Abbott: Elder gods and tough reporters in 1970s Detroit

Reposting to include Brad’s new review.

Abbott by Saladin Ahmed, art by Sami KivelaAbbott by Saladin Ahmed, art by Sami KivelaAbbott by Saladin Ahmed & Sami Kivela

BOOM! Studios has released the trade edition of the first series of the period dark fantasy Abbott (2018), words by Saladin Ahmed and art by Sami Kivela. Set in 1972, the story follows Elena Abbott, a reporter for the Detroit Daily. Abbott may not be the paper’s only woman reporter, but she is probably its only Black reporter and definitely the only Black woman reporter. Currently, she is in trouble with the paper’s owners for her accurate expose of the police murder of a Black teenager. She is sent to cover the mutilation of a police horse. To further punish her for her stand against police lawlessness, the paper has taken away her photographer and given Abbott a camera. This is a status hit that her white male competitors immediately comment on.

To Elena’s surprise, as well as that of the male reporters, she had a strong emotional reaction to the dead horse, which has been cut in half. The men hoot with laughter when Elena flinches, but the reader sees that this is not squeamishness; Abbott has encountered horror like this before. As the story progresses, we learn that earlier in her life, she confronted an evil called the shadow, which took her first husband’s life.

The evil escalates when a young Black man is murdered. While Elena struggles to come to grips with the return of supernatural evil, she spars with Fred, her scrappy white editor, and battles the board members who want her fired for calling out the police on their unlawful acts. Around her, Ahmed and Kivela give us a Detroit that is in the midst of thriving Black renaissance: Black newspapers, and little businesses like Broadway’s Black Star Café, where Elena spends a good deal of her time. Elena, it turns out, has a destiny to face down the evil called the shadow. Her allies include a hippy mystic, Sebastian Crowe; her second, now ex-husband, police sergeant James Gratham, and the beautiful and probably criminal Amelia Chee (the best-dressed character in Abbott).

The story is fast-paced as increasingly disturbing shadow creatures attack Elena, and the secondary story of her battle to keep her job takes up exactly the right amount of space. It’s a good story but I most loved the feel of the 1970s, beautifully evoked here. Elena is a chain-smoker; she drives a car we’d now call vintage; the wardrobes of all the characters are pitch perfect. There are magic shops like Sebastian’s, thriving Black businesses, and a vicious overlay of white male privilege. Abbott is a tough but believably vulnerable character who faces racism and misogyny every day, as well as a supernatural evil.

Kivela’s art is a match for the story, and I was particularly drawn to the frames that highlight Elena’s various expressions. His images dance between the mundane (like the archives or the emergency rooms) and the eerie. An arresting image appears on pages 20-21 in the second chapter; one entire page is a centaur (take a few minutes to look at the details). the right-hand page shows an empty factory, with three images inset, and each image advances the story. Little things, like the reflection of light in the dead horse’s eye on page 4 of Chapter One, heighten the drama. Jason Wordie’s color palette perfectly complements the drawings.

As a bonus, if you like this sort of thing (and I do), each of Abbott’s chapter titles is a Motown song. The songs are chosen for their lyrics and several of them were social-activism songs — each song fits the chapter it heads (Ahmed does not include the lyrics).

The mystery is solved at the end, but things have changed for Elena. While this individual run is completed and is a complete story, I can at least hope for further adventures of Elena Abbott in turbulent Detroit. My one quibble about the trade edition of this book is that BOOM! did not include page numbers that I can find. All in all, Abbott was an immersive read and a look at an important time period in the USA, and one we are being encouraged to forget. Check out Abbott.

