World-building is a tricky thing. In many ways, it’s the real magic on offer in fantasy stories, especially in their opening chapters. But it’s very easy to overdo it, and turn your first issue into a hefty Player’s Handbook without any reason to care about the story being told.
Sleepless is a book I came to cold, knowing only that it was drawn by Leila Del Duca, artist on Shutter, another fantasy series from Image Comics that finished earlier this year. That meant I didn’t know the premise of the story or its setting. Honestly, after reading the first issue, I’m still not sure that I do -- but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Let’s attempt to lay out it all out: Sleepless is set in a fairly traditional fantasy kingdom, the kind with castles, princesses and courtly drama. The twist comes in the form of the titular sleepless -- and this is where the book plays its cards closest to its chest. We meet just one of these sleepless, a knight named Sir Cyrenic who may be a supernatural insomniac, an immortal, a revived corpse, or all of the above.
There are tantalizing hints scattered throughout the book. A catacomb of bodies with their faces covered, referred to as Cyrenic’s "resting place," with a plaque that reads: “Here the sleepless lie/Never to wake again.” Matching symbols on walls and tombs and Cyrenic’s doublet. A reference to a healing spell that could “risk taking time from the end of my life.”
This is about as explicit as Sleepless ever gets about the rules of its world, and there’s a real pleasure in that. It feels organic, being lowered into a fantastical setting which is treated as perfectly natural by all its inhabitants. Writer Sarah Vaughn resists finishing the issue with a big essay explaining what the book is all about.
All of which is refreshing. However, it also means that, even at 30 pages, the issue feels a little slight.
The storytelling takes a similarly delicate touch. There are certainly plot hooks within -- the threat of a forced marriage for Lady "Poppy" Pyppenia, the book’s second lead; an attempt on her life thwarted by Cyrenic; dark hints at both of their pasts -- but they’re all told at the pitch of a whisper rather than a shout. The issue ends on a quiet moment, rather than the last-page revelation or twist you might expect from the first installment of a new Image comic.
This all adds up to an issue that reads like a wonderful first chapter, giving small glimpses of what feels like a fascinating world, but doesn’t do much to sell the whole thing to the reader. That’s necessary work for serialized fiction, which needs to remind you to come back next month. I wish I could tell you not to sleep on Sleepless, because there’s a lot to admire -- but the truth is that the story will probably read best in a single sitting, when it’s collected six months down the line.