Umbral #1: The Day Dawned Twice
(This review contains spoilers for character names, but no plot spoilers)
I have not read too deeply into fantasy comics beyond series such as The Unwritten and Fables. Both of these are, however, more literary than a world building fantasy: they resemble series such as the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Based on the opening page alone, Umbral #1 had a wonderland or fairy tale atmosphere since a girl was running through a dark labyrinth. This quickly gave way to a stronger fantasy tone with Kings, Queens, castles, bards, and sorcery.
Colour consists of purple shades and tones washed over the book. Such a deliberate choice sharpens and enhances the fantasy themes. Pencil and ink work also brings to life the new monsters – shadow creatures called “Umbral” with glowing red eyes and mouths with teeth to rival fierce ocean predators. The comic gets its name from the Umbral, and the pencilling, inking, colouring, and pairing work that has gone into depicting them on page builds the horrific atmosphere.
Like a Fantasy novel, Umbral #1 features a world map, which is essential to any high fantasy writing: how can world building work if there’s no world map? The map is again washed in purple, and shows off a variety of cities and towns.
Unlike a fantasy novel, a fantasy comic, of course, uses art in place of pages filled with descriptive text. Some might argue that high fantasy in comic format can’t work, or is ineffective since in prose format – just words on pages – the reader is free to imagine what they want, and let the story take a different visual form. I would argue that the gaps between panels, the gutters, where the reader imagines the characters movement, and the transitions between poses and dialog, are a different but equally valid form of fantasy story-telling.
Confining fantasy to only prose format, when Umbral #1 and (other fantasy comics for that matter) shows off incredible twisted and gothic art, would be limiting.
The beginning of the comic introduces a mystery girl, before showing the reader the King and Queen of Fendin: Petor and Innaline respectively. Their son, Prince Arthir then appears, before Rascal – the Prince’s friend – is introduced appears. She is a thief, and regularly scales the walls of the palace to join Arthir on his adventures.
Rascal‘s dialog is, I think, just a bit incredible: the way she is written, her character tells use information about the story without resorting to exposition. Arthir begins to talk about events of the past, and previous Kings, however, she tells Arthir to stop talking. She’s not in the palace “for the tour”. Later, she says “If this is a coincidence, then I’m an Azquari”. Just pages earlier, the world map had pointed out the “Azquari Sea”. We now know that an Azquari is some kind of mermish creature from the ocean.
The writing style presents and a set of excellent means to enhance world building without lengthy dialog.
Themes, Ethics, Values.
Family and how it relates to trust and raising children appear to be key themes, alongside war, dreams, and reality. Rascal‘s interaction with other characters and her narration brings these themes to light. When lost in the Umbral, she speculates on whether she is walking in a dream or the real world. She meets with the head thief from her guild, looking for guidance and advice. Instead, he wants a precious object she acquired for himself, and is willing to manipulate her to steal it. In her interactions with Arthir, we see that Arthir is shepherded around the castle by minders and professors – his parents spend no time with him except when necessary.
It seems there aren’t any parents or adults the kids can turn to for help and support. They are relying on their own ingenuity to survive.
In creating the comic, the writer (Antony Johnston) writes about the vivid fears he recalls from childhood – fears of shadows lurking in his bedroom at night. Terror that the shadows might be alive, watching, and waiting. He and the artist drew on that fear to build Umbral #1 and subsequent issues. How childhood fear, and nightmares, might play into a larger story remains to be seen. Apart from these themes and ideas behind the comic, Umbral #1 is the start of a comic that builds worlds and experiments with nightmarish art. Whether an ethic or more values will emerge remains to be seen.
A bit more on Umbral #1
While some of the language choices are clever, some words do clash with the older setting – some of the language is also strong, which adds to the comic’s Mature rating. There are several mysteries to unravel. Character arcs are just beginning. And Umbral #1 is a certainly a clever, new fantasy comic.