In the literary world, one gets the impression mysteries are the bastard child no one wants. Sherlock Holmes aside, rarely do mysteries get recognized as significantly contributing to literature. Just about every critic feels comfortable dismissing them as complete trash. I can understand the revulsion to the genre. Most of it contains repetitive storylines, recycled ideas, and character archetypes so ubiquitous, they’re easily parodied. I swear I once saw on a shelf at least three separate mysteries entitled Trust No One.
However, I think bad examples overshadow the fact that mysteries are fertile ground for strong character development. Usually stripped of fantastic elements, mysteries focus on the excitement of human investigation. This allows retrospection from the protagonist and pauses for engaging conversations with a supporting cast. After all, Sherlock Holmes isn’t the first detective character, but his intriguing personality accompanied with his relationship to Dr. Watson allowed him to become a pop culture icon.
It’s these character-focused dramas that make good mysteries. One could even argue that they offer potential insights. The Pale, written and drawn by husband/wife creative team Sanders and Jay Fabares, offers a unique, diverse cast of characters in an intriguing black and white mystery.
The comic takes place in Rocket Ridge, a small desert town in Arizona. One day, while on patrol, Sheriff Terrence Logan discovers the naked, decaying body of a Navajo woman. Logan sends out a report to the FBI, asking for help and receives it from Agent Franklin Ink, although he is keeping it off the books for unknown reasons. Working with each other, Agent Ink and the police discover that this mysterious death may be tied to the local Navajo tribe, and they will have to dig deep into the local culture and mythology to find out what happened.
The setting of Rocket Ridge is as Nowheresville, USA as you can get. The police department is small and consists so far of only four police officers and one secretary. Rocket Ridge is described as “Arizona’s version of Roswell…but with rockets instead of UFO’s.” It does indeed have a museum of rockets, indicating they are important to the town’s history. The only other business related to the subject is a dive bar called “The Lift Off”, and the people drinking there are townies too bored to do anything else.
In design, Rocket Ridge is a stereotypical small town: Brick and mortar buildings, wooden cabins, technology depressingly outdated, etc. There isn’t much I could describe about the town that would be interesting. Even the desert is been-there-done-that territory. Vast, empty fields of sand stretching for miles? Check. Tumbleweed? In bulk. Snakes, lizards, and other critters of the waste? Hell, you could open a zoo with them.
Despite Rocket Ridge being lackluster, Jay Fabares demonstrates great artistry with her choice of black and white. Looking at the scenes in The Pale, one appreciates how much time and effort she puts into designing Rocket Ridge. There is a fair amount of detail that brings it to life. Even more impressive is the atmosphere. Fabares uses strong contrast between black and white for thick atmospheres that absorb the reader into the scene, whether it is the scorching light of day
or the engulfing black of night.
Another strength to the contrast comes in dramatic scenes.
Aside from the flawless movement from one panel to the next, the last two use light and shadow for dramatic emphasis. Panel 4’s shadowing the table to make the stone appear luminous signals to the reader that this is an important object, both to the story and Agent Fink. In Panel 5, the way Fink is shadowed as he covers his face suggests that whatever significance the rock has for him, it brings out feelings of regret and guilt. As a result, I’m fascinated and want to keep reading to find out why the rock has such importance.
The only other issue with the art is character design:
As you can see, the men share similar designs. This also applies to the women. However, it’s a non-issue given how strong Sanders Fabares writes their personalities. They play off of each other in fascinating dynamics.
Rocket Ridge’s PD is like a sitcom family. Sheriff Terrence Logan is a macho man, but he has frustrations with seemingly easy tasks such as fixing a coffee maker. Deputy Dawn Knotts is a teaser that would protect her loved ones with righteous fury. She’s also shown to be a very capable cop, not because she has stereotypically masculine traits, but simply because it’s her job. Officer Russ is a prankster who thinks he’s hilarious, but no one else does. Luca is a dedicated secretary that takes care of the office work and keeps an eye on all the officers to make sure they’re behaving. Officer Yazzie is a member of the Navajo Nation Police and friend to Sheriff Logan. He doesn’t have much of a character yet though. The story largely focuses on this group’s interactions and working together to solve the case. Unlike most sitcoms that are saccharine, the PD’s socialization is natural, ranging from endearing teases to genuine respect.
