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'Dream Thief #3:' Advance Comic Book Review

Dream Thief is a dark, gritty, violent, and engaging new comic from Dark Horse, created and written by Jai Nitz, with art and letters by Greg Smallwood.  The story is a simple, fascinating one and once you start reading, it is honestly hard to put down.  Deadbeat John Lincoln isn’t that nice of a guy, or that bad of a guy, but rather falls into a nascent middle ground, a guy who complains that everything is against him, without really trying to do anything about it.  He has a girlfriend who is upset at him, a sister who is upset at him, and a best friend who is there to listen, and drink with him.  John’s status quo is inaction; that is until he wakes up wearing an Aboriginal mask he nonchalantly suggested stealing from the museum he visited the night before.  Turns out he must have actually stolen it, but he has no memory of stealing it or anything after the museum.  As his memory slowly returns, he remembers a very important detail: he killed someone last night, and properly disposed of the body, too.  Except it wasn’t John that did the killing, it was the mask.  When he falls asleep, the mask, imbued with the ghost of someone who has been murdered, takes over his body and seeks justice on those who got away.  John becomes an unwilling instrument of justice, a justice that takes matters into its own hands to see wrongs righted.

Nitz’s concept wonderfully mixes elements from Quantum Leap and Cold Case, to name a few, but he crafts any familiar elements into his own unique vision and style of storytelling.  As the story progresses, John transforms from the put upon, reluctant hero to a man who needs to figure out the mystery of why the ghost had him kill a certain person and to make sure the job is done right.  By issue three, while John may still not be aware of who the ghost kills while his mind is asleep, he has come to realize that everyone the ghosts inhabiting his body have killed, deserved to die.  At least, that is what the ghosts believe.  And, that is the crux of the complexity in Dream Thief.  Do these people truly deserve to die?  Is it moral for the ghosts to use John to mete out justice as judge, jury, and executioner, outside of the justice system?  These are questions that John, and the reader, struggle with.  It makes you think about the morality of John’s actions, even as you are rooting for him to punish the bad guys.  And, punish them he does.  This is most definitely an adult story, and it does not shy away from the ruthless underbelly of evil that John encounters.  Instead, it sticks you in the thick of the blood and bile right where John finds himself, and forces you face it head on, just as he has to.  We find ourselves relating to John, even though he isn’t always the most likeable person.  The mask begins to give him a sense of purpose, and we see him begin to stand for something, even if he, and we, are not sure exactly what he is standing for, and if it is morally sound.  

The issues flow easily into each other, with great cliffhangers at the end of each episode, where John suddenly finds himself in a new location, not knowing how he got there, and often times with a dead body not far away.  The cliffhanger at the end of issue three is absolutely superb and possibly one of the best and most action-packed I’ve read in quite some time.  That being said, you could pick up any issue and not feel lost.  Nitz does a great job of recapping the relevant story essentials and questions that arise are answered throughout the issues as more details are revealed and as John learns more about his new abilities.  We know as much as John does, so we discover new story threads and insights into the powers of the mask as John discovers them, which keeps us on the edge of our seat.  Just like John, we aren’t exactly sure what’s going to happen next, and that makes for a thoroughly entertaining read.  The art by Smallwood is striking and visceral, and he brings a strong realism to the story through characters nuanced expressions.  There is a masterful use of repetition that uses panel placement, images, and dialogue as a way to build suspense.  We already know from experience that the repetition means some action has gone down, but we don’t know the details until John does, so we wait in anticipation for the revelation.  Also, the use of the white borders to break up the panels brings a unique style to the comic, making it all feel just a little dreamlike as the panels seem to float in the white space all around them, which I imagine is kind of how John feels as he embarks on this surreal journey. 

Issue three begins with John finding himself in Mississippi, next to the murdered body of a Ku Klux Klan member, except this time the memories of the ghost aren’t filtering into his consciousness, which sends him on an investigation to find out who the ghost was, and why it had him kill that man.  This issue is an exciting murder mystery that deals with racism in a real way, without sugarcoating its vileness, and it is hard not to smile when John takes an entire Klan meeting to task.  John retains the skills of each ghost that possesses him, so his skill set begins to grow, which also helps to create a solid continuity, and sometimes details from the previous issues come together like the pieces of a puzzle to provide a needed solution.  The storytelling here is clever, and never heavy-handed, and as the issue progresses we realize John is becoming complicit in the murders and he, and we, begin to empathize, if not sympathize, with the ghosts’ vengeance.  Is John a hero?  A vigilante?  A murderer?  That is a question you’ll still be pondering in your sleep, even though you may not know it, because Dream Thief is a story that sticks with you long after your head hits the pillow.                             

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