Review: Umbral #4

Sometimes in life, you randomly pick something up, and it becomes a game changer. Now, this could apply to a great many things; a musical instrument, for example, or a nasty case of crabs. Fortunately, Umbral is situated decidedly near the former camp, in that it makes sweet comic book music ... and requires neither a strong prescription from, nor an awkward conversation with, your family practitioner. In all seriousness, I may have grabbed this fantasy-adventure book (not usually my thing) completely by chance, but Image’s Umbral has very quickly become one of my most anticipated books each month for its fantastically-spun homemade mythology, inherent wit and charm, and a pace that never lets up. Hmm, maybe it is like crabs - it’s at least as infectious.

We pick up here where we left off in issue two, with Rascal and her cycloptic gypsy smuggler companion, Shayim, running for heir lives through the cavernous home universe of the Umbral, hiding as they do a powerfully magical artifact known as the Oculus, which both humans and Umbral want to seize in their respective bids for power.

While they contend with Umbral warriors, ghost pirates and the world’s most dangerous ladder match, the undercover Umbral in the human world tighten their covert grip around the governance of Man by further infiltrating the inner circle of the royal family and ruling class, in the process putting out an APB for the Oculus.

There are so many enjoyable things about this book, that I’m almost not sure where to start. One of my favorite things about Umbral is the world building Johnston is proving himself capable of here. Those little mentions to the world’s history, myth and lore are enticing little kernels of story that are slowly beginning to crackle and bloom. Whether it’s in an off-handed comment from Shayim or Rascal on a great war that occurred, or even just a barkeep singing what is clearly an old war song, each little suggestion succeeds in expanding this universe in a pot-by-pot unveiling of what is becoming a great meal.

Umbral04-CoverJohnston also does an exceptional job of fleshing out his characters further this issue, giving even the most vile amongst them solid and relatable pathos. The most standout example of this, perhaps, comes in the form of the relationship dynamic between the Umbral, which here manifests in a more familial sense. At the same time, it shows a sympathetic moment between the “monsters” in this story, as well as establishing the hint of a possible reason for their kind to be so vengeful; giving the villain of a book purpose like that is a triumph that is frustratingly not often achieved.

In fact, we get a couple new views into the many “dimensions” (in both sense of the word) of the conflict in this world, each of them feeding into the enlightening blurb on the back cover, which calls into the question the very nature of war. It’s pretty brilliant stuff and it flows beautifully well here.

Likewise to the above, Umbral enjoys a holistic voice - married together as it is in a mingled anachronistic parlance - but also because of the divergent and individualized dialogue with which Johnston arms his cast of characters. Rascal and Shayim have as great and effortless an interplay as the debuting Black Rojyr (whose crew is a very cool fusion of Pirates of the Caribbean and the Dead Men of Dunharrow from Return of the King) does with the Umbral; all of them have this humorous snarky tone, sure, but each stands out from the next, which is a rare thing these days.

The art here from Christopher Mitten continues to be a splintered and stained beast, and I can’t imagine Umbral under any other visual banner. At times shockingly touching (Umbral hugs), at others terrifying (undercover Arthir) and still others just badass (Black Rojyr’s appearance), Mitten must have been a carpenter in a past life, because he is absolutely nailing it in this book. His partner in the aesthetic, colorist Jordan Boyd, does an equally great job establishing tonally all the various goings-on in the many realms in Umbral, making the art come alive, even when the subjects are undead.

Umbral #4 is the latest great chapter in this outstanding ongoing Image series. If you’ve been complaining that there’s nothing fresh in comics, you haven’t been looking here.

Reckoning: 4/5

Scribe: Antony Johnston Illuminator: Christopher Mitten Painter: Jordan Boyd Flourisher: Thomas Mauer Printsmith: Image Comics Commencement: 2/26/14