Dark Engine#1 is one of those books that I can see people either really loving ... or really hating. Essentially, this book tells the story of a future world that has fallen to the Sporeland, an infectious wilderness populated by monsters and mutants that has forced humanity to become reactionary at the brink of their demise. The only ones left fighting at the boundaries are the Alchemists: crazed scientists who, in a last-ditch effort to kill their oppressors, have artificially engineered a fierce warrior named Sym, implanting within her a mysterious nuclear option-like device called the Dark Engine and sending her back in time to stop the spread of these monsters before it even gets started.
Tonally, Dark Engine mixes the surrealist dystopia of Æon Fluxwith the equally bizarre environs of Graham and Roy’s Prophet revival, and maybe a light dusting of the cautionary inanity in Pretty Deadly. So it’s probably no surprise - given those comparisons - that I thought this first issue felt extremely jumpy. It darts between perspectives quickly and without much exposition other than cryptic and verbose explanations from Burton, which are pelted with nonsense words like Gigahül (a race of large beasts) and Cofferwright (possibly some kind of techno or temporal mage), making things all the more complex to grasp.
As such, the learning curve on this one is pretty steep, especially given that the story oscillates between the tales of Jin (a seemingly altruistic alchemist at least in part responsible for creating Sym), a character called only “the dragon” (a gigantic purple monster also waiting for Sym’s return with an almost religiously fanatical patience) and Sym herself, who we see violently adapting to being shunted onto a prehistoric earth, killing everything she sees, as is her programming (and right as a killing machine).
Because of all this, Dark Engine #1 gets pretty darn confusing, and you’d be forgiven for getting lost in the shuffle on your first reading. I certainly did. Saying that, this book is also brutal and beautiful. It’s brutifal! Burton is clearly a lover of language who is interested in playing with the elegance of his eloquence, sometimes more so than having the story make sense. I think a lot of people are going to have a problem with that, but I’m actually not one of them.
I personally love it when writers add a little poetry to the proceedings, even if it does make things feel convoluted. Weaving words as Burton does here gives stories creative gravitas and a certain lyricism that I just really enjoy, plus it makes you work harder for understanding. There’s something to be said for that.
So yes, Dark Engine’s narrative voice does come at the expense of some clarity, and it may not be the best way to give a story immediate mass appeal, but it does make this book read differently than others (even at Image), and singularity in comics these days is all too rare a commodity.
I’ve similarly fallen for John Bivens’ oddball, but beautifully savage art. In fact, it’s the reason I jumped on this book in the first place. In its quieter moments - like the conversation this issue between Alchemists - his stuff has a Jeff Lemire-esque quality to it, like all of his figures are wearing ill-fitting meat suits, which I think works well in a story about a society that isn’t comfortable with the skin it’s in.
However, when Sym (who looks like a refugee from Soul Calibur) is on-stage - slaughtering as she does a host of dinosaurs - that fidgety feel in Bivens’ work explodes in a blood-wet groove of deeply-chiseled ultra-violence where eyes get stabbed, a uterus gets torn up by a Lovecraftian meat bomb, and hippos get exploded to shit. It’s amazing, even when it’s weird ... and it does get fucking weird. I don’t want to call Dark Engine a fetishist playground, but the random peeing scene and seemingly Hentai-inspired organic distortion of the titular Dark Engine when activated are ... disconcerting, to put it mildly. Then again, some of the best art is.
Just like I don’t have a clear concept of where it’s coming from, I also don’t exactly know where Dark Engine is going. Although (and this may be a SPOILER, I dunno), chances are Syn and her belly bomb will end up being the paradoxical engine of humanity’s destruction. Regardless, I’m glad I took a chance on this book, which has a style and cadence that grates as much as it amazes.
Writer: Ryan Burton Artist: John Bivens Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.50 Release Date: 7/16/14 Format: Print/Digital