Superhero Masks in Neon-Noir Crime: "Dream Thief"

Every year or two, Jai Nitz sends me a preview of something he's working on. Many of his projects have started out with great promise, but something seems to come up to diminish the final comic. Either the art doesn't match the needs of the script. Or editorial interference shifts the direction in a way that sabotages the original concept. Or general lack of reader interest leads to publisher apathy and the project drifts away into memory without leaving much of a mark. Or he writes "Green Hornet" comics for years, and no one seems to notice. He's been working in the industry for over a decade, establishing a substantial body of work, but I don't see many Jai Nitz retrospectives online. He's still somehow under the critical radar.

But there's something different about "Dream Thief," his upcoming Dark Horse miniseries with Greg Smallwood coming out in May. I like Jai's enthusiasm for comics, and I like many of Jai's comics -- even the ones that stumble a bit in their execution -- but "Dream Thief" is a whole new level for him. This is the best thing he's worked on yet. Twelve-plus years into his career in comics, it looks to be his breakout project.

It's definitely the breakout project for artist Greg Smallwood. You likely haven't heard of this guy yet, but I say, without hyperbole, that he may be one of your favorite artists this year. This is his first substantial comic book work, from what I can tell, and it's a bold debut. His work is confident and clean and dynamic. I'd be shocked if Marvel didn't scoop him up for "Daredevil" or "Hawkeye" -- or whatever other Steve Wacker books pays attention to looking great -- as soon as they see what Smallwood is doing on these "Dream Thief" pages. But I'd love to see him do his own thing on his own projects. Calling him a young Mazzucchelli is clearly ridiculous after seeing only a couple of issues of his first comic. But...if some mad scientist whipped up a blend of Mazzucchelli and Francavilla and Samnee, you'd get something that's Smallwoodesque.

He does everything too: the coloring, the lettering. He is a storytelling dynamo.

Have I given you the impression that I really like what I've seen of "Dream Thief"? I haven't been very subtle about it.

Boy, this is a good comic.

So let me tell you something about what actually happens in the comic. And why you should care.

I've seen the first two issues, and here's what I know: John Lincoln plays the role of our hero, and he's not much of a hero. He's unlikable. He's a brutal murderer. But we're compelled to keep reading his story. Like the Guy Pearce character in Christopher Nolan's "Memento," he doesn't understand what's happening to him, and he finds himself in deadly circumstances with only pieces of information in front of him. And that means we're thrust in that situation as well, and it's thrilling. And dangerous.

But while "Memento" uses the conceit of a reverse narrative and memory loss to create the disorienting story tapestry, "Dream Thief" uses a much more comic-booky trope: the magic mask that seems to possess its wearer. That's why the covers of the issues -- or the teaser images -- show a guy in street clothes wearing what looks like some kind of tribal superhero mask. But this is no superhero comic. And it's nothing like that other infamous Dark Horse property about a magic mask that does things to its wearer. Jamie Kennedy is unlikely to star in an abysmal sequel to Jim Carrey's "Dream Thief."

No, "Dream Thief" is a crime comic, and though there's a supernatural mask -- an aboriginal artifact -- that acts as the visual symbol for the series and the narrative device that turns John Lincoln into some kind of disoriented angel of vengeance, the first two issues provide no explanation for any of this. We learn, through John Lincoln's experiences, the "rules" of this vengeance game the mask seems to be playing. We see John Lincoln as the puppet of forces we don't understand, but it's more complex than that. John Lincoln isn't a cypher through which cosmic forces operate. Nitz and Smallwood take the time to build Lincoln's world, and his supporting cast, so he's first established as a neon-noir anti-hero and then the supernatural stuff seeps in as a wild card. We don't get long speeches about ancient aboriginal forces or the potency of "Dreamtime" or whatever else might torpedo the taut, grisly, Miami-Vice-hued Westlake-meets-Ellroy scenario at the story's core. We might get explanations in future issues. An old withered sage might give us a lecture on the magic of the unseen world. But I hope not. "Dream Thief" doesn't need to explain how its magic works. It's delightfully vicious as a tour of the chillingly unknown.

There are other layers to "Dream Thief" that I haven't yet described. Overlapping narratives, brutally personal twists, flashes of foreign memories, and lingering mysteries. But I want to draw your attention to this book because I think you'll like reading it, so I'm not going to deprive you of the pleasure of discovery.

All of my excitement for this comic might make it sound like some transcendent masterpiece, and it doesn't aim for that sort of thing. It's just really good. It's great-looking, confident, and doesn't waste your time. It harkens back to the kind of mid-1980s color independent comics from the likes of Eclipse or First. It has a little bit of Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegel's "Crossfire" in its soul, and a hint of Tim Truman's "Scout," and maybe something on the cooler side of Mike Grell's "Jon Sable." But it's not a pastiche of those decades-old comics. It's a mix of influences of that sort, but re-energized and distilled into something brutally pretty for 2013.

This seems like the kind of comic Jai Nitz has been waiting years to make, and Greg Smallwood is the kind of better-than-anyone-has-any-right-to-expect artist who can turn it into something special. Look for "Dream Thief" starting this May. I suspect you'll like it.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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