Ryan Burton and John Bivens’ “Dark Engine” #1 isn’t quite like anything else on the market. A strange, almost visceral comic, it plunges the reader into a world of violence and mystery, bringing to mind mixtures of “Conan” and “Cthulhu.” But at the end of the day, it’s going to need to focus a bit more in future issues in order to retain an audience for an extended period of time.
The majority of “Dark Engine” #1 has Sym, the protagonist of the comic, hacking her way through monstrous looking creatures while wearing a helmet made out of a lizard-like skull. Those who don’t like gore should probably steer clear, unless you’re ready to handle a hippopotamus exploding as Sym bursts out from inside of it.
As Sym hacks, slashes, and mauls her way through the wildlife, we also get to see a mysterious tower called the Alchemist’s Sanctuary, where Sym’s creation and subsequent transportation occurred. It’s the closest we get to exposition in this comic, but it never feels quite adequate. Part of it has to do with the slightly purple prose (“At the eastern edge of that poison absolute, a creamy nimbus pierces the hopelessness.”) and part is that the facts appear to be deliberately obscured for now. Burton can get away with that in the short term, so long as the wow factor is still there, but sooner or later we’re going to need something a bit more concrete.
Still, Bivens’ art is impressive, especially the further into the issue one progresses. The dark smear of the tower heading up into the darkness, the way that Sym hacks her way through creatures… it’s all slick and intricate, in the way that you might imagine an octopus’ tentacle would be. That’s ultimately what holds most of the power in “Dark Engine” #1, with those raw and heaving visuals that assault your eyes.
In many ways, the scene mentioned earlier with the exploding hippo sums up “Dark Engine” #1 in a nutshell. It’s strange and eye-catching, but at the same time there’s a certain level of befuddlement going on. The image will definitely linger in your head, but the more you think about it, the less you find in terms of a story. With a sharper story flow, “Dark Engine” can go far. Without it — well, at least we’ll always have the hippo.