There’s a panel early in the first issue of writers Justin Jordan and Nikki Ryan and artist Morgan Beem’s The Family Trade that signals all the promise of series. The story’s protagonist, Jessa Wynn -- a teacher moonlighting as an assassin -- looks out over the Free Republic of Thessala, a giant, interconnected city afloat in the Atlantic Ocean. Colloquially known as “the Float,” it’s a stunning sight, rendered in gorgeous watercolors by Beem. It looks cobbled together, an assemblage of mismatched parts, stacked high and stark against the expanse of the sea. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful view from the top, Jessa admits, and then, you know, she gets back to the business at hand, the slaying of a rising politician, a wealthy would-be-tyrant preaching a message of making “the Float glorious again” to the city’s dissatisfied citizens.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work out as planned. But that scene -- the sprawling panoramic view of Thessala -- offers something too rare in this exposition-packed issue: a moment of showing, not telling. Undoubtedly, Jordan and Ryan have a lot of world to establish, but often the first issue feels devoted to explicitly spelling out the history and intricate mythos of this new world, sometimes at the expense of the issue’s overall pace. This isn’t to say the ideas presented here aren’t fascinating. They certainly are. Jessa is a member of the Family, a secret organization of ninja-style killers, thieves, and spies. The Family covertly maintains order on the Float, making sure that the Clans, the ruling elite, don’t screw up the delicate balance required for a city in the middle of the Atlantic to be a hub for vice, diplomacy or whatever other activity requires remoteness and neutrality.
Jessa serves as a guide to this world, explaining its dynamic with a casual, witty voice devoted mostly to world-building. But it’s her interactions with other Floaters that helps build a sense of her character: her struggles with her over-protective uncle Christian, her fear of the mysterious Bookmaker, head of the Family, her playful banter with friend and confidant Ri, and her tailing of Stagger Berghardt, the bloated plutocrat whose anti-elite message threatens to shake up the order of the Float.
Standing among the crowd at one of Berghardt’s rallies, Jessa gets a firsthand look at the way his rhetoric plays among the commoners of the folk. He weaves in "just enough truth,” then appeals to their fears, she remarks. With his anti-establishment tone and bluster, it’s easy to read the character as a not so subtle reflection of President Trump, right down to the physical resemblance. This gives the story -- set in an alternate timeline -- an anchor in our own reality. But Berghardt has the capacity to be more than a political cartoon. After all, his persuasiveness comes with a dose of secret knowledge: somehow, he knows about the Family’s existence, tossing the whole enterprise into peril.
With the groundwork properly set down, it’ll be interesting to see where things go next. There’s a lot to explore, and the Float surely has intriguing corners readers will soon be introduced to. And Beem’s art promises that they’ll be fascinating to look at. The Family Trade looks like little on the comics landscape, it’s vivid and beautifully colored, cartoony in a classical sense, and it adds up to being on the most visually arresting comics of the year.
But beyond Beem’s designs, it’ll be interesting to see how Jordan and Ryan develop Jessa. As the youngest member of the Family, she’s struggling to figure out her place in a vast hierarchy. Perhaps there’s even a part of her who understands why Berghardt’s message appeals to the masses, a part of her that recognizes a similar frustration with stasis and order. Introduction out of the way, the world of The Family Trade is worth diving into.