Best Shots Advance Reviews: Trio of Image First Issues: UMBRAL, DRUMHELLAR, ALEX & ADA

Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

Umbral #1
Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Christopher Mitten and John Rauch
Lettering by Thomas Mauer
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Umbral #1 is an exercise in world building on an epic level, owing as much to Tolkien as it does to George R. Martin. Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten introduce us to Rascal, a young thief and her best friend, the prince Arthir. On the grand event of an eclipse, the two children steal away to one of the highest points in the town to witness it but find themselves drawn into a mystery as mystical artifacts end up missing and people around the prince end up being killed as dark hearted monsters rip through the castle.

As the creators follow Rascal, they expose us more to the kingdom of Fendin and its capital city, which is filled with royalty and thieves. Johnston and Mitten’s Umbral hits the marks it needs to as we begin to see a world develop around Rascal. We get a sense of the place as Rascal and Arthir get chased around the royal castle. Long ago in this creative duo’s first issue of Wasteland, they worked together to quickly establish the dry, arid world of that book. They do the same here but show us a rich and lush fantasy world, thanks to John Rauch’s royal colors. Johnston and Mitten follow the blueprint for epic fantasies, including providing a map of the kingdom so we can presumably follow the action as it works its way away from the central location of a castle.

Also in the tradition of fantasy stories, Johnston plays with the language and spelling. Instead of “Arthur,” we get “Arthir.” “Professor” becomes “Profoss.” “Peter” is “Petor.” These small spelling liberties end up being more distracting than anything else as you just want to run a spell checker on this comic to get those words spelled right. More interesting but just as distracting is Johnston’s decision to have Rascal swear like a British sailor. On the surface, Umbral #1 looks like a young reader’s fantasy story but the language that Rascal uses is nothing like you would find any of Tolkien or J.K. Rowling’s fantasy heroes using. Part of the language is made up or altered words; the other part is out of place in what looks to be a high fantasy story. Johnston is still feeling his way around this story, trying to find the right descriptive language to use.

Back in the early 1990s before he started doing Hellboy, Mike Mignola did an adaptation of Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, with Al Williamson inking it. It was early Mignola but it still had the proto-elements of shadows and composition that Mignola would perfect in Hellboy but it had fine and delicate linework thanks to Williamson’s inking. That’s what Mitten’s work looks like here as he shows us the rich world of royalty and the dark, hidden passageways that actually support all of that wealth. Whether it’s the determination on a young prince’s face, the survival instinct kicking in on a young thief or the deception working behind the eyes of an old master thief, Mitten’s lines perfectly describe each character, letting us know who they are before we read a single word they say. More than with the human characters, the monsters that Mitten’s designed for this issue are truly chilling even though they’re some of the simplest designs. Mitten’s restraint on the monsters create the most frightening sights in this issue.

Umbral #1 is the beginning of a comic series that is still trying to figure out what it wants to be. While Christopher Mitten quickly cements the look and feel of this world, Antony Johnston stumbles as he tries to put together the language and sounds of it. As he blends modern curse words with made up words and names, the words just clash against one another without ever falling into a natural cadence. Umbral #1 is a comic book that is interested in world-building, but it doesn’t settle into anything coherent or established in this first issue, as the dialogue clashes with itself and with the visual tone of the issue.

Credit: Image Comics

Drumhellar #1
Written by Riley Rossmo and Alex Link
Art by Riley Rossmo and Karl Fan
Lettering by Kelly Tindall
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

What a trip. Literally.

Mixing magic with hallucinagins, Drumhellar #1 isn't a book that neatly fits into a box. With a trippy shaman tying up some loose ends with some herbal "remedies" and a trip to his ex, this book isn't so much a coherent story yet as much as a performance piece - there are few answers in the first issue of Drumhellar, but thanks to the visuals fo Riley Rossmo, it's still a memorable piece of work.

Drum Hellar is not your ordinary magician. Indeed, co-writers Riley Rossmo and Alex Link don't really get too in-depth about what his limits or capabilities are, instead following around this off-kilter shaman through his hallucinagenic visions like the Dude from The Big Lebowski. There's a lot of terminology thrown around that doesn't have any context yet, sort of like the weird interjections from a fever dream - I get the sense that Rossmo and Link will fill us in eventually, but if you're looking for a more linear style of exposition, you might be a bit frustrated.

But the real draw of this book is, well, the drawing. Rossmo draws some of the best work I've seen him do in quite some time, as he and color flat artist Karl Fan really play up how weird Drum's vision quests can be. Whether it's this magician popping his head through a puddle and coming out to an idyllic landscape, or looking puzzled as a peacock lays a mysterious egg for him, the visuals in this book are incredible. Rossmo and Fan's color work is particularly evocative, especially when the hallucations are drenched in eerie purples and blues.

The thing that saves Drumhellar, aside from the strong artwork, is the flickering of humanity that comes through all the cryptic talk. Rossmo and Link allude to Drum's relationships with women like diner hostess Wanda, "naturopath" Padma and his mysterious ex Lupe. You won't get any answers here, but Rossmo is banking on the art being strong enough to justify the mystery. Ultimately, if the psychedelic artwork can sell you, Drumhellar might be a series worth partaking.

Credit: Image Comics

Alex + Ada #1
Written by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn
Art by Jonathan Luna
Lettering by Jonathan Luna
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Jonathan Luna returns to comics after a three-year layaway, and his sci-fi senses are still strong. But don’t call it a comeback just yet. Alex + Ada treads familiar territory regarding artificial intelligence but it’s pacing holds it back. Decompressed storytelling is one thing but Luna and co-writer Sarah Vaughn really drag this one out.

The name of this book is Alex + Ada. Any reasonable human can presume that the two people on the cover are, in fact, the people named in the title. Then why do Luna and Vaughn dedicate an entire issue to getting to the image on the cover? The level of decompression is jarring. Five panels for a character to open their eyes. Nine panels for a robot to get coffee. Exposition about the world that Alex lives in happens despite his existence, not because of it.

But it’s not all bad. When Luna and Vaughn aren’t as obsessed with showing how we can do mundane things in the future without our hands, they do provide a few good character moments. Alex’s conversations with his grandmother and his friend Isabel serve as catalysts to move the plot forward. And they’re entertaining! But they’re entertaining because Grandma and Isabel actually seem like real people and because of that they are so much likable than mopey, one-dimensional Alex.

Luna’s art calls to mind Jamie McKelvie’s clean lines and economy. But I really hope the future doesn’t all look like a furniture catalog. All of Luna’s interiors are painfully plain. Everything is exactly in its right place. Even in the party scene, everything is fairly clinical. By skimping on details, Luna misses an opportunity to tell us something about the characters without using dialogue. A band’s poster on the wall, some exotic piece of art, anything would be better than the non-descript landscapes and constant stream of white, beige, brown and tan that assault the characters’ surroundings.

Comic books are episodic. It’s what sets them apart from other printed mediums. Each individual issue must have an arc, just as a larger run or miniseries does. Alex + Ada is definitely a comic book that comes out tomorrow. It is definitely about artificial intelligence in the mold of I, Robot and classic science fiction. But Luna and Vaughn have made their opening issue a non-event, and that’s a shame.

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