Unfortunately, there are problematic jokes. During a bar scene, both Russ and Dawn make jokes at the expense of Yazzie’s ethnicity. While Russ faces retribution from Luca, Dawn is waved off as no big deal. Her joke is the most benign, but I still find it questionable. I get these are friends, but the fact that Luca and Yazzie are the only POCs in the department– and two out of the three white people are using ethnicity as a source of comedy– seems like an exploitation their friendship. This wouldn’t be so problematic if Yazzie was fleshed out. However, he does deliver a sick burn to every white person in the room that makes up for it.
Even though Yazzie isn’t fully developed, he is still interesting. His first appearance is accompanied with three other Navajo characters: Megan Begley, her grandmother, and nephew Nathaniel. Nathaniel’s father was arrested and now he spends his days angry, hanging out with his best friend Wilbert and wasting life away. Grandma is an artist specializing in tapestry. Megan takes care both of her and Nathaniel, but his rebellious, distant behavior makes it difficult.
Not much else is known about the family, or an unexplained scar on Megan’s face. Yazzie’s relationship to them hasn’t been revealed, either, but clearly they will play a significant role. Also, the introduction of this family serves to further illustrate Sanders’ ability to handle a large cast of characters and imbue them with life as well as importance to the narrative.
The most interesting character is Agent Franklin “Fink” Ink. He’s a linguistics analyst for the FBI specializing in dialectology, the science of learning about a person by listening to them talk. In one scene, Fink uses this scientific training to accurately predict where a woman is from and her personality type. He is a smart, handsome man, but his problem is social awkwardness. This is a result of his prosopagnosia, a conditionthat causes him to not be able to distinguish faces. It means that when talking to people, Fink doesn’t always know who is who. This makes it hard for him to maintain conversations or long-lasting relationships with other people. Fortunately, Fink isn’t completely alone. He has a friend at the FBI named Robbins that tries to get him out of his shell, although he can be dickish about it.
Ink’s condition is treated with respect. It is never shown as debilitating. Ink has a job, friends, family, and is a great detective. It’s just that he struggles in large social gatherings. Jay Fabares contributes in representing prosopagnosia. Whenever a scene switches to Ink’s POV, people are shown to have flat, cartoonish faces indistinguishable from one another. It’s a transition that is surprising for the reader at first, but makes sense as they learn more about prosopagnosia.
If this makes the story seem more character driven than narrative oriented, at this point that’s because it is. Like many webcomics, Sanders and Jay Fabares are gradually telling their story. I love this because it gives me time to attach myself to the characters. I find their interactions entertaining. However, I also feel that a good mystery, or a story in general, knows how to balance between the two parts of a narrative: The A story, which is the ongoing event, and the B story involving character arcs. Having one overshadow the other can make for a disappointing narrative.
That said, there is a solid mystery going on. Along with the body are other significant items. Agent Ink’s rock is similar to one found on the dead woman. Later on, a strange totem made of rocks is found near the crime scene, and a rug created by Megan’s grandmother that resembles a shadow monster from her childhood nightmares. The amount of focus characters put on these objects indicates they’re a series of clues that will play a huge part in the mystery as it unfolds. I find them exciting and a good supplement for the otherwise overwhelming character drama. I feel wary attaching any themes or motifs to them yet because I still think it’s all developing, and now that the cast has been fleshed out, Sanders and Jay are ready to roll in the next chapter.
The Pale is a promising webcomic. Its approach might not be novel but its focus on character-driven drama, atmospheric black and white art, and respectful incorporation of Navajo culture will nonetheless make it stand out. Even though there is more focus on character over mystery now, the pace is still exciting enough to keep readers hooked, pondering on significant dramatic moments then speeding up for humorous scenes. I have high hopes that as the story unfolds, the story will expand exponentially and become a riveting mystery.
Ben Howard is a writer and critic of comics. He also contributes to The Outhousers and Graphic Policy. Follow him on Twitter @scarycleve.