Gateway City #1-3 (Sassafras Press)

One of our essential picks from this year’s True Believers, the beautiful painted covers of Russell M. Olson’s Gateway City evoke memories of vintage adverts and posters from a pre Mad Men era – all stylish poses, soft pencil and pastel colours. However, lurking in the pages of the book itself is a strange and twisting tale of bootleggers, private eyes and intergalactic visitors! But will this new series be one that opens the gate to an exciting new creator or will it remain firmly shut?

Publisher: Sassafras Press
Writer: Russell M. Olson
Artist: Russell M. Olson
Price: £3.50 from Russell’s Etsy Store

St Louis is the titular Gateway City, traditionally called that because it is the gateway to the west, but in this instance because it is the crossroads to other worlds. The story starts off in fairly traditional pulp style with private eye ‘Lundy’ Lundqvist reporting back on a case about bootleggers and bears. But things soon begin to take a turn for the surreal as we are introduced to a gang of peculiar misfits who have arrived in St. Louis and attempt to take over organised crime, with Lundy caught in the middle. As our story develops we begin to learn more about the citizens of Gateway City, and discover Lundy has a more significant link to these otherworldly visitors (as a result of a chance encounter during his time as a pilot in World War One), and this sees him taken on an even more fantastic journey that sees him fight for his life in a truly unexpected arena.

It’s difficult to expand on the plot any further than this as it will give away some of the strange and peculiar directions this story heads in. And you really have to see some of them to truly believe them. At it’s core though, Gateway City’s mix of classic crime tropes with alien creatures makes for a really unique and extraordinary story that feels completely unlike anything else out there. The crime elements are handled fantastically well and you can almost smell the prohibition era booze on every page. Yet when things begin to move into new and different territories you are swept along for the journey, never quite sure where Olson is taking you next – sometimes it works, and others it doesn’t. Tonally it reminded us of both Brubaker and Philips’ Fatale, with it’s supernatural crime investigations, but also Kurt Busiek’s Astro City – especially in its stylish attempts at a very large scale narrative world.

It is this ambition which is one of its greatest strengths but also one of its main weaknesses. With a substantial roster of characters, engaged in a number of various scenarios, the plot can rush from one point to the next and sometimes it’s difficult to follow whose story is the focus. Events are sometimes told off camera and elements introduced before the previous ones have been fully resolved (especially issue to issue), and while this can make for a story that poses more questions than it answers, it can also mean the story doesn’t flow quite as you might want. While it is Lundy who is the lead in issue one, he is soon sidelined, after the flashback in issue 2, without us really understanding where he has gone, before popping up again at the end of issue 2 and then moving into issue 3 without things ever feeling completed.

The best way to overcome these niggles, is to immerse yourself in the visuals, and if you do then you are rewarded with a book packed full of some truly astounding scenes. From the achingly cool covers (which we would love to have framed as prints on our walls), through to the monstrous reveal at the end of issue 1, and the out of the world twist in issue 2, Olsen’s work evokes the line work of Darwyn Cooke, the gritty edge of Sean Philips and the quirky angular characterisation of John Arcudi. His work is superbly detailed, with every page feeling like it has been taken out of a history book of St Louis, or from the pages of a classic Dick Tracey cartoon. While the colouring gives it a muted and faded vintage tone that makes Gateway City feel like a timeless classic.

While the storyline of Gateway City may struggle to live up to its lofty ambitions and it’s stunning visuals, the overall aesthetic of the book is enough to make it into a truly essential read – and one which we cannot wait to see resolved (issue 4 is apparently on it’s way very soon!). With production values and a sense of style that would rival any mainstream Image book, Gateway City is one of those books that soars above the small press landscape and feels like something really special. So be sure to enter this wondrous world of intergalactic crime noir, before the gate closes behind you!