Comics review: The Montague Twins – The Witch’s Hand by Nathan Page and Drew Shannon

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Diving into a thrilling, mysterious adventure is one of the most exhilarating things you can do.

While these are in short supply in the real world, given its predisposition to banality and the same-old, same-old, they are in multitudinous abundance in graphic novels such as the late-1960s set The Montague Twins: The Witch’s Hand, by Nathan Page and Drew Shannon which is bursting to mystery solving exuberance with a vivacious mix of Scooby-Doo! fun, The Hardy Boys earnestness and a dose of The Modern Tales of Sabrina creepiness.

Helping its considerable appeal are characters who burst forth from the page, both as individuals and as a collective group, and quickly grab our attention and our affection with witty, snappy dialogue, a joie de vivre for sleuthing on an obsessive scale (just try to get them to take a day off) and a real sense of affective familial togetherness.

Central to this likeable family group are, of course, the eponymous twins, Alistair (aka Al) and Peter Montague who are as close as two brothers can possibly be and with good reason. (Quite why that is is one of the many spoilers in a story full to the brim with them.)

Peter is caring, thoughtful, likeable and earnestly sweet, the kind of guy who steps in to smooth over troubled waters (and who hates late newspaper deliveries), the kind usually caused by his brother Al who’s a nice guy but rather prone to acting before speaking and investigating immediately where some caution might be required (and who spend a great deal of time in his dark room developing precious photos).

They are wholly different people but they work well together and they are intensely devoted to one another in a way that suggests two people who had to form a united front against a world that hasn’t always served them well.

Al & Pete live with their adoptive parents, linguistics professor David and truck driver Shelly and their daughter Charlie, who is glamorous, heartfelt and in love with vinyl music, as are, it must be said, the boys, and who has no trouble at all calling it exactly like it is.

Add in David’s assistant Rowan, and you have a group who are in every way shape or form, a family, one which solves crimes and keeps sleepy Port Howl in the New England region of the United States a lovely place to live.

Which, in the hands of illustrator Shannon it most certainly is, popping with vivid retro cosyness and colours that suggest a technicolour world in which anything could happen.

(image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Such as, oh I don’t know, solving the mystery of an empty box which appears at the top of a lighthouse pin which a mysterious weather event has just played itself out.

It is supposed to the kids’ day off, and they are not supposed to solving any crimes at all, under strict instruction from David, but the Montague twins and Charlie seem to attract cases like flames bring forth moths and in no time at all they are in deep trying to work out what was in the box, why a mysterious woman in a red robe ran them off the lighthouse steps (it’s rather a long way down by the way) and what any and all of this has to do with the town’s newly-refurbished museum which has a jaunty new sheen thanks to the rather self-promoting financial support of the local landed gentry, the Bradfords.

The Bradfords are your typical rich family lording it over the town in which they live; well patriarch Roger is anyway, a man who is righteous in his zeal for Port Howl to remain a town that is good and proper and not given over to anything untoward, immoral or evil.

Yep, one of those those people.

You know, pretty much straight away that he has something to do with the mysterious goings-on in town but quite how he is connected is left to the trilling final act which is nowhere as twee or goofy as you might expect.

The brilliance of this graphic novel, and The Witch’s Hand is a brilliantly-realised piece of storytelling, both visually and in writing, is that it might be light, bright and almost Moonlighting-level sitcom-ish in its jaunty execution, in ways that will please and delight you at every turn, but that it also willing to get very serious when the story demands it.

It’s not every story and set of characters that can move so seamlessly between the grave (quite literally; shhh, no moore shall be said — SPOILERS!) and the lighthearted but The Witch’s Hand manages it with appealing aplomb, serving up witty back-and-forth banter one moment before segueing into an exciting, portentous action sequence the next.

It is the mark of two storytellers, and Shannon is as instrumental to the narrative as Page, adding to the latter’s inspired writing with artwork that makes the story come bursting to life with vibrancy and retro colourful shimmer, at the very top of their game who know their characters, are in love with their premise and who want to make it all come alive as they can see it in their mind’s eye.

(image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

While this could be the late 1960s setting talking, there is a pleasing level of old-time adventuring all through The Witch’s Hand.

It has the charm and innocence of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew period of YA sleuthing storytelling, the playfulness of Scooby-Doo!, the giddy charm of Gidget and even a hint of the carefree fun of The Famous Five.

It’s nostalgic storytelling done beautifully; but it is also far more than that being a product of the 21st century and thus well aware of what lies beneath the surface of many of the seemingly innocent elements in these stories.

Thus everyone has secrets of one kind or another, and they are not the kind you can laugh off with a jaunty flick of a Jessica Fletcher laughing face, all of which add a richness and substance to The Witch’s Hand‘s more happily playful moments of which there are pleasingly quite a few.

It is thus near impossible not to become utterly immersed and bedazzled by life in Port Howl and particularly by the Montague Twins and their fabulously urbane, fun and loving adoptive family.

It harks back to those older stories but in the best and most original of ways, giving you a place to escape to where everyone gets to do super cool things like go on a grand mystery-laden adventures, where danger threatens, real danger thank you very much which is summarily dealt with because yes, this is a story in which the good gals and guys most certainly win, and where love and belonging and inclusion of the unconditional kind wrap everything everything, rather gloriously, up.

Reading The Witch’s Hand if you are of a certain older age, and honestly even if you’re not, is like cosying up by the fireplace, going on grand and thrilling but entirely meaningful and emotional resonant adventures with people you really, really like, and knowing that everything will turn out just fine like all the good mysteries are supposed to. (Even better there’s a second instalment coming later this year!)

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