~Marion Deeds


Abbott by Saladin Ahmed, art by Sami KivelaAbott is a paranormal comic by Saladin Ahmed and Sami Kivela about a newspaper investigative reporter named Elena Abbott in Detroit, 1972. Abbott is a tough woman who asks the hard questions. When we first see her, she questions allegations that the Panthers are involved in the killing of a police horse. As a woman of color, she deals with prejudice herself, and those who run her newspaper do not like her articles on police brutality. In the first scene, we see her talking to the one white man present at the scene of the crime who will treat her with respect, and he warns her that it will be bad for African-Americans — “for you people” — if there was any Panther involvement in the crime. Abbott wisely answers, “Let me tell you a secret, Murray. It’s going to mean hell for us either way. This sort of thing always does.”

We see the difference in the way Abbott is treated based on where she is. After leaving the scene of the crime, she walks into a black-owned restaurant where she is called the “Black Lois Lane” and treated like a minor celebrity, but when she leaves the restaurant, she must go to the Detroit Daily where she works, and where she gets a less inviting welcome by her bosses since it is a white-owned and white-run newspaper. Before she enters the office, we are given what appear to be quotations from Abbott’s journalism, in which she writes: “there are, as one longtime resident put it, two Detroits: one white, one black. And the former would rather leave the city than truly share it with the latter.” Luckily, her colleagues at the newspaper, and her main boss, treat her with respect and defend her articles on police brutality. But the writing is on the wall: Abbott’s days at the Detroit Daily seem to be numbered.

We quickly get ominous flashbacks as early as the first issue: We see Abbott with her lover Samir as they listen to John Coltrane together. Another image shows Samir carving “wards, magical symbols” to protect Abbott when he is not there. And then another image shows something mystical trapping Samir as Abbott escapes. These images raise expectations and build suspense about the paranormal elements of the comic, but we do not really find out much until the following issues. However, we do see Abbott react to some sort of negative energies surrounding the dead horse and, later, the dead, mutilated body of an African-American man. By the end of the first issue, however, she confronts the paranormal head-on.

Abbott soon visits Sebastian, who runs a head-shop. When she finds him, he’s reading tarot cards and surrounded by bongs. He has knowledge of the dangers Abbott is facing and warns that she should fear the umbra. The darkness it represents is after her because she stands for the world of light and goodness, he tells her. The killings in the city grow in number, and Abbott’s encounters with the other-worldly increase as well. Without giving spoilers, I can say that Abbott’s problems multiply as she faces misogynistic men all around her, even those who mean well; as she grapples with the racism rampant in Detroit; and as she deals with paranormal forces out to destroy her. All of these opposing energies increase until we reach a major ending of sorts (though there is a second volume — Abbott 1973).

The art is a stark, wonderful noir with muted colors and plenty of smoke spiraling up from Abbott’s cigarettes. We get good scenes of Abbott at work on the typewriter, hitting the pavement, and getting drinks at her favorite bar. At night, she rests with a John Coltrane record on the turntable. The paranormal is incorporated well into the otherwise realistic art. The art matches the writing in quality, so I cannot recommend this title enough. For fans of noir, for fans of the paranormal, Abbott is not to be missed.

~Brad Hawley

Published in October 2018. While investigating police brutality and corruption in 1970s Detroit, journalist Elena Abbott uncovers supernatural forces being controlled by a secret society of the city’s elite. In the uncertain social and political climate of 1972 Detroit, hard-nosed, chain-smoking tabloid reporter Elena Abbott investigates a series of grisly crimes that the police have ignored. Crimes she knows to be the work of dark occult forces. Forces that took her husband from her. Forces she has sworn to destroy. Hugo Award-nominated novelist Saladin Ahmed (Star Wars: Canto Bight, Black Bolt) and artist Sami Kivelä (Beautiful Canvas) present one woman’s search for the truth that destroyed her family amidst an exploration of the systemic societal constructs that haunt our country to this day.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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3 comments

  1. I am not a comics reader, but this looks interesting….

    • Kat, it’s a place and time period that not many genre writers visit, so I really liked it for that (and the tentacled Elder God thing, too).

  2. I know someone who would love this. Great review, Marion!

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