1.20.2014

Umbral #3 [Advance Review]

Umbral #3 (Image): There’s a creative change in this issue from colorist John Rauch to Jordan Boyd, but the forward motion of the narrative and the visual acuity doesn’t skip a beat. Antony Johnston, Chris Mitten, and Thomas Mauer pick up events in motion, as a couple of mysterious travelers enter a den of piracy inhabited by Rascal’s people. There’s a beautiful reveal of their bay that has such nice depth to it, peripheral illumination in the foreground, with darkness receding into the murky distance. Boyd’s colors quickly prove a match to the vibrancy established in the first two issues of the title. Rascal and Dalone are also still on the run with latent magic afoot, and as predicted last review, these two plot threads invariably converge.

The way Johnston has constructed this script is really smart. There’s a point-counterpoint balance to it, with two drastically different shots of that pirate’s bay for example, or with talk of The Mistwalker (and the coveted source of power behind it) being the connective tissue that binds the arrival of the travelers claiming religious persecution with Rascal and Dalone’s arrival. The structure of the script flips back and forth until their trajectories intersect. On the way, Rascal and Dalone continue to feel out their new alliance, both sharp investigators of the occult myths and practices surrounding their world, both more than they seem. It shapes how they navigate their existence, but also provides an opportunity for us to organically learn more about their characters. They pick up on details, like how Dalone knows what it takes to kill an Umbral, or how Rascal has knowledge of blood-pooling post-mortem.

By the third issue, the larger plot machinations become clearer, suggesting that, like Wasteland, Johnston and Mitten are in this for the long haul, building up a long form epic that rewards the patient reader, rewards the observant reader, rewards the reader like me who’ll go back and re-read all three issue in one shot to see the larger threads at work, beyond what’s in any given floppy. I love how Johnston can so casually, yet so deliberately, drop a name like “Black Rojyr,” one which has an air of familiarity to it, perhaps a bastardized amalgam of “Blackbeard” and “Jolly Roger,” a type of literary shorthand, one that overlays our real world knowledge and allows that to inform some of our understanding of what we’re being presented with. I like devices like this from a craft standpoint because they blur the line between literary fiction and genre fiction.

The eventual reveal of The Mistwalker is what an artist like Christopher Mitten excels at. It manages to capture our imagination by combining the creepy with the mysterious, the scary with the intriguing. We’re simultaneously frightened by it, but find ourselves wanting to know more, hitting that horror vibe like good shock film does, the hot girl knowing that the killer is probably behind the closed door, but still wanting to open the door in order to satisfy her own curiosity. There’s that conflicted sense of surprise and certainty in the art, something so difficult to pull off in static print, certainly aided by the lush and foreboding crimsons of Jordan Boyd. The Mistwalker is the best kind of indie tool, a primal alt creation myth, full of paganistic rituals based on things we don’t fully understand, ideas lost to time.

As if the visuals weren’t already strong enough, one of my favorite things in issue two, the thing I unabashedly geeked out about, the best example of this ridiculously strong confluence of all things comic book, of the writing, the art, the color, and the lettering, well, there’s more, so much more, of that in this issue! It’s the magic symbolettering™ that’s sort of an embarrassment of artistic riches. These uttered spells, as we imagine them, burst forth with feigned three dimensional weight, crystalline images of foreign spoken necromancy. There is truly nothing like them. In my 30-some-odd years of reading comics, I don’t remember anything like this, not in Doctor Strange, not in all of Jim Starlin’s Cosmic Stuff, not in The Spectre, not from Dr. Fate, not from the Scarlet Witch, not from Raven of The Teen Titans. Creator Owned Comics, folks.

It’s hard to review this book with the precision and attention to detail it demands without venturing into spoilers, but it all leads to a “holy shit!” reveal that explains the mysterious travelers in the bay and the odd crime scene observations by Rascal and Dalone. In the aftermath, there’s many memorable moments, ranging from comedic, to characterization, to narrative plants. There’s the “re”-introduction of cool new character Shayim in a way that ducks and weaves around immediate audience expectations in that moment, an encounter with an Umbral that Dalone may need to White Wizard his way out of, and a clever little moment with Dalone correcting Rascal on the plural of Umbral, the kind of flourish that tickles language connoisseurs like me.
 
Taking a step back, with a scant two issues out, I placed Umbral on my Best of 2013 list, and this serves as further evidence why I said what I did. We’re witnessing a group of creators as they intersect near the peak of their craft. Umbral is a rich composition of writing craft and visual artistry, it showcases the limitless future of modern creator owned comics. #OcusLuxana Grade A+.

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