Nelson does “The Da Vinci Code” better in “Rex Mundi”

Pity Arvid Nelson. He got there first. Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” came out in 2003 and got the millions of copies sold and the movie version, even though both renditions of the story were terrible (except for Paul Bettany as Silas, of course). Arvid Nelson’s comic series “Rex Mundi” started in 2003 and faded into obscurity, and not even a potential adaptation starring Johnny Depp as the lead can help.

Nelson does, however, have one thing he can always hang over Brown, which is that he has made unquestionably the superior work, with both volumes collected in two omnibus editions from “Hellboy” publisher Dark Horse Comics.

“Rex Mundi” begins in 1933, when Dr. Julien Sauniere is woken up in the middle of the night by his childhood guardian, a priest named Father Marin, who is trembling with fear. A rare scroll he was responsible for is missing, and he needs to have it found quickly. Julien helps him to find the thief, only to find her killed in a seemingly ritualistic manner.

The next evening, Father Marin’s house is blown up with him still inside. Sauniere, swearing vengeance, vows to discover the murderer and plunges into a vast conspiracy involving the descendants of Christ, magic and mysterious blue apples, among other things.

“Rex Mundi” is different from many conspiracy thriller stories in two ways: It is a comic book, with art done by Eric J. in the first half of the story and Juan Ferraya in the second, that takes excellent advantage of the medium, interspersing the story with text excerpts describing events explaining what’s going on in the world, as well as being as detailed as a Wes Anderson film with its illustrations.

The second is that, unlike “The Da Vinci Code,” “Rex Mundi” takes place in an alternate reality, one so different that there’s no way to tell where everything changed. The USA has been split into two, the Protestant Reformation never happened and there is no Nazi threat, though the villain of the story, the Duke of Lorraine, eventually takes the place of Hitler in that universe, with his focus on Christian dominance instead of Jewish extermination.

But if “Rex Mundi” is anything, it is a powerful call for the unification and cooperation of religions. Nelson, who is a member of the Baha’i faith, practically bases the thrilling climax of the story around this idea, suggesting that arguing about superficial differences when all religion basically teaches the same thing is fundamentally insane.

Though he doesn’t let that get in the way. Even though it’s got as much religion as Umberto Eco’s classic “The Name of the Rose,” Nelson takes after Eco in making sure his ideas don’t get in the way of his story. And it is a damn good story, filled with thrills, romance, suspense and high concepts. If you aren’t a comics reader, or are thinking of starting, you could do a lot worse than “Rex Mundi,” which deserves to be spoken of with the highest regard in both the thriller genre and the comics medium.