Umbral may sound like a rude synonym for a lesser-known body part, but without meaning to unduly mix things up, it is quickly becoming for me Image’s most impressive dark horse book. I’m not sure it’s getting the press it deserves, but having had an absolute blast covering this series for a few issues now, I am more than happy to do my part in singing its praises. This grounded fantasy series has impressed the hell out of me since I picked it up, and it remains both a rare gem and permanent fixture on my pull list.
This issue sees our reluctant heroine, Rascal, continue her flight from a once tentatively peaceful kingdom now infiltrated at its highest levels by shadow monsters known as the Umbral, who are seeking to claim purchase on “our” level of existence via a magical artifact known as the Oculus (aka, the “bastard crystal” in the words of Rascal’s gypsy companion, Shayim), which just so happens to be in our wayward scoundrel’s possession.
The various members of the ragtag resistance in which Rascal has haphazardly ensconced herself are at each others’ throats, quite literally at times, and the whole adventure is taking on a very Lord of the Rings type feel, thanks indeed to the clash of personalities rallied behind one singular goal; that being, to fuck up the Umbral good and goddamn proper.
Probably the most interesting insular conflict currently underway within this dynamic is that between the man of science (who also apparently comes from a race of “baby-eaters”), the Yuilangan Profoss, Munty, and the enigmatic ex-wizard Dalone (who this issue reveals his Beast Mode / Final Form to Rascal amidst a quite hairy predicament), both of whom vie for the allegiance of their would-be charge.
Drenched in the previously-established lore of Umbral, their arguments over how best to be rid of the Oculus offer further yet tantalizingly-vague insight into the history of this world, and it’s great to see that story unfold sparingly across each issue.
Of course, Umbral’s most powerful magic (or sexy science, depending on your poison) is the way Johnston continues to build his characters. In a cool collision of Game of Thrones and Saga, the dialogue with which he arms them is simultaneously high sentence and low church, and it’s impossible (for me, at least) not to dig its often anachronistic tone.
Artistically, I’ve really grown to love styles like this, in its rough hew. Stone-cut but furiously fluid, it’s simple, but effective, and I can see why it has become one of the prevailing-most styles in the indies. Saying that, Mitten does a great job here again of putting his own stamp on the visual proceedings with a sometimes ambient, but always solid sacramental flourish.
I’ve said it already in my reviews for this book, but the stained-glass quality of this art is fantastic, accentuated all the more by the calculated pierce of Jordan Boyd’s colors. My one complaint is basically based on conjecture, but I’d like to see this book allow itself to visually spill across its pages with the same reckless abandon in which the creative team approaches its story. What I mean is that the layouts are a bit formulaic, and given the chance to seep more freely, I think its presence would impress on a whole other level.
The quiet at the end of the issue, and really throughout it, is deceptive, as the motley crew of gathered goodies, we are told, could be harboring, perhaps without any of their knowing, a rather unsavory sort; the kind that could get them killed. What that means is that, like its cast, even when this book is catching its breath, it continues to be a full-on adventure that I can’t put down. With two fairly big deaths and a more focused direction, Umbral #6 proves why this series is a must on anyone’s monthly list.
Scribe: Anthony Johnston Illuminator: Christopher Mitten Painter: Jordan Boyd Flourisher: Thomas Mauer Printsmith: Image Comics Commencement: 4/30/14