Regular readers of this review will note that I am not Dustin Cabeal. That’s just something we’re both gonna have to live with, unfortunately. I am, however, Dustin’s shadowy, evil replacement, sitting in on this review of Umbral #3, not just to pick up where he left off in praising this pretty goddamn great Image series, but to subvert and quietly confound you. So let’s to it! This issue sees lovably-crass scamp Rascal and her random companion, the mysterious faux-bo Dalone, still on the run from a mystical race of dark, shapeshifting creatures called the Umbral, who hail from a dimension of the same name and have seized strategic positions within human society, presumably for a They Live-esque takeover, but without the killer shades.
Their clandestine invasion continues this time and proves to be more surreptitious (and bloody) than first believed by those that actually have an idea what is going on, which unfortunately remains a very small group of society’s most untrustworthy louts: uppity thieves, cryptic wizards and of course, the eye-patched. At the center of this storm is a legend/icon known as the Mistwalker, which is it/himself a gateway to what could be salvation or more terror, depending presumably on who gets to it first.
Like Dustin in his previous reviews, I don’t want to give away much more than that, because Umbral #3 is a frankly a pretty astonishing book in an equally impressive series, and to miss it would be a sin of omission. I mean, this book speaks with the breezy, dichotomous parlance of Saga, but girds itself in the atmosphere of Game of Thrones, and the effect is as awesome as such a combination suggests.
One of my favorite parts about this book is the world its creative team has already and continues to establish; a superstitious, anxious place where religion is a thing violently oppressed by polite society and magic is outlawed under pain of death. Unfortunately for our reluctant heroes, magic has other plans than not existing ... like cutting mother fuckers in half! Bifurcation, you guys ... not even once.
Another thing that continues to be great is the characterization, especially the interplay between Rascal and Dalone and how it pertains to the overall story. Each clearly holds secrets beyond what his or cultural status should allow, and watching one slowly trying to figure the other out is great fun. That’s actually something that prevails throughout this series, which is teeming with labyrinthian twists and feints, especially at the end of this particular issue, wherein we see an old face repurposed for a terrifying new end.
The one thing I will say is that, like most fantasy epics, Umbral demands a certain amount of acceptance from its audience, by which I mean turning a blind eye to things like vague terminology and references to the world’s history, geography and theology. But I think these are all elements that should be appreciated at face value first and analyzed in-depth later, as the story progresses.
It won’t kill you, for example, if you don’t have a full grasp of what an Azqari is or who Luxan might be, both of which are referenced here more than once. Part of the fun of Umbral is piecing the gristle of its jigsaw story together into some semblance of sense. This even stretches to the boundaries of the issue, the final page of which leaves a dark and prophetic warning outside the story, which will almost undoubtedly affect what’s going on within it.
Visually, Umbral’s a fucking knockout! The art here from Mitten looks wood-cut or chiseled from stone, which is a perfect direction for the otherworldly, somewhat anachronistic story. At the same time, his art looks constantly at flux, perpetually moving, which stands to reason given Johnston’s breakneck pacing.
I’m not sure where I need to dole the praise for this - whether it’s thanks to lettering or art - but whoever came up with the linguistic representation of magic in this world deserves a fucking cookie! It’s such a nice visual touch to this book, not to mention ripe tattoo fodder. I especially like that the Umbral’s dialect looks like Galactus’ octopus pucker: Goatsee meets Galactus. No need to thank me for that mental image.
Much like the most likely ill-advised reference mash-up above, Umbral has been a completely unexpected surprise. I had no idea what to expect from this series, but have been downright delighted by the outcome.
Scribe: Antony Johnston Illuminator: Christopher Mitten Painter: Jordan Boyd Flourisher: Thomas Mauer Printsmith: Image Comics Commencement: 1/22/14