Ed Brisson is one of those writers nowadays who seems to have a new project every three months. In recent memory, he’s been working on Sheltered, The Field, Cluster and Murder Book, and now he’s adding another creator-owned project to the mix with The Mantle. The Mantle follows Robbie and Jen, two punk rock washouts, on their way home from a show. After taking some mushrooms, Robbie begins to see colorful electricity that zaps him; he wakes up in a room with several people who look like superheroes who tell him he’s been chosen as the new wielder of The Mantle, which are basically god-mode superpowers. Eventually, Robbie faces his new nemesis, The Plague, and things... do not go well. I won’t ruin the second half for you, because it is a truly great twist.
Brisson seems like he’s having a lot of fun with this comic. It’s your standard origin story, at some level, with all the interchangeable parts, but Brisson’s script delights in pointing those things out. When Robbie wakes up with powers in a mysterious house, one of the superheroes who greets him says “You’ve got your origin story, so let’s not waste any more time, ok?” This issue moves very quickly, and in lesser hands, it would seem too fast, but with the story Brisson is telling, the pace is pitch perfect, up to the big half-page splash about 2/3 of the way through up until the final page reveal.
Level and Boyd are on another level here. I’m not sure I’ve read any of Level’s stuff except for his work in Valiant-Sized Quantum and Woody last year, and even between then and now, he’s jumped ahead in style. His lines are clean without being too squeaky, and he doesn’t bother with that Jim Lee-hyperrealism in the slightest. I don’t know what I would call this style, but it reminds me of Steve Leiber and Chris Samnee on their best days. And Jordan Boyd colors the living hell out of this book. The book has an intentionally muddy palette, so her flashes of color really pop. The lightning early on, the fire The Plague brings with him, the blood during the climactic battles.
My biggest issue with The Mantle was a lack of rules of the world. It does a lot of work as to who the Mantle is, why it chose Robbie, how it chooses people, etc, but it sort of skimps on The Plague. I don’t even know that this is a problem for me, since essentially, I’m left knowing who The Mantle is, loving the twist ending, and wanting to know way more about The Plague (who, I should mention, his character design is awesome. He looks like a less ridiculous version of the main character from the God of War games). I think, had there been more info about The Plague, I would have been satisfied, but I would have thought the issue had reached its saturation point, so I guess it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
The Mantle does one super-impressive thing, for me: it manages to make a traditional superhero story that’s dark, but does not revel in the darkness. It’s a cast of characters who are exasperated in the same way fans are (there have apparently been over a dozen Mantles in the last decade alone), but they do it without descending into the rape-darkness-cynicism of most superhero books. This isn’t to say this book isn’t dark--it super for real is. And it still lacks the hope of a traditional superhero book, but it seems as exhausted with the darkness and the world that forces it to cynicism as it can get.
This is a hell of a first issue. Everything already seems like a well-oiled machine amongst the creative team, and the story hooks you in just the right places. If you’re looking for a new superhero book outside the Big Two, boy have I got just the thing for you.