The second print of the first issue of Umbral is also being released on 12/18, the same day as the second issue, so there’s absolutely no excuse for you not to purchase the set as a stocking stuffer for that person in your life who is a would-be fan of The Dark Crystal meets Game of Thrones lying in wait. You know the one. If the first issue was front-loaded with a world establishing and explaining itself in non-expository fashion, then the second issue is more concerned with plotting forward motion. There’s a cold open suggesting other jobs being pulled during the eclipse, a thread that will inevitably collide with our protagonists. Then, the entire front half of the issue is largely dedicated to an adventurous chase sequence. Speaking of our protagonists, writer Antony Johnston and artist Chris Mitten make it clear than we’re in for a “buddy team-up” with two very unlikely partners. Rascal is the plucky, young female and Dalone appears to be a grizzled old spellcaster, and the pair couldn’t be more different in terms of gender, age, education, beliefs, class, and other demographics. What the two have in common, though, could be a strong bond forging their uneasy alliance. They’re both outlaws, one for practicing magic, and one for thieving. They’re also both humans, maybe the only humans, who have seen The Umbral and lived to tell about it.
I’ve become a little bit of a color snob ever since I had the opportunity to interview Dean White a couple years ago and truly understand the coloring business and how it sits in the creative process, the colorist arguably as equally important as either writer or artist. I’ve tried to emphasize more notes on color during my reviews, and on some titles it’s not uncommon for colorist and penciller to be co-credited as “artist,” which I fully support. I’m digressing a little, but for years the only colorists you ever really heard about were Dave Stewart (seven consecutive Eisner Awards will do that) and maybe Laura Martin. They’re both great, but there’s a whole new generation of colorists working today. I’m really into following the careers of Dean White (Black Science), Jordie Bellaire (The Massive), Owen Gieni (Manifest Destiny), and I’m ready to put Umbral colorist John Rauch on this heady list. He’s the king of what I’m going to dub the “Night Palette” in this series, where it’s all crimsons and deep purples and hard aquamarines illuminating Chris Mitten’s dark force incursions in the Kingdom of Fendin. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice how the background color motifs on the page follow a thematic gradient from dark blue, to softer green, and, finally, to a warm brown as the night apparently progresses to day. John Rauch. His work is so damn smart.
On the writing front, Johnston is a real student of language, speech patterns, and how cadence works. For example, in Wasteland he invented a “goat-f***ing” devolving speech pattern where language cryptically broke down as a verbal system post-apocalypse in lieu of much written word being used. Here in Umbral, there’s a stronger reliance on UK English, but it’s far beyond the easy gets of the stray “sod” or “dodgy” (one of my favorite words still in my lexicon from an Aussie girl I used to hang out with). It’s bard-esque phrasing like “felt a proper shiver, I did” or “no need to take the piss” in lieu of plainly giving someone a hard time. It’s as if he’s operating with an interesting marriage of his country’s fun-to-American-ears colloquialisms, and the type of high speech commonly found in fantasy offerings. Most people probably don’t care one way or another about this and wouldn’t even notice, but these subtleties are what I’ve come to appreciate from the writer, especially after I’ve been reading comics for 30-some-odd years and everything can start to feel a little staid and boring. The unpredictability of Antony Johnston is what sets him apart from other writers.
Chris Mitten’s pencils have always been great, but I don’t think I’ve ever applied the term “animated” as an adjective to describe them. Rascal’s initial fall, and how she quickly halts it, bears a particularly cinematic feel, to the point you can imagine it as a short animated film flashing by. I’m not sure if some of these things were scripted by Johnston or if they were Mitten’s own inventions, but he litters the scenery with unique, little flourishes, like Jinglefingers’ rudimentary organic looking PA system used to rouse the guards, or the guardsmen eventually using bolas as weapons to try and bring Rascal down. These things are just different enough, just logical enough, and just cool enough to be memorable and last. This is how you organically build a world and define an aesthetic. While there’s some subtle comedy along the way (Rascal as “thrice-fallen” in one issue is all about rich irony over hardy-har laughs), the moment that halted me in in my tracks was the confluence of everything I’ve been discussing. It was a moment in which writing, art, and color all coalesced to become more than the sum of their parts. Dalone “speaks” in a crazy symbol-spell, the panache of the design, the pop of color, and the foreign nature of the idea just had me muttering “Oh, wow” to myself. You can probably dispense with all these pesky paragraphs and just use that quiet bit of astonishment. That’s the review: “Oh, wow.”