Okay, here’s the thing: I hate poker. To be clear, it’s not the game itself that pisses me off, so much as it is society’s fascination with it to such a degree that it has actually become a televised spectator sport. When in the name of stupid shit did that happen? I’m not completely sure, but I have a theory that it coincided with the rise in popularity of Larry The Cable Guy. I fully admit that poker as plot device does have its place, but usually this is generally relegated to your James Bond movies and back-alley grifting. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I read Dream Thief #4 - the bulk of which is set at a riverboat-style poker tournament in Elvis Presley’s automobile museum - and really, really enjoyed it. Again, I couldn’t give less of a shit about poker as the driving force behind this story, but the way it was used here as a stage on which to allow our hero, John Lincoln, to strut his collected stuff was brilliant.
Once again Lincoln wakes up having been possessed by a vengeful spirit (via an aboriginal mask) and surrounded by men who are dead or dying by his unwitting hand. This time, however, he finds hope with a one Father Tommy, a shady clergyman who says he can help Lincoln with his preternatural predicament, if only the masked misanthrope would be willing to use the talents he has recently acquired from a murdered card shark named Frank Best to win the holy mother church some “serious fucking coin,” as the Pope might say.
The lead-up to the poker game alone is very well done, changing the “aimless vigilante” dynamic of this story to one where the protagonist is willing to get more proactive about his condition. If anything, Lincoln’s character has been trudging along thus far, just going through the motions, and while that has been fun, there’s a bit more fire in his belly this time about figuring out what the actual hell is going on with this doofy mask and getting head-banged by a gaggle of ornery caspers.
I’m always happily surprised how well Nitz structures the events in Dream Thief, and issue four was no exception, using as a card game to show off Lincoln’s increasing command of his abilities. In that, this was the perfect setup. I love how he uses his talents here by oscillating between them, not necessarily for each ghost’s “very specific set of skills,” but for each of the spirits’ body language, which he uses in tandem with Best’s card sharkery to win money, but more importantly, some story-altering information.
The background of this particular misadventure follows a Memphis mafia infested with loan sharks, unpaid debts and misplaced faith, and while I didn’t find it nearly as emotive or personal as those in the issues leading up to it, you can’t help but appreciate the complexities of the case, which wrapped-up well with the series’ feel good vigilantism, if not a bit predictably.
However, the “true” end of this issue is the real kicker, and was anything but predictable. In its final four panels, this thing wraps up around a completely new twist, as well as a character who looks like he could be a very interesting foil for our hero. Something tells me Lincoln’s about to have his Negaduck moment, which I agree is a random reference. That ending gets me all kinds of titillated, particularly as this is the penultimate issue of the miniseries.
Smallwood’s command over his page layouts is well-honed and most welcome, taking subtle, yet measurable chances. While shaping the panels into, say, a large exclamation point on the page can confine the art to a smaller scale, it also establishes a unique breathing space for the story which I think works really well in dissipating its dense content. The negative space in this story is between panels rather than in the art itself, and I think that opens things up while allowing the art to relax in its dark, detailed nuance.
Even though this issue suspiciously taps into Man’s love affair with (now televised) card games, Dream Thief #4 exemplifies what makes this series so good: a dark yet absurd premise, a robust cast of characters and a continuous barrage of surprises that always keeps me coming back. Dream Thief’s final repose next issue is geared up to be bittersweet and fitful, and I for one can’t wait for the rude awakening.
Writer: Jai Nitz
Artist: Greg Smallwood
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Release Date: 8/21/13