Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten’s “Umbral” #1 is the perfect excuse to introduce readers to the dark fantasy genre. This exciting series opener differs in many ways from the feel of “Wasteland”, the duo’s previous project, but their collaborative voice is as strong as ever, and this issue is a must-read for fans of magic, thieves and all things scary.
The book opens with a bit of mischief: on the first twice-dawned day (eclipse) in generations, the young thief Rascal and her friend Prince Arthir plan to use the diversion to steal an ancient relic. Mischief soon spirals into mayhem, however, when something far more terrible than a theft occurs. When I say terrible, I really do mean terrible — there are multiple deaths in the first sixteen pages of story, and Johnston does a great job of establishing a magical world with deep consequences and high stakes.
However, “Umbral” #1 still maintains a sense of adventure and faith in the characters’ courage and ingenuity. That’s mostly due to the distinct voice of Rascal. There’s this punk pluckiness to her narration that jives strangely well with the rest of the story. She says things like “When the bards sing songs of my life,” rather than “if,” calls wizards “murdering psychopaths,” and swallows her sadness with swear words and sarcasm. Readers might be concerned that this would make her an insufferable Mary Sue, but worry not. Her confidence is tempered by admissions like “I was never the sharpest blade on the anvil,” and by her inability to do much more than survive. She’s strong in all the best and most believable ways.
As with any fantasy, the details of the world can be confusing at times — How does Mist work? What is the Umbral? Why does it use both singular and plural verbs? — but the reveals come at such a quick pace that it’s easy to assume the next answer is around the corner. Johnston’s well-known for his world building skills, so it’s no surprise that these answers are skillfully worked into the frenzy of the action.
Despite all that I appreciated about the writing, the art is the clear showstopper here. It’s — pardon the pun — magical. Rauch colors almost every panel in a tie-dye of purples, pinks and blues that adds moody fantasticalness to Mitten’s harsher, heavier inks. One doesn’t really think of severed limbs and hot pink as going together, but the palette works incredibly well.
Mitten also uses a fascinating fluidity of space that makes you understand just why Rascal hates magic so much. Rooms expand and contract without warning, depending only on how much room a particular menace has decided to take up. Staircases, walls, and passages appear and disappear. Combined with Rauch’s colors, the end result is exactly the combination of dreamworld and darkness readers would expect from a nightmare, giving the world a very distinct look and feel. Who needs the map in the front to establish a world when the art is this impressive?