The first arc of Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten's "Umbral" opened with a bang. The second begins with a cart ride. Issue #7 is less energetic than its predecessors, but it's also clearer and closer to the answers. Readers who liked the pacing and narrative closeness of the first arc may find this installment disappointing, but it ultimately accomplishes solid setup work. "Umbral" continues to be one of my favorite titles.
Rascal and her friends have fled the city and are seeking shelter at a farm called Sunrise. It's clear from the get-go that their hosts are untrustworthy, so the plot isn't exactly surprising. Luckily, Johnston mixes the predictable with the interesting. The drama at the farm is twisted up with adventure in the Umbral, and each world influences the other. In that way, the simplicity of the farm plot helps the reader to better understand how Rascal can interact with the world of the Umbral. Had there been more layers to what goes on in the waking world, it might have been merely confusing.
Johnston also adds more intrigue on a series-wide scale, revealing the Kin of the Whispered Blade's motivations and bringing them more sharply into focus. (Plus, new map!) There are so many pieces at play here that the issues does feel slightly directionless and meandering. Rascal and her friends are at a standstill, and the other story elements only arrive in bits and pieces. It's true that I like the bits and pieces I see, but on an issue level, it does detract from the narrative drive.
Mitten is as fine as ever. The farm scenes might be narratively slower, but I enjoyed seeing Mitten draw more domestic, normal scenes. His faces pick up more variety as a result of the focus on them, even if a few characters still drop to the same blank default. Issue #7 also sees Mitten play with a few progressions, including a creepy parade of faces in the Umbral and a slow fade to sunset that lets Jordan Boyd's colors shine.
Speaking of which, I'm never getting over the color scheme in this series. The radioactive fantasy palette in the Umbral is as dark and vivid as ever, and Jordan Boyd colors the new countryside setting with warmth and depth. The rural sunsets and candlelit barns feel alive and full of shadow, lending them a surprising, mellow portentousness. I've also come to appreciate the clear visual contrast between the Umbral and the 'real' world, much as I liked when the book was almost entirely pink and purple. Scenes often split very abruptly between the two worlds, so a clear visual cue makes it easier to determine when Rascal is and isn't in the Umbral.
One last note: I wouldn't recommend that new readers jump on at this arc. Anyone interested would be much better off buying the first trade to begin with, as issue #7 doesn't explain any of the backstory or worldbuilding that's come before.
"Umbral" is relentlessly interesting, even if issue #7 isn't one of its strongest installments. I can't wait to see how the numerous hints, prophecies and subplots will develop in the second arc.