In a world where magic and religion have been outlawed, young thief, Rascal, witnesses the murder and ensuing possession of a prince by dark, otherworldly creatures called The Umbral. Getting wind of plans of the Umbral invasion, Rascal finds herself in possession a magical artefact that they seek, so goes on the run with a ragtag crew to stay one step ahead of not only these strange shadowy monsters, but also the authorities who believe her to be a traitor.
Regular readers will be acutely aware of my appreciation of Image Comics’ current output and business strategy. Recruiting some of the industry’s finest writers to produce creator owned books that represent some of their most keen interests and best work is a win win for the readers and creators alike.
What I don’t mention so much is that Image still take the occasional punt on writers who perhaps aren’t quite so well known but ARE tried, tested and equally as talented as the big names they’re placed next to. British writer, Antony Johnston, is one of these lesser known new recruits, with not one but two books greenlit, the first, Umbral, being a dark fantasy of great promise.
Johnston had a small stint at Marvel, co-writing Daredevil with the better known Andy Diggle, and a few assorted event tie-ins, but is better known for his independent and multi-media work, such as Oni Press’ post apocalyptic fantasy epic, Wasteland, and the Dead Space game franchise. As a writer his major talent lies in world building, which, as is illustrated in the pages of Umbral, he has crafted into a fine art, relaying an entire fantasy world, with all its rules, politics and other various complexities, with concise and deceptive simplicity.
This should come as no surprise to us few that read Wasteland, but Johnston’s ability to, seemingly, effortlessly construct a world subtly and unintrusively in the backdrop of a relatively straightforward, character driven fantasy adventure/fairy tale, deserves to be taken notice of more than it probably will.
It’s got a great feel about it, Johnston keeps the dialogue contemporary and ever so slightly sweary, while artist Chris Mitten creates images and designs of high fantasy. The themes are mature but the imagery never gets especially graphic, sex or violence-wise, which blurs the lines of which demographic this book could be squarely aimed at. I guess it could be grouped in with Young Adult fiction, but at the very least it credits young adults with being able to handle bad language more than most YA novels and films do.
Umbral, rich tapestry of mythology aside, would live or die by its characters and pacing, which, thankfully, are both as well judged, with a large cast of characters of individuality and depth combined with an almost non-stop pace.
Artist Christopher Mitten was Johnston’s long time collaborator on Wasteland, so the pair have a synergy that results in a book that feels confident in itself. It must be said though that Mitten’s style may not be to everyone’s tastes. Though as accomplished as Johnston at world building, his character, fashion and architectural design feeling familiar while retaining a simplistic originality, his rendering and inking style is kind of loose and scratchy. This does add a sense of dynamism and frenetic movement to every panel, but your reaction to such a style will be entirely preference based.
Accompanying Mittens art is Jordan Boyd’s rich and textured colour work, which is perfectly accommodating and well thought out, splashing vivid colours over earthy tones when the story really needs to spark.
Umbral volume 1 makes for a very entertaining read, injecting enough fun, character and originality into the general familiarity of a dark fantasy world to make it worth coming back to see how the adventure progresses, though the art may grate with some people. Highly recommended.
B+ grade – for originality
A- grade – for storytelling
A- grade – for pacing
B grade – for artwork
Overall grade – B+