is looking for medical records for a man named Anton Shubin. The doctor she meets early on in this tale is tempted to give her the information she wants in exchange for a year's worth of drug samples. He protests, however, finally declaring that he can't reveal the private information of his patients.
Our hero proceeds to grab him by the neck and take the patient file for Anton Shubin right out of his hand. She has what she came for; now she can locate Mr. Shubin. Mission accomplished.
But wait a minute. Let's examine this scene a bit further.
As she is pitching her company's drug to the good doctor, he suddenly and briefly turns into a drooling wolf as he exclaims, "I really like what you're selling here." Her perception is off. We're seeing glimpses of her reality, and it's untethered.
We also get two very clear, frontal images of the doctor as he is conversing with our protagonist. In neither of these views is he holding anything, much less a patient file. Then suddenly, she is grabbing it from his previously empty hands. Again, something is not quite right with any of this.
The mysterious file leads her to a seedy part of town, to a ramshackle apartment where she meets and confronts Anton Shubin. She recounts the events of the night of her father's murder and demands to know if he was the culprit.
After some extortion, Shubin agrees to tell her what he knows.
He was an assassin trained by the government. But he didn't kill her father. Not his style. Her father was killed with a knife. "I use poison, gas, explosives. Nothing like what you described," he says.
Shubin does give her a new lead, though. He describes a mysterious bar in the nearby countryside where other "retired" government assassins hang out. Her father's killer is probably holed up there, he suggests.
Given an opening, Shubin tries to kill our hero, and this is what serves as the action climax of Crimson Flower #1. It's a cleverly scripted, kinetic set piece executed brilliantly by artist Lesniewski and colorist Bill Crabtree.
Needless to say, our hero survives and is next seen driving her car across a bridge, presumably en route to the isolated bar Shubin told her about. Could he be trusted? Will she find her father's killer there?
Kindt throws a final element into play on the final page of the story. Our hero looks up and sees an image of herself flying just above the car. But this version of our hero is a super-hero, cape and all.
It is here we learn that our narrator has been Crimson Flower, herself, all along.
"She has taken the first step into the twisted woods," she says. "And for the first time she sees herself. Not as she is. But as she wants to be. But who is she kidding? Who am I kidding? I'm pretty sure ... this is who I've always been"
Crimson Flower #1 is an exceptional introduction to this character and her world. Kindt has set up a lot of ideas to explore. The solicitations for this series promises a "mind-altering journey through Russian folk tales, trained assassins, and government conspiracies." This first issue lays a solid foundation for whatever Kindt has in mind.
The artwork is a stunning example of the perfect marriage of style and theme. Lesniewski knocks it out of the park, even if it does take a few pages to get accustomed to the exaggerated style.
The "mystery box" style of storytelling is on full display here, and it will be interesting to see where Kindt and Lesniewski take this bold tale.