Umbral #4 [Advance Review]

Umbral #4 (Image Comics): I’m ready to place a million dollar bet that this will be the only book this week featuring a battle between relatively benevolent pirate ghosts and the dark forces of the Umbral. Now that that’s settled, it’s obvious that artist Christopher Mitten has been unleashed. Antony Johnston has been saying in interviews that if their collaboration on Wasteland was largely Chris drawing what Antony wanted to write, then Umbral is now Antony writing what Chris wants to draw. It’s kinda’ obvious now, innit? Chris has a great sense of visual imagination, seeing in his mind’s eye how varied fantastical genre elements can clash together with more grounded characters, and then translating that right onto the page. Chris is letting loose in Umbral, there isn’t a single page that’s just going through the motions. They all have something special happening, be it a full page spread, or a near-full page spread, functioning as either breathtaking reveals of things we’ve only heard casually referenced, or reveals functioning as cliffhangers, or quirky stylish shots like the forced perspective of the overhead cam after Rascal and Shayim climb a ladder (which allows another type of reveal, one the audience is able to see just as the characters discover it).

All of that said, my favorite thing about Mitten’s art (aside from it’s obvious superficial beauty) really has to do with the way that he works together with colorist Jordan Boyd and letterer Thomas Mauer. One of the things I’m learning to study more closely is not only the style of lettering (which has nice old-timey irregularities and flourishes under Mauer, as if done by hand, like lost passages written as script on parchment, tonally in sync with what we’re seeing), but the placement of the actual word balloons. This dynamic can be more of a technical or functional conceit, like the way Mauer helps pull the reader’s eye diagonally down a page or through a panel, like, say, when Rascal and Shayim are climbing a ladder, and you need to track what they’re saying as they’re on the move. The other thing that the placement of word balloons can do is actually emphasize the right mood or tone. For example, there’s an early shot of Shayim and Rascal fleeing, and as they’re on the run, they carry a conversation. I loved that their word balloons are level on the horizon, because, sure, it gives the shot nice graphic balance, but more because it puts these two on equal footing as people, both capable partners, neither higher than the other, it implies trust, it implies equal skill or capacity for contribution, and that they’re in a situation together.

Jordan Boyd’s colors do the necessary bits perfectly, he nails the glow of amber candlelight, the crimson bursts of blood to hit the horror beats (when a, uh, familiar character shows up in the Umbral), or the moody aquamarine nights, but he also helps highlight something Mitten is doing with the art, which wouldn’t be as easy to appreciate in black and white. Notice how, on so many pages, Chris will basically draw a full page of art, and then have a few panels sitting on top of that, almost inset into the larger piece, so that even the backgrounds are part of the picture. There are no white spaces that the art sits on top of, this is full-bleed comics, the background imagery and colors sometimes even filling in the space in the panel gutters. We’ve been so conditioned as comic book readers to read what’s in the panels and kind of gloss over everything else, but there’s another layer that Chris is using here, giving a lot of depth to already very layered artwork. The full image comes off like beautiful paintings, with little triptych panel sequences adorning them, like something you might find in illustrated manuscripts from the 1500’s (obligatory Fine Art reference), which suggests a classicism to Mitten’s art that he’s emphasizing with each successive project.

Now, any true-blue readers of Thirteen Minutes know that one of my all-time favorite characters in pop fiction is Lando Calrissian (obligatory Star Wars reference). I mean, I quote his lines in social settings, he’s the only toy I have in my office at work that could give me away as a geek, and I pester Brian Wood about including him in his current run of Star Wars. Bear with me for this digressive wind-up. For so long, I’ve wanted comics or movies or TV shows to feature the early adventures of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, smugglers on the run, running jobs, their back alley card games, dodging Imperial forces, bounty hunters, and the Hutts. It’s the same way that I want to see the early smuggling days of Davos Seaworth and Salladhor Saan (obligatory Game of Thrones reference), to see how this lifelong bond was forged. Your fanboy heart wants it, though your critical brain knows it’s probably better as casually alluded-to nostalgia, because actually showing it would probably never live up to what’s in your  imagination. I feel like seeing the adventures of Rascal and Shayim, now – in real time, is scratching this itch a little bit. I love the idea of two strong female leads from different backgrounds partnered up, with that instinct to leap before looking, with no reverence to man-made law other than what their own internal moral compass guides them toward, trusting that skill and luck will see them through.

In the process of the duo fleeing the events of last issue and encountering all the things and people they do (trying to avoid spoilers here!), Johnston does what he’s best at, world-building. Not only do they discuss the disorientation of time and spatial relationships in the Umbral, which helps the audience understand how it’s navigated and the internal “rules” of the book, but they hint at things like “the war” in such an off-the-cuff manner. I’m always fascinated by that kind of back story and how it’s introduced, the kind that suggests larger motivations and old grievances, whether it’s the hatred between Azqar (would it be the “Azqari” or just the “Azqar,” plural like the Umbral?) and Yuilangan, or old shifts of power between the Umbral and the regular human folk(?), reason that magic was probably outlawed in first place, and why the existence of the Oculus is now so important. There’s a vast, rich history here, something Johnston no doubt has mapped out in his notes. As was the case in Wasteland, Johnston seems fascinated with class and belief systems, and how those influence power and control, larger thematic issues used as backdrops in his body of work (traces of this are also apparent in The Fuse).

Lastly, it’s interesting how Johnston walks us right into the cliffhanger and we don’t even realize it until we’re left there like sheep to the slaughter. It’s a testament to the natural writing style he’s developed. There’s an exponential lead-up to this moment, from characterization and throwaway lines, to the lyrics of songs being sung, right to the conversation between Shayim and Rascal just before it’s sprung, but we still never see it coming. It’s the mark of a true organic storyteller, the clues are right there in plain sight all along, but conveyed so effortlessly and non-expository that you don’t even recognize you’re being handed pieces to the puzzle. I had an interesting conversation in the LCS with a bloke who tried telling me that he was hesitant about The Fuse because he heard it was “a hard read,” that Johnston takes his time and "exposits all this information about the world without telling you what’s going on." I furrowed my brow and explained, no, that’s actually the opposite of what he does. There’s no exposition. He establishes his worlds through characterization and dialogue. If you pay attention, it’s all quite clear. (He ended up buying The Fuse #1 and Umbral #1, so I win, obligatory sales anecdote!) There’s no omniscient narration, no characters talking at the audience, the clues are there if you want to interact with them. Why would you want it any other way? It’s the kind of fiction I like to consume. It’s an intelligent writer treating his writing as if intelligent people are going to consume it. Grade A+.


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