With each new issue, Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten’s “Umbral” continues to enchant. A beautiful series in a complex fantasy world, it’s a treat in which to immerse yourself. As a stand-alone, Issue #4 isn’t one of the strongest so far, but it still builds on all the best things that have come before it — a sure sign that the series is headed in the right direction.
I’m just going to get this out of the way, because I cannot stop raving about the colors in this series. On the most basic level, they’re gorgeous. From a storytelling perspective, they give “Umbral” as much of its fantasy feel as the mythology and slightly misspelt names do. From the moody green-browns in the seaside inn to the deep purples and glowing pinks in the Umbral, Jordan Boyd knows how to create a strong and stunning atmosphere. The newest creatures in the cast, the ghost Black Rojyr and his crew, appear in an appropriately ghostly light green that also feels like a textured mineral color. So much of this world’s magic is tied to strange stones, so it’s nice to see Boyd call that out with his coloring choice. He conveys the ghost’s supernatural nature in the context of their world while still making it clear to the reader.
Mitten is also superb. I still love the weird way that this series jumps from panel to panel, and how I’m never sure how large a room is or how high a ladder goes. This confusion might drive me mad in a more grounded series, but in “Umbral” it adds to my sense of how disorienting the use of magic can be. I also love how the characters expand and contract, their billowy clothes and billowy hair making them look like shadows themselves. On top of these scenes, Mauer’s lettering is delightfully funky. The Umbral speak not in word bubbles but in spiky, jagged word polygons that stand in sharp contrast to the rounder edges on everything else.
As far as story goes, there are still quite a few questions, but Johnston is slowly dispensing a few reveals each month. The reader now knows all of the primary players and what they’re after, but their motivations — the elusive whys — aren’t all clear. Issue #4 builds quickly and concisely on its predecessor, but “Umbral” does seem to be falling into a familiar pattern: run-reveal-run. Still, it’s a pattern that’s effective.
Johnston also does a fine job with the character of Shayim. Though she has a foreigner’s accent, it isn’t a grossly offensive one. It’s simply short on articles and heavy on infinitives — all realistic hallmarks of an intelligent person who’s learned a language well enough to do business in it, but not well enough to write a sonnet. Besides her accent, she’s also a fun-to-read badass with an eye patch, and a perfect companion for plucky Rascal. Judging by what’s happened to the rest of Rascal’s friends, her chances aren’t stellar, but here’s hoping she survives for a good while longer.
I’d recommend throwing “Umbral” at anyone who thinks fantasy must be lame on principle. Don’t get me wrong — it’s still got thieves guilds, pirates, and magic relics to spare, so readers who hate that sort of thing regardless probably won’t be wooed. But readers who are more skeptical than determinedly opposed will probably come to love it.