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El Largo Tren Oscuro By Samuel Hiti
Published by La Luz Comics; $9.95 USD

Surely this has been a fascinating twenty-first century for writer/artist Samuel Hiti. Having secured Xeric funding in September of 2002, the young former house painter was able to launch his magnum opus, the projected nine-volume original graphic novel mega series Tiempos Finales. Volume One appeared in May of 2004 to warm reviews and much excitement on the convention circuit. Later that year, Hiti was tapped to provide a short promotional comics story for Nike, and the art to Nickelodeon’s official 38-page comics adaptation of their film version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, as presented in their Official Movie Magazine. This would not be Hiti’s most recent brush with filmmaking; earlier this year, the movie rights to Tiempos Finales were optioned to Focus Films. According to Hiti’s homepage, he plans to release four original graphic novels before the next volume of Tiempos Finales, which has ballooned to over 350 pages in length from the first installment’s comparatively modest 116. But it’s the first of those four in-between books that we examine here.

I refer to El Largo Tren Oscuro (or: The Long Dark Train) as an ‘in-between’ work for more than one reason: aside from literally appearing between chapters of Hiti’s most visible work, the book feels almost like a placeholder, an spoonful of comics sherbet offered to cleanse the palate between courses. It’s an expansive reworking of a prior minicomic of Hiti’s, presented in long, thin landscape format at 106 pages; there are never more than three panels per page, and there are many full-page widescreen views of the titular engine blasting across a blighted landscape, the book’s one color bathing everything and everyone in a dull tomato hue, all else white and black. Bits of glowing yellow-green, however, appear on the book’s striking cover, a veiled woman clad in black and bearing a skull, light pouring from its eyes, the work’s shimmering title almost invisible against that blast of white and the silhouettes of dead trees. Visually pleasing, and perhaps credit should be given for summarizing the book’s strengths right in front: dark atmosphere, attractive looks, and a barely-discernible depth of content.

That won’t seem like much of a complaint to fans of Tiempos Finales, which expended the vast majority of its pages on atmospheric build and crazed demon fighting. But the action and scenery were infused with a crackingly personal, even eccentric use of Christian iconography, the reader’s eye speeding into the protagonist’s heart to gape at the power of Jesus enflaming his veins, scriptural quotation utilized as mystical incantation, the words of the Good Book wittily taken in an ultra-literal sense to provide awesome weapons for monster mashing. And just enough backstory was provided to invite the reader to fill in whatever gaps may exist; a full universe of Christianity as fantasy warfare was thus provided. El Largo Tren Oscuro provides far less - a brief exercise in visual metaphor serving a theme so rudimentary that the art can’t help but be digested as the primary attraction.

The story goes as follows: a lot of people are on the titular train. It quickly becomes apparent that everyone on board is dead: luggage creeps with grubs and worms, faces are distorted and ruined, heads are occasionally severed. A worker wanders down the length of the carriages, accepting tickets. We follow him, encountering passengers that embody each of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins (that’s, in order of presentation, Gluttony, Wrath, Lust, Pride, Sloth, Envy, and Greed). The train is also marked ‘666’ (the painters of damnation apparently being old-school types), so you can tell where everyone’s final stop will be. “Oye… ya llegamos a la casa,” remarks a skeletal coal shoveler near the end of the book, and the reader might agree that the end of the line has been reached rather quickly; all dialogue is entirely in Spanish, though there’s barely any, and all can be readily sussed out via context clues. The result is a reading experience that seems over long before it started, for reasons of verbal brevity, page layout, and simplicity of theme; this is one fast reading book.

But the point of the whole affair is seeing Hiti bring this morality play (really more of a morality trailer) to life, and he’s partially successful. His lines remain creeping and thick in his character designs, wrinkles marking every face, black shadow smudged across clothing. Interiors on board the train are lovingly detailed, the metal walls scratched with age and misty with ink dust. Hiti’s exterior landscapes, in contrast, alternate between craggy mountain lines and sparse desert plains, the color handling much of the mood. And yet, a certain sameness threatens the affair as the book moves along: the image of worms crawling from a person’s mouth (and not a few or a handful but heaping, jaw-busting maws of creepers) carries a natural aura of death and decay, and acts as a handy symbol for personal sins incarnated to flesh and dominating the body, but the reader can only see it so many times before it becomes monotonous, and Hiti leans on it heavily, even in depicting the deadly sins, which ought to be the centerpiece of the book. Gluttony, for example, is just a really fat guy eating worms. Envy sits at the bar, a martini glass heaping with worms, and covetously eyes her neighbor’s equally grotesque refreshments (an eyeball used as an olive, for example). Greed lights up a cigar and - surprise! - worms crawl from his lips to invade his stogie. Hiti’s visual characterizations can be amusing (Sloth sitting in his underpants watching cowboy programs) or viscerally creepy (wriggling serpentine beasties erupting from between Lust’s legs), but the pleasure is all surface, the metaphor as basic as possible, and the visual ingenuity sadly toned down from his prior work.

In this way, even potentially moving scenes are sapped of their power. There’s a brief vignette of a (seemingly alive) man working the rail changes in a little shack. As the train passes by him, the usually stoic and glassy patrons of the transport rush to the windows and cracks in the carriage, yelping “Ayuda… Socorro… Help…” to no avail. But then: another landscape, another mountain, the Gates of Hell. Hiti is an accomplished artist, but much of the power of his work lays in his intuitive use of icons, symbols. The icons and symbols are simple here, and so is the work, and as lovely as it can look, one might not be damned for wishing for more. El Largo Tren Oscuro may be intended as little more than an exercise in spiritual grotesques, but prayers are duly forwarded for a fuller (if no less squirmy) meal next time around the track.

-- Jog

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