Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist: Colleen Doran
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: 2.99
Release Date: October 26, 2006

“Maybe interesting things happen to you all the time, you’re just not paying attention.”

With that we enter into J. Michael Straczynski’s (Squadron Supreme, Strange, Amazing Spider-Man) new world, The Book of Lost Souls. In a comic book landscape dominated by the spandex wearing folks, we have an all-too-rare dark fantasy entry, and Marvel’s second title in their creator-owned imprint, Icon. The Book of Lost Souls has a familiar feel to it, at least for those fans of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (or his novel, Neverwhere) or even Straczynki’s own Midnight Nation, both of which Straczynski seems to crib from.

The premise features a tragic, dark hero in the form of Jonathan (who looks a lot like Poet from Rising Stars), who lived at least a century ago, who finds himself in our modern world after a near death experience. Joined by his constant companion, Mystery, a talking cat, together they intrude into people’s lives. He suddenly has a purpose and a sense of mission as he comes to grips with who he is and who he is meant to be and find others like him. Straczynski slowly, emphasis on SLOWLY, builds a supernatural mythological world within an urban environment; a world within a world that promises that reality isn’t always how it seems.

The book is hard to get into. It may be the heavy inks on the art that doesn’t sit well with me. The dialogue and plot both lean too much on the vague, lacking some of the crackle I’ve come to expect from Straczynski. The potential downside to a creator owned book is that there is no one to reign him in from some of his excesses. However, I can’t complain about typical comic book story-telling styles and then turn around and complain too loudly when someone tells their story outside of convention.

“Everything starts with the book.” –Mystery

Jonathan clings to the story that undergirds his faith, this Book of Lost Souls that gives him purpose, without making it into something that not only is it not, but it never claims to be. It’s not an answer book for every question in your life or to govern every aspect of your life. It is not an encyclopedia. It’s not a scientific text. It’s not a history treatise. It’s not a self-help guide. To treat it as such would be to drive out the mystery from his life. The book is a collection of stories that should be an arrow, not a destination, an arrow pointing to a fuller way to live.

“We are all loved to the degree that we are mysteries … Some of us have to be answers and answers are always less interesting than mysteries.” –Mystery

Caught up in a greater story, Jonathan feels the pull of good and evil on his life, as to all of the “lost souls” that he encounters. For example, there is the presence of the Dark Man, who seems to represent temptation. He is a spiritual principality (“powers and principalities. But we all look alike in the dark. And here, in this time and this place, it is always dark.”); though other voices speak into his life, like the ways/mindset of the world and even his own weakness. However, there are other voices, voices of truth, voices of love, which he has to remind himself of: “And that voice, that truth, that love…is a promise…that even in darkness, doubt, or pain…we do not fight alone.”

The lost souls are trapped in empty lives: relationships that poison them, drugs, the “I am not …” lies (false ideas of themselves, false ways of seeing themselves), not knowing if they are running away from something or toward something else. They are people without hope. The “lost souls” are often on a road whose passage from it can only be paid in blood, finding themselves at crossroads when presented with the choice, the way out. So often when presented with a choice to a better way of living, they choose “the devil they know” and continue on their meandering road. Jonathan, like a Gaiman-inspired Christ, comes to give them hope, their dreams back, a new lease on life.

The Book of Lost Souls starts off uncharacteristically slow and unengaging for a J. Michael Straczynski project. Almost as if it takes its audience for granted, that his fans will forgive him the slow start so that he can tell the story he wants to tell. Yet there is too much exposition and if feels too … intentional. It’s heavy-handed – the reader knows they are going to be getting a message. As introductions go, there is not enough plot nor enough characterization. Just mood and portents. But I’m willing to wait for a Straczynski payoff.