I’ve been a big pusher of Dark Engine since its inception for one very important reason: it’s different. That’s a trait not easy to come by, even (some might say especially) in comics. But with a unique artistic style, seemingly rendered by pulling skin tautly over wood or shale, and a voice that is boldly, refreshingly poetic in its unabashed grandstanding, this Image title rises as a true rarity; one whose singularity I simultaneously celebrate and wish there was more of in comics. Despite what you might think, with its strange concepts, so-called “purple” language and its sometimes unpronounceable peoples, the premise behind Dark Engine isn’t as perilous to navigate as you might imagine. Once you parse it down, this is a story about the aftermath of the failure in Humanity’s last hope, where a hero actually becomes the catalyst for the very End she was designed to stop. Sure, temporal paradoxes abound, but that’s comics, yo! And let me tell you right now, Dark Engine is great comics, with issue five standing tall as, without question, the best in the series thus far.
At its heart, Dark Engine #5 is a braid of interwoven origin myths: one about a monstrously vomitous apocalypse, and another about The Inkface Ranger, a vengeful assassin raised to kill the failed savior of the world. The end of last issue saw the final meat-based time-jump of artificial chrono-assassin, Sym (aka, The Ivory Wolf) end in the detonation of the evil god bomb planted inside her. As I mentioned above, it seems that this, ironically (and presumably inadvertently) gave birth to the many-tantacled, multi-eyed and infinitely-mawed elder beast known as Xurh-Rahab’n, whose Lovecraftian rise from undersea dormancy brought the infectious mutation plaguing the world.
This story is presented as a tribal oral tradition rite, as elders drum into their chosen champion (the aforementioned Inkface Ranger) what he must do and why; i.e., slay the Ivory Wolf and punish her for “her sins” (even though they belong to the Alchemists that designed and aimed her) against Mankind. This might prove difficult, of course, since she’s currently frozen in a crystal at the bottom of the ocean, but there are ways around that, I’m sure. It’s a great choice, this type of storytelling, allowing Burton’s intricate style a viable narrative vehicle. Of course this retelling would have high sentence - most “holy texts” do, and it works beautifully well in-context here.
To that point, his writing here reminds me of Jonathan Hickman’s in East of West; that kind of pseudo-sacramental, well-crafted esotericism that I personally love. Of course, Burton speaks with his own voice and is far from a Hickman clone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his career path took a similar arc and renown thanks to books like this.
Similarly, Bivens’ art continues to be just as special, and here matches the latter’s lyrical grandeur with a visual one. He brings an unsettlingly writhing style to Dark Engine #5, such that everything looks like it’s carved from petrified vines. He couples this thematic visual cue with a wrung and drained look to his thickly-lined forms, giving his more morose pages a weighty, dark feel, which he juxtaposes in an impressive clutch of disturbingly grand splash pages and double-page spreads.
Saying all that, Dark Engine #5 won’t be for everyone. Its style is not what you might call “clean,” for example. In fact, it’s downright filthy; or better, decadent - which is one of the reasons I like it so damn much. It’ll also lose people who are used to being spoon-fed their stories, demanding you work harder for it. You don’t chew its visuals or text, you fucking gnaw at them - that’s how meaty, how rare this story is written and drawn. As such, Dark Engine may not be the easiest meal to digest, but that just makes it all the more satisfying when you do.