Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood could teach a class on story structure when it comes to “Dream Thief” #1, the debut of their creator-owned mini-series at Dark Horse. It hits each beat at just the right moment, in a way that builds the suspense and surprises perfectly. This isn’t just a well-paced comic — it’s a strong debut, period.
The first half of “Dream Thief” #1 sets up the comic and John Lincoln’s life perfectly. Readers learn about his girlfriend, their rocky relationship that led to his infidelity, his best friend, his sister, his pot-smoking habit, his lack of a job, his absent father. That’s enough material to fill some books’ first and second issues, and “Dream Thief” #1 presents it in ten pages. More importantly, though, it doesn’t feel rushed or forced; instead it’s a steady pace that moves through a day in the life of John. And honestly, if that’s all this comic was, I think I’d have been happy. John Lincoln’s life is a series of interconnected knots that need to be picked at for some time in order to unravel, and it’s interesting enough material in and of its own right.
Nitz kicks the book into high gear right at the halfway point of the first issue, though, and things get even more interesting. The set-up of “here’s the protagonist’s life, now we’ll break it down” is one we’ve all seen before, but Nitz’s approach genuinely caught me off-guard. When it’s discovered just what’s happened after blacking out, it’s a little shocking. Nitz keeps the story strong; instead of just being there for surprise’s sake, it instead fits into the overall picture and some earlier scenes click into place perfectly once readers finally understand the piece of information that was withheld to both John and us. Not content to just have one surprise, the plot just gets more intense, with another cliffhanger to wrap up the issue and make us realize that the first surprise was hardly an isolated incident. It’s a strong understanding of what makes a well-crafted story, and it made me sit up and take special notice of this first issue.
Smallwood tackles all the visuals — pencils, inks, colors, and letters — and gives the book a strong, unified look. I love the way that each panel floats on a white background, with white gutters used for panel borders instead of a hard-edged line. It results in every panel looking like its own unique drawing that you focus in upon, but at the same time they still work well as a unified whole on the page.
Smallwood understands how to make every panel count, too. Look at the scenes in the museum, for instance, where there’s not just get a sign pointing us to the Aboriginal art exhibit; there are numerous pieces on display on walls, tables, cases. Artifacts that aren’t part of the story are still included, and readers never lose sight of the fact that we’re in a museum rather than some random hallway. At the same time, though, Smallwood understands when to invert his normal approach; when a beautiful woman that both John and Reggie are gawking at walks by, that one panel suddenly has the backgrounds drop out so it’s just the three of them in a white void. The rest of the world has ceased to exist for John and Reggie, and Smallwood gives us a strong visual representation of that moment. Even the lettering in “Dream Thief” #1 is great; with three different styles mixed together, it might seem like showing off but each is for a distinctly different purpose, and I think that Smallwood is a strong enough letterer that they all stand out from one another while still feeling like they’re part of the page as a whole.
“Dream Thief” #1 was a pleasant surprise with which to kick off the week. In a recent interview Nitz explains that he and Smallwood have been working on this mini-series for quite a while, and that it was only once they’d completed the first issue and shopped it around that they found a publisher. Once you read “Dream Thief” #1, you’ll see why Dark Horse couldn’t stand to pass it by either. “Dream Thief” #1 is an extremely strong debut to this mini-series, and you definitely should pick up a copy. This is a winner.