by Matt Wagner (writer), Michael Wm. Kaluta (art), Dave Stewart (colors), and Jared K. Fletcher (letters)

The Story: Madame Xanadu finally comes face to face with Al Nar.

What’s Good: As the demon pursues Richard Miller, Wagner and Kaluta do a fantastic job of depicting the chase, really giving a paranoid feel to the book. You get a sense of Miller’s mind unraveling, and this is largely courtesy of Wagner’s never wholly committing to the nature of Al Nar’s presence. Were some of those appearances only in Miller’s mind? Was the demon actually present, but only visible to Miller? It’s never entirely clear, and this ambiguity only heightens the dizzying fear that makes the chase feel all the more claustrophobic. Kaluta’s positioning of Al-Nar and the dog only enhances this feel, as they either pop in from the bottoms or corners of the panel, or suddenly appear to dominate entire panels of their own.

This issue also does what this entire arc has done so well, effortlessly fusing the seemingly disparate elements of magic and old-world mysticism with film noir New York. The chase sequence feels Chandleresque in spite of the demonic presence. Furthermore, the Sandman continues to be a classic hard-boiled presence.  Seeing him fight alongside Xanadu against the demon is a perfect summation of this blend of genre, as the mysterious gumshoe with his weird gun is injected into an otherwise wholly mystical confrontation.

Beyond that, there are a couple twists regarding the Sandman’s identity and the nature of the demon that come as nice, warm little surprises. They’re not shockers, but they do manage to amuse. I think this is largely due to them being pretty obvious, and even hinted at a couple of times, but with the parallel story, the murders, and the magic, those little hints got lost and forgotten. If anything, the reveals are almost like reminders.

Kaluta’s pencil shading remains one-of-a-kind, rough but detailed and moody. Kaluta’s rendition of 1940s New York can only be described as classic. However, the real star here is the final battle with the fire demon, which is nothing short of cataclysmic. Kaluta manages to fully portray the sheer size of the battle as well as the chaos of it, with flames aplenty. He manages to make it comprehensible with just a hint of difficulty to emphasize how crazy the events really are.

What’s Not So Good: This arc’s defining quality has been how effortlessly it swapped between its parallel stories, despite the time frame being 500 years apart and in different countries. However, that’s not the case this month. The balance is gone, as only 4 pages are spent in Spain. As a result, some of the things that made this arc so impressive are forfeited.

The length is also disappointing, in that there is no surprise in the story.  It simply comes to its end, concluding just as we knew it would right from the start of this arc and adding nothing to the inevitable ending.

The final battle with demon is a bit problematic as well, as the conclusion of the battle isn’t particularly inventive. Essentially, Madame Xanadu throws a bunch of random magical crap at the thing until eventually something works. I felt the story deserved something a little more well-played than that.

Conclusion: Great art, great atmosphere, and a great tone, but the parallel story structure finally breaks down a bit.

Grade: B

-Alex Evans