This review first appeared in Horrified magazine in 2021.
Cavan Scott & Corin M. Howell’s addictive new horror/crime comic Shadow Service – featuring a detective with magical powers in the murky underworld of London – invites obvious comparisons with Ben Aaronovitch’s enjoyable Rivers of London series, and is, therefore, a welcome addition to a tradition of a hidden, magical London that can be traced back via China Mieville’s UnLunDun (UK, 2007) to Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry’s Neverwhere (BBC, UK, 1996).
Gina Meyer is a private detective who also happens to be a witch. In classic noir style, Gina has a troubled past, and a subplot of the story – as yet unresolved as Volume 2 finishes – is her journey to discover the source of her abilities. She has an instinctive command of spells and needs only to be able to speak in order to wield her powers. Volume 1 starts with a bang – there’s a brief flash of nightclub violence – and in the aftermath, the appearance of a smart-arse talking rat called Edwin told me this could be a fun ride (Gina: ‘I’m not going to ask how a rat knows about London’s bright young things’; Edwin: ‘oh, you know…the gutter press’). When Gina then performs a spell by using a nail gun, I was hooked.
Despite Gina’s powers, her latest case has gone cold. Then a job for the odious Gideon Quill goes wrong – no good deed goes unpunished – and she finds herself caught. But her captors turn out to be the good guys: British Secret Service Section 26, otherwise known as MI666 (a good, indeed inevitable, concept, even though Andy Bloor’s comic from last year got there first). But the relationship with her new co-workers is not easy: agents Coyle and Aashi mistrust Gina from the start. Coyle is a flesh-eating, shape-changing ghoul and Aashi is ex-military: an Afghan veteran for whom PTSD repressed all emotions, she was then turned into a crack agent by means of a Philosopher’s Stone implant. They’re led by Hex, a four-hundred-year-old mage forever trapped in the body of his eight-year-old self: James Bond’s ‘M’ he ain’t. If only 007’s adventures were this much fun!
The many twists and betrayals in Shadow Service see the action veering from London to Manchester to Rome and back, as we edge closer to the source of several mysteries: what is it that makes Gina a witch, and, more urgently, what is the demon Yastrik’s ultimate plot? Britain, we are told – not that this is news – ‘is spiralling into a maelstrom of bigotry and hatred’, and part of the problem is because the historic London Stone is missing.
Along the way we encounter the artist Anthony Gowdie, the latest prodigy in the art world, whose canvasses depicting monstrous giant eyes have found favour among the powerful. But Gowdie is an artmage (nice pun) and the paintings contain more than meets the… er… eye. Volume 2 rushes to a climax in a centre of British Establishment power, and what happens there is both disgusting and hilarious, and probably scuppers any chance of a big-screen adaptation.
Shadow Service is written and drawn with exuberance. The plot is well-structured throughout: characterisation is done via flashbacks which are brief enough to not feel like they are slowing the plot, and action-packed enough not to feel like exposition. Gina’s relationship with the other agents is uncomfortable, which keeps the reader on edge and makes the story difficult to predict. The dialogue is snappy and there are subtle pop-culture references, like this nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1981): ‘Spiders. Why does it have to be spiders?’ Elsewhere there’s a nice reference to Arthur Machen: the agents use the Great God Google to find out that Gowdie’s work is on display at a gallery on Pan Lane.
It also looks superb: eyes, in fact, are everywhere; there’s great character design by artist Corin Howell, and her demons are all bulging with eyes. There are numerous double-page spreads that are by turns stunning and gross – sometimes both – and give Howell a chance to show her skills. Colourist Triona Farrell uses a muted palette for much of the action – a lot of it is set either at night or in dingy rooms – and this gives the explosion of magic a real psychedelic touch when it happens; the colouring work is excellent.
I mentioned Rivers of London earlier: if, like me, you found the graphic novel versions of those to be disappointing, then give Shadow Service a try. It’s fast, gruesome, erudite and funny, and I can’t wait for volume 3. Highly recommended.