Indie Comics Spotlight – Umbral, Noir and Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland


by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)

Umbral #1

“When the bards sing songs of my life, they probably won’t mention this part. The part where I fell into the Umbral and couldn’t get out.”

There always seems to be a world of shadows that, well, hides in the shadows. Its goals may not be readily apparent, but you can expect that they’ll often be focused on making life better for its inhabitants, typically at the expense of the other, non-shadow worlds. What happens when an unlikely thief stumbles into that world though makes for fascinating reading and it’s a story told in Umbral #1from Image Comics. The issue is scribed (written) by Anthony Johnston, illuminated (illustrated) by Christopher Mitten, painted (colored) by John Rauch and flourished (lettered) by Thomas Mauer.

Rascal is a young thief, traipsing through the palace with her friend, Prince Arthir. The two are using the grand event that is an eclipse as a reason for sneaking off to a town high point to see it more clearly. They make their way to the trophy room where they wish to admire the Oculus, even though Rascal claims to want nothing to do with the magic it encompasses. The artifact is missing though, accompanied by a dead kingsguard and a lot more questions than answers. And what they find instead isn’t an enchanting eclipse; rather, they’re witness to a terrible evil making grand plans.

Umbral #1 is a lot of fun, offering a tale that unfolds with sweeping ambition and a very even pace. Johnston is establishing a fantasy world rife with all the trappings of J.R.R. Tolkien, with kings, queens, princes, thieves, magic and a netherworld. The story is primarily from Rascal’s perspective, with her narrating primarily through her interactions with other characters, but also by a lot of inner monologue. The meat of the story is the impending invasion of the shadow creatures that Rascal encounters and Johnston doesn’t dive right in. Instead, he sets up the pieces for the end game before moving them all around at the end, offering up a very intriguing set-up for the next issue and beyond.

Mitten’s art felt a little too grimy at first, but it really grew on me as the book proceeded. There’s a lot of grit in his illustrations, as he straddles between a world of kings and queens and a world of things that go bump in the night. It’s a clever balancing act, where Mitten he effectively conveys to the reader the vast difference between the two worlds. Rascal’s emotions are perfectly captured throughout the tale, most of which just so happen to be abject horror at the situation unfolding in front of her. There’s a subtle intricacy in Mitten’s settings and backgrounds, something that at first seems a little chaotic, but eventually becomes organized and defines the troubles Rascal encounters. That trouble primarily consists of the Umbral, illustrated with terrifying emphasis on their lack of form.

Umbral #1 is a very bold first issue. It feels as if its aim is to be a fantasy tale of epic scope and it helps that the main character Rascal is very likable for a number of reasons. She’s got a very casual attitude in most facets, but even she realizes when she’s in over her head. The Umbral are poised for big things on their end, making Rascal an unlikely hero in the face of it all. She seems more than capable of holding her own against them, but it will be very exciting to go on the ride with her as she figures out exactly what is expected of her. Umbral #1 is the first issue in what is shaping up to be something that everyone (fantasy folks especially) will definitely be interested in checking out.

Umbral #1 is in stores now

Noir #1

“You know each other? How delightful.”

Shadows are those things that can often creep around behind us, doing everything they can to stay right with us and follow us everywhere. They can be scary and that fear can drive people to stop doing whatever it is they’re doing. When they’re applied to a crime-fighting playboy, they tend to take on a different feeling. The Shadow is a character who uses the association with shadows to make his life easier, even if he teams up with an enemy of the law such as Black Canary in Noir #1 from Dynamite Entertainment. The issue is written by Victor Gischler, illustrated by Andrea Mutti, colored by Vladimir Popov and lettered by Rob Steen.

Thieves have a tendency to either be extremely loyal or extremely mistrusting. The Black Sparrow falls into the latter category. She’s hired to steal the Moon Stone, an artifact that is a much bigger deal than she realizes at the time. She’s a smart thief though, keeping it for herself until someone else is hired to steal it from her. In order to get it back, she strikes a rather uneasy alliance with The Shadow.

