A Labyrinth Of Danger And Aesthetics: How ‘Wrath Of The Eternal Warrior’ Made The Deathtrap Work
"Labyrinth," the latest arc of Robert Venditti, Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín's Wrath of the Eternal Warrior, seems like a story that I was almost destined to love. It is, after all, a story built around deathtraps --- a seemingly endless string of them, arranged into a maze that was conceived over millennia and built over decades, all directed to the singular purpose of killing an immortal over and over and over again. That high concept is one that I'm pretty much already sold on before we get to things like the characters and creators involved.
Just by virtue of that premise, it got my attention. That it's done so well, put together and presented so cleverly and charged with action movie thrills? That's what makes it one of the best stories of the year.
I'll say right up front, though, that there are times when "Labyrinth" sticks to those action movie tropes a little too closely. The bulk of the four-part story is set up with a two-issue prelude from Venditti, Juan Jose Ryp, and Jordie Bellaire, that, while fine in its own right, is disappointingly familiar.
On the one hand, it does the necessary work of setting up the Dying One, alias the Sovereign, a villain who has spent literal lifetimes nurturing a hatred of Gilad Anni-Padda, the Eternal Warrior who has spent the past eight thousand years as Earth's mystically immortal protector. The problem is that the hatred between them --- at least on Gilad's side --- starts when the Dying One has Gilad's wife killed, and kidnaps his son.
It's the archetypical example of sacrificing a woman to further a plot about two men --- or at least, one man and one immortal spirit who's currently inhabiting the body of a man, but I'll get back to that in a second --- and even the twist about Gilad's wife that comes later in the story feels pretty rote and expected.
In fairness, there is one part of that setup that works. It feels like such a stock piece of a swords-and-sandals fantasy story that it helps to underscore the idea of the Eternal Warrior, who has been fighting evil for eight thousand years, being completely blindsided by the sci-fi elements of the Dying One's Labyrinth.
Because this is, at its heart, a story about the collision between sci-fi and fantasy. See, while the Eternal Warrior's immortality comes in the form of occasionally dying and then coming back to life none the worse for wear, the Dying One's is different. Every time they die, they come back to life in a different body, seemingly at random. It's worth noting that the Sovereign isn't reborn or reincarnated, either, but that their consciousness enters someone else, apparently obliterating that person's mind entirely.
The end result of all this is that while the Dying One has immortality, they don't have any control over their lives, and being forced by the whims of chance to lose everything at the moment of death, from social status to their very body, has nurtured a pretty healthy hatred of the person who somehow manages to keep everything the same whenever he comes back.
This, then, is what leads to the Labyrinth, in Wrath of the Eternal Warrior #7-10: A sprawling underground prison meant to kill the Eternal Warrior over and over again, but not out of hatred, and not even really because of the Dying One's jealousy of Gilad's abilities. It's a science experiment, one that's designed to observe every death and each subsequent resurrection to determine how Gilad manages to keep his body.
That is, by itself, a pretty solid setup for an adventure --- and given the scale of what it means to be immortal and have foes whose enmity can span centuries, it's kind of the story you'd expect from a book with a title like Wrath of the Eternal Warrior. But what sets "Labyrinth" apart is how it presents those ideas.
I have seen a lot of deathtraps in comics. That's one of the reasons I love them so much --- because they're one of those well-worn elements that you can always twist into something new and entertaining. But in a lifetime of obsessing over crushing walls and spiked pit traps and buzzsaw blades shooting out of the walls in narrow corridors, I don't know that I've ever seen them presented with as much style as they are here.
Part of that, I think, just comes down to the simple contrast of aesthetics. Allén and Martín give the Labyrinth an incredible look, depicting it as a seemingly infinite grid of cool blue-green walls and corridors, contrasting it with the threats of traps and enemies presented in a lurid red. Even the blood that shows up in the comics --- and there's a lot of blood in a story where Gilad's being killed every day for well over a month --- is in that same neon hue set against black backgrounds.
And if that wasn't quite stylish enough, they make an incredible use of silhouettes, underscoring the tough-as-nails dialogue in a way that makes it far more exciting than it would be otherwise.
The color palette alone makes "Labyrinth" worth checking out, but the way it's put to use, contrasting with the warm earth tones of the Heaven Gilad has to choose to leave every time he comes back to life, and the way sound effects are incorporated into the action all combine to make this one of the best-looking treatments of a concept that was already solid to start with.
But even though there's a ton of great stuff in here, I just keep coming back to the way those deathtraps are drawn.
It's a comparison that's thrown around with an understandably increasing frequency these days --- and usually not always in the best of terms --- but there's definitely something video gamey about the choices that Venditti, Allén, and Martín are making with their storytelling. Visually, showing the danger zones and enemies in that same searing red, with Gilad's body reduced to a silhouette bleeding in neon, they're trading on that same visual language. It all helps to underscore the nature of Gilad's experience, navigating his way through endless obstacles that are designed to keep him off balance and kill him in new and imaginative ways with each and every life.
It's a story that's compelling on every level --- a classic setup made fresh again through beautiful visuals and thrilling writing, one that pays off and adds to the Eternal Warrior's history while still being accessible to new readers. It's a self-contained high concept adventure that delivers every bit of promise, and if you haven't checked it out, you should.