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‘Umbral #1:’ Advance Comic Book Review

Wasteland is one of my favorite books of the last decade, so I was excited to learn that creators Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten were working on a new project together. I was excited purely as a fan who wanted to see more of their riveting work. I was also excited for them, excited that they’d chosen to push this new book through the Image Comics machine and ride some of the creator-owned fanfare the publisher is currently raining down on the industry. There’s no doubt Image Comics is responsible for publishing some of the best books of the year, and their creator-first approach is so refreshing. Antony and Chris are swell guys; they deserve a wider audience, and I hope this venue brings in legions of additional fans. If you count the Queen & Country: Declassified story that Antony and Chris worked on as guests of Greg Rucka’s superb spy franchise, then this is the third major project that the duo have crafted together. Once you see Umbral, you’ll realize they’ve proven the old saying correct. The third time is, indeed, the charm.

I guess most critics would issue some sort of spoiler warning, but what I’m about to describe is nothing you can’t glean from existing interviews and podcasts which have been making the rounds. Like Wasteland, writer Antony Johnston is concerned with the way that seemingly regular people navigate the lyrical blend of myth and legend. Umbral is thematically concerned with belief systems and religion, it’s concerned with the drama created by drastic change, by hard-shifting the paradigm through which you view the world around you. It’s also directly about a girl named Rascal, a plucky young member of the Thieves Guild who has an unlikely friend in Prince Arthir. Umbral is set in a world where magic and religion have been abandoned in favor of what some might call the grounded “Earth Sciences,” though magic appears to be returning from dormancy. Rascal aims to misbehave, to abscond with an artifact from the Red Castle, using the darkness of an impending eclipse as cover. During the heist, she witnesses members of the royal family murdered at the hands of shadowy creatures who shouldn’t even exist in the first place. Rascal’s situation puts her in possession of a precarious secret. Not only does revealing it incriminate her, but it contains truths that the people of Fendin are probably not even allowed to discuss. On top of the very real threat to her life, there’s a moral, legal, and probably existential dilemma that confounds the young protagonist. By the issue’s end, she has nowhere left to turn for help, like Alice down a very dark rabbit hole, the outcast loner we desperately want to root for.

That’s the set-up in the most basic terms. Johnston and Mitten are joined by colorist John Rauch and letterer Thomas Mauer for a 40-page, $2.99 adventure, which is very easy to recommend based on the cost per page metric alone. I reckon there’s about $4.99 worth of entertainment in this package, so an introductory price point that’s 40% lower than that for a bristling new #1 from Image Comics, and your cryptic consumer calculus should tell you “Buy! Buy! Buy!” without much hesitation.

I’ve always been a fan of Chris Mitten’s work, especially the dichotomy in the way it can shock the senses with dangerous edges and hard angles, yet still fill in all of the intense emotional spaces required of the harrowing story. There’s a clarity of purpose to Mitten’s lines, a confidence that fully commits his art to a particular stance on the page. If you ever caught Wasteland #25, you know that Mitten’s work also looks incredible in full color. Rauch’s palette promotes Mitten’s art like it was Mitten himself coloring it, which I hope is the best compliment I can pay without giving short shrift to either artist. Together, their prowess is evident from the opening page, where a dull crimson glow illuminates a path laid out before the reader like Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road to Oz, inviting you along this journey, beckoning you to come inside, to be swept away by this secret world of intrigue. Later, there’s something magical and menacing about the way Rascal’s figure in the foreground is lit by the fiery red eyes of creatures in the background, implying grandeur and fear and intensity. Rauch’s colors are smart throughout, icy blues in the cellared depths, washed-out ambers in the skies, regal purples amid the royals, always cognizant of how color affects tone affects mood affects meaning.

Umbral is billed as a dark fantasy series. Truthfully, I’ve never been a huge fan of most fantasy work, qualifier, if the fantasy elements were offered just for the sake of themselves and didn’t rely on an intense and relatable story. By this criteria, I feel like George R.R. Martin is an apt comparison here. If you’re drawn to the range of his Game of Thrones world, nee: A Song of Ice and Fire (and really, who among us isn’t, once exposed?), then Umbral is certainly for you and has the capacity to reach those daring heights. There’s a map of the Kingdom of Fendin in this introductory issue. Yeah. There’s a f---ing map. I love looking at it, like I loved the maps of Westeros I hunted for years ago, finding myself eager to learn all the hidden intricacies of this new world. Like Martin’s rich and fertile creation, Umbral is much more attuned to the interpersonal drama as the core focus that drives any great writing. The fantasy realm itself, the superficial elements of sword and sorcery and dark forces amassing at borders, be they walls of ice or enchanted lunar gateways, are all just a part of the setting. Setting shouldn’t be readily considered interchangeable with genre, so don’t dismiss it so easily.

Johnston has been an extremely effective world-builder for years, working in different mediums and industries, and understands how to organically populate a universe through character-driven interactions. Within the world of Umbral, within the space of 40 brisk, but informative, pages, you realize without being told so in staged monologue aimed at the reader, that Fendin is a place with a deep history, a place with past wars, and age-old customs, distinct speech patterns, and bards who tell the great tales. Johnston and Mitten take us on a quick tour of Fendin as the society prepares for the eclipse, or the “twice-dawned day,” as the residents would colloquially say. We meet characters like “Arthir” or “Petor” or “Borus,” names with spellings which are just enough like our own to warrant recognition, but also contain just enough flicks of difference to delight the imagination. Typically, different suggests the unknown, and most people have been conditioned to fear the unknown, which adds a level of nervous tension to Umbral. We fight ourselves, it’s how Rascal must feel, wanting to learn more out of sheer enticing curiosity, but find ourselves afraid of what we might actually discover in the process.

The story is framed in an interesting way. There’s a point toward the end that wraps back around to the beginning page, and then makes way for something of an epilogue scene, which pulls the rug out from under us with its own consequences. Umbral #1 is also paced exceptionally well, laying out a lot of information, yet taking breaks via jump-cuts that ease you into the universe so seamlessly. Johnston seems to be a believer in the “en media res” school of writing, catching characters at a time when actions have already been set in motion and complications now ensue. This avoids exposition, forces the reader to engage and parse clues to catch up narratively, rather than watching passively, which in turn distracts them from being able to even attempt anticipating what might happen next. There’s a lot that “happens next” in rapid succession, so we get the full emotional surprise of things like Rascal and Arthir witnessing a tragedy with wide-eyed panic, we feel their elevated heart rate as they scramble through the massive expanse of the Red Castle, and then contend with the shocking reveal of what they see through secret portholes. There’s one twist and turn and unrelenting complication after another. Umbral is a thrilling ride and a breathtaking slice of imagination that’ll leave you “pale as a princess’ knickers.” #TenebrosAndLuxan  Grade A+.

Justin may be found on Twitter, @thirteenminutes.

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