I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood’s book, Dream Thief, is the best episodic supernatural crime thriller not on TV. And I’m pretty sure I don’t even like supernatural crime thrillers ... or know if it’s really a thing. I guess it doesn’t matter in the end, because this Dark Horse title is transcendent of both its genre and its medium, which is to say: it’s pretty goddamn rad. So far, Dream Thief has been a “murder mystery of the month”-style book, centered around former slacker John Lincoln, whose purloinment of an ancient (read: magical) aboriginal mask has granted him the unfortunate ability of being possessed by dispossessed spirits who then use his body to enact their vengeance on the murderers of their bodies.
After each visit, Lincoln is left with the abilities of his visiting wayward spirits, which he vets through the mask, thus building a rather robust library of “mad skillz.” These include boxing, military training and quite possibly gay porn (not really, but read issue two to see WT-actual-F I’m talking about), which he then invests back into the business of killing murderers, drug dealers and in the case of issue three, racists. So, clearly his targets have it coming; or, in the words of our dear, erstwhile medium, “Screw these guys.” Word life, son.
This issue’s fairly complex story, set in Tupelo, Mississippi and starring the Ku Klux Klan, a racist judge and his misbegotten son, and the ghost of a young, yet quite dead, but otherwise up-and-coming black lawyer who wants revenge, is intricate without being convoluted, touching without being hammy and fun without being frivolous.
I particularly enjoy the way Nitz continues to steer his main character, as well as the story itself, through this uniquely fantastical banality. Maybe not surprisingly (given the book’s title), the rationality behind what is going on, to Lincoln, manifests in that strange, hazy, yet perfectly-reasonable-at-the-time way that dreams often do. Only briefly, and really just in passing, has Lincoln paused to consider how absurd his life has become, for the most part brushing it aside using what I would call “dream logic,” not dwelling on the gravity of it all. This is happening, his mind tells him, because it is happening; accept it, or wake up.
Luckily for we, the readers - perhaps because he was previously such a slacker, and it seems “easy” to him to be so wantonly directed through life - Lincoln decides to go along with this new status quo without much resistance. In so doing - understanding that it will mostly likely be explained in due time - the beginning of this story is flung wide open; you don’t have to wonder too deeply about the whys and wherefores right now, but rather enjoy the sweet, hot vengeance wrought upon the fiendishly deserving.
On a slightly more prosaic level, I’ve always been a fan of the “collector” powerset - the Rogues and Sylars of the world - and Dream Thief works well within that paradigm very well, but in a much different, more subtle kind of way. I like the way it has been established here, allowing Lincoln to rotate through his found abilities like a revolver cylinder - using the right “bullet” for the right job. It’s deftly managed, not necessarily “realistically,” but with a more grounded approach in what is definitely a supernatural framework.
Nitz’s writing rudders this ship damn well. It’s sharp, but light, with impressively organic dialogue and exposition which, while regular and thick, never feels heavy or unnecessary. He has also, within the scant course of three issues, transformed a know-nothing, nobody of a main character into someone with real pathos, beset as he is by an underlying mystery which, despite himself, is shaping him more than his life prior to this ever had.
I called Dream Thief Quantum Leap-esque in an earlier review, and that similar fascination this book stirs remains: Where will he wake up next? What wrong will he set right? Will there ever be a going-back? For now, it’s “stay tuned ‘til next time” ... and you can bet your ass I will, and not just for the writing style.
Greg Smallwood’s art, like Nitz’s writing, is gritty, yet unleaded. He incorporates palpable emotional strength through a style that otherwise veers toward the cartoonish (but not in a bad way). His thick line-work, muted tones and clever tricks (especially his weathered flashback scenes and sparing punctuational layouts) are not just easy on the eyes, they also work together to establish something physical to hold onto in this metaphysical story, and are quite frankly just fun to flip through.
Finally, it may be a small thing, but the (what I assume to be titular) mask, like it does in a slightly more literal sense within the book, is starting to grow on me, visually speaking. It still looks like an out-of-place wrestling mask, don’t get me wrong, but that bone of contention is starting to erode away just as quickly as the once lackadaisical character of John Lincoln.
Dream Thief is a fantastic read for anyone interested in a supernatural twist on a constantly evolving revenge story with a break-neck progressive pace. If you haven’t started reading it, you really need to wake up.
Writer: Jai Nitz
Artist: Greg Smallwood
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Release Date: 7/17/13