In every book, a little backstory must fall, and in its fifth issue, Umbral definitely makes it rain. There are quite a few things going on in issue five - including the return of a once thought dead character and the continuing machinations of undercover demons who are searching for an artifact of ultimate power called The Oculus, making this issue yet another robust offering in a series I never thought I would get into. Unlike in the issues leading up to this one, Johnston and company tell a more explicit tale here in the way they directly address the history of this world, rather than simply giving away small dialogue-driven hints. That coy approach was something which has been a real strength for the series, so I was worried its steady watering would turn into a deluge and flood - something that could very easily dilute the story.
However, the almost immediate moral ambiguity given the teller of the tale (who comes from a green-skinned race of “baby-eaters” called the Yuliangan) does a great job of injecting doubt within its believability. In other words, it could all be either a lie, or at least a tale skewed by personal perception - something which is very important in historical retellings. Just ask North Korea. Or America, quite frankly.
To briefly sum it up (without any spoilers), Rascal’s associate, a “Profoss” (I’m guessing a sort of monk-teacher) named Munty tells the story of how the Umbral came into the world of men. To me, his story feels very Greek/Roman mythology-inspired, pitting three brothers who rule sections of the world against each other, thus leading to the great war that was only quietly whispered about previously. He also explains other elements (sometimes literally) of this world, like the origins of the powerful pink rocks called Mist, and why magic has since been outlawed across the planet.
Altogether, Munty spins an interesting yarn, though as I mentioned above, one that is not without its clichés. Still, I had a great time dipping my wick (so to speak) further into the story behind Umbral, and I’m especially excited to see how our main character, Rascal, is going to fit into it, as she is now more blatantly being pegged to be some sort of savior.
It doesn’t hurt that all of this includes the great anachronistic verbal style of this world, in which you’re just as ready to accept someone screaming “Fie on thee” as you would another being all “Fuck you!” Along with a very gripping story filled with butt-loads of action, that kind of parlance makes this book easy to approach and appreciate.
The art from Christopher Mitten continues to be a great boon for this book, as well. His work looks like a marriage between religious stonework and stained glass, and reminds me very much of Andy Belanger’s stuff in Kill Shakespeare, which I happen to really enjoy. Mitten’s art, however, is perhaps more chiseled and ancient-feeling, which of course goes well with the story being told here, since it’s set in a place that could very well be a broken future, or a forgotten past. Credit must also go to colorist Jordan Boyd, who does an exemplary job of setting the various different time periods here against each other via tone. Really great stuff.
Other than the backstory filler, not too much happens in this book, and for my tastes, it ends pretty suddenly and without the believable “mid-escape from danger” feel I think the team wanted to inspire, but that to me was less important than taking a moment to set up some foundation as to what is happening in this world. Again, I enjoy all of the slight winks in this story’s telling much more than I would if it was all spelled-out, but I think this crew has established the right mix of believability (or indeed lack thereof) this time with more significant meat.
Umbral continues to be a great surprise of a series, and one that I look forward to more with each and every reading. Johnston also does a fantastic job of enticing even more with the ongoing cryptic blurbs with which he decorates his back covers, and just like the different fingers of story, I can’t wait to see how this will all finally coalesce.
Scribe: Antony Johnston Illuminator: Christopher Mitten Painter: Jordan Boyd Flourisher: Thomas Mauer Printsmith: Image Comics Commencement: 3/26/14