The Iron Wagon
by Stein Riverton, Jason
(Fantagraphics, 2003)

The Iron Wagon is based upon a 1909 novel by Stein Riverton, the pseudonym for Norwegian journalist and author Sven Elvestad. In the summer of 1909, near the Gjaernes farm in Hvaler, there has been a noise in the night that many believe to be the foreboding solid iron wagon built by a local eccentric, yet no one has ever seen it. As one local farmer says, "Now when something sinister is about to transpire on Gjaernes, or someone is about to die, ye can hear the Iron Wagon clatter 'cross the moors." True to the story, someone is murdered and a clever detective arrives....

The classic murder-mystery/detective story is told in a six-panel graphic format with only two kinds of ink: black and a faded sienna/burnt orange. The use of this color is excellent. The backgrounds and settings are simply executed yet provide the necessary level of detail. The night scenes and the abundance of the burnt orange ink especially portray an ominous setting.

The paper containing the story has a thick newsprint feel to it -- an aged quality. Usually the quality of the paper shouldn't affect the review, but in this case it definitely does. The texture of the paper and the faded ink really add to the early 20th-century atmosphere present in the book, as if it were carefully stored in your grandparents' attic.

The use of a burnt orange is not the only odd thing about The Iron Wagon -- the representation of Riverton's characters is really odd: they're animals. Actually, the figures have animal heads and feet while the remainder of their figures are human. (Looking at Jason's other work for Fantagraphics Books, this seems to be a recurring motif.) While this may initially evoke Disney or Looney Tunes cartoons, the artistic style and story subject matter immediately quash any further thoughts.

For the most part, the different animal heads make it very helpful in keeping up with the different characters. There is only one instance where I found this unsettling: a scene in which a character finds a dead body and exclaims, "That's a human body!" Only at that point did the animal characteristics distract me from the actual story. Thankfully, the story pulled me back into that reality on the very next panel.

This is a riveting whodunit with wonderful visuals that perpetuate a mysterious and ominous mood, right up to the revelation of the killer. Prior to The Iron Wagon, Riverton's novels had never been translated into English. I, for one, am very grateful to Jason for giving us this thrilling story while providing his unique representation of the characters.

- Rambles
written by C. Nathan Coyle
published 13 December 2003

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