Comic Review: “Bittersweet Vows” (Markosia)

Vampires, the Chicago mafia, a troubled marriage – Markosia’s Bittersweet Vows* is certainly not wanting for high drama!

Written and lettered by Alex Scherkenbach with art by Gustavo Novaes, Bittersweet Vows is an odd blend of horror, suspense, and drama set in the era of Prohibition. Much of the story follows the trials of a young couple that moves from their foreclosed farm in Kansas to try their luck in mobster-run Chicago while the city is being threatened by a serial killer. Unsurprisingly, it all takes a toll on their relationship.

This book’s opening pages featured one of the most engaging story openings that I’ve read. A mysterious man is towering over a patient who is lying in a hospital bed. The man talks to the patient about how his chart suggests that he only has a “few days left,” and how he has “almost made it to a century.” It is here that the speaker is revealed to be a vampire, who then leans in for the kill. Before the vampire leaves, he tells the gentleman’s dead body that it is “time to pay her a visit.” This whole scene takes place in just over two pages, one of them being a splash page. The layout was dynamic and creative. It used an ECG heart rhythm overlaid on the panels to show the active heartbeat and the ultimate point of death; a motif that reoccurred throughout the book.

Crunch!

There were other notable creative touches that I really liked, one being the scene transitions. Most of the story is set up in a way in which the writing bridges over when the scene changes. For example, when a character is speaking in one panel, the last word to finish their sentence is continued on the next page with a different character using that final word to start their own dialogue. The transition didn’t always occur in word balloons, sometimes they would be in caption text boxes, too.  

Another interesting touch was the way in which the artist depicted motion. An item would appear first in a larger picture or panel, but on that same picture there were multiple, smaller panels showing the same item (newspaper, cigarette, etc.), each in a different position, giving the effect of the item blowing down the street or falling to the ground.

The art in Bittersweet Vows was impressively dynamic, with its creative use of borders and versatile layouts. The color palette was mostly muted colors with black. This gave the book a feel of the old-time classic past, as well as the convey the simplistic way of life in Kansas.

Some of the panels, however, had an excessive amount of word balloons for dialogue, which sometimes detracted from the art. In hindsight, I wonder if I would have gotten as much from the story if the dialogue text was reduced. Scherkenbach did a fine job weaving his story, setting it up with a compelling beginning, a compelling buildup, enough meat to fill in the backstories while keeping the main plot interesting, and finished with an unexpected ending. I simply don’t know that I would have enjoyed the book as much as I did without the dialogue that was there… Definitely a double-edged sword, to say the least.

While I did enjoy many aspects of Novaes’s art, there were some issues that I found that detracted from it (other than word balloons). In some of the mobsters’ scenes, I had a hard time trying to keep straight who was who due to the characters looking too similar. Other panels also lacked enough detail for me to make out what exactly I was looking at when the perspective was in close.

I also didn’t like the red text when the characters were screaming. I understand that the creators wanted something impactful, but in my opinion, the use of red was jarring against the muted colors in the artwork. Certainly the large, bold font takes some of the blame, as I didn’t mind the small red word balloons that were used when the vampire was talking.

There were also points in which the panels – or series of panels – are colored with a red haze. This seemed to represent a couple different things at different points in the book, but there was a certain page that confused me because out of the 11 grid-like panels two of them seemed to randomly not have the haze. I wasn’t sure what the artist was trying to tell me with the difference. The story would have been clearer without adding the two non-tinted panels.

Overall, I really enjoyed Bittersweet Vows. The graphic novel format is 131-pages, which includes five-issues (each 20+ pages). The individual issues are separated by their own full-page covers, complete with titles and credits. There’s also additional content included in the graphic novel, such as cover art, sketches and process notes, which is a nice bonus for those who like behind-the-scenes content. Being able to read all the books in one sitting helped to make the story stronger for me, and I thought the creative choices were more noticeably striking and innovative reading the story as a compilation. I was pleasantly surprised by the story, which was well written, entertaining, and intriguing. The writing makes Bittersweet Vows what it is, while the art complements it. While there were some detractions, some may boil down to overlooked mistakes or my own stylistic preferences, but everything generally tended to mesh fairly well.

*Disclosure: a copy of Bittersweet Vows was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.

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