Gischler’s story has some intrigue to it. Black Sparrow is very cavalier in her lifestyle, willing to risk it all at a moment’s notice if it serves her. She held her own against the thieves coming after her and didn’t think twice about proposing a deal to The Shadow via hostage. The Shadow maintains his sterling reputation as a man of the law, despite striking the deal that will pair him with Black Sparrow. His motivation for partnering with her involves taking down organized crime, but their entire pairing seems a little awkward as it plays out. What’s more is that their mission is seemingly resolved after the first issue, so it will be interesting to see how their paths cross and intersect down the road.

The illustrations by Mutti are a mixed bag. There are some panels that look very defined and carry the atmosphere of the world the characters inhabit. There are other panels though where the characters appear to lack detail. She does a great job illustrating The Shadow himself, but Black Sparrow seems to tout the same expression throughout the entire book (it’s almost a pout). There are a few action scenes that Mutti handles well where the bullets fly. There are an appropriate number of characters in the shadows as well, which is only fitting in a book that feature’s their namesake as his crime-fighting alias.

The Shadow is a character with a very storied history. “Teaming” him up with Black Sparrow and Miss Fury is very interesting and could lead to some very fun storylines. It’s a relationship that’s been touched on quite frequently with Batman and Catwoman, as one is on the “good” side of the law and the other the “bad” side. The first issue resolved the reason for The Shadow working with Black Canary, but inserting Miss Fury into the mix ensures that there will be more events that bring them all together. It’s a little uneven, butNoir #1 does offer a fresh take on rather classic characters.

Noir #1 is in stores now.

Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1

“We’re on our way to Christmasland! It is a real place, you know. The Arctic Eye…the Ice Maze…the Great Sleighcoaster…you’ll see them all come sun-up!”

Christmas brings with it a sense of joy and safety. Getting together with family members, exchanging gifts, decorating…everything that good consumers do for pretty much the entire month of December. For some though, the thought of Christmas isn’t quite so endearing. Especially for consumers who have been ripped off when buying into a place called Christmasland, prompting them to pursue a less merry path. Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1 from IDW offers one such tale. The issue is written by Joe Hill, with art by Charles Paul Wilson III, colors by Jay Fotos and letters by Shawn Lee and Robbie Robbins.

Charles Talent Manx III is a man with a very troubled childhood and even more more troubled adulthood. He’s had his fair share of hardships, including a prostitute mother, a wife who grows to despise him and falling for a grand con. All of those events (and more of course) push Manx into a very dark place that happens to be a rather black corner of his mind. It’s here that he stumbles upon Christmasland, a world that’s a far cry from the positive image one would associate with a time of year that typically engenders merriment and love.

If you know Joe Hill, then you know what to expect in Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1 and boy, does he deliver. Watching Manx’s descent into madness is terrifying, as he starts off as just another kid looking for the simple fun of riding a sled down a hill. Instead, he’s forced to experience things that most people only have nightmares about experiencing, prompting him to find solace in some rotten thoughts. His trip into mental destitution is the true horror of the story, with Hill creating a monster out of a man. It’s very plausible that someone like Manx would snap at some point along his rocky life and the Wraith itself proved to be the final piece of the puzzle that would catalyze that transformation. And the fact that Christmasland becomes his happy place is a last sort of twist of the emotional knife, as he sullies what is supposed to be something happy.

While Hill’s story ventures into some pretty dark recesses, Wilson III’s art is what really pushes it over the edge of madness. He depicts Manx showing a physical transformation as a manifestation of his mental degradation, until he’s no more than a terrifying creature who drives an ominous black car. At first, the art felt a little too grave, but as the story progresses you see that Wilson III is the perfect artist to illustrate Hill’s burgeoning evil. There are some really ghastly images near the end of their road trip with teeth falling out and hands disappearing that hammers home how much reality is separating from evil fantasy. Wilson III stacks the pages with tried and true rectangular panels, all of which frame the goblin-like appearance of Manx.

Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1 is a very intense book that requires you pay attention. There’s a ton of dialogue and story on display and it’s definitely a lot to take in as the reader, but the reward is well worth it. The pairing of Hill and Wilson III create a very devastating book about one man’s coping mechanism for a life of bad luck. It just so happens that it presents itself as an explosion of ill will on the part of Manx towards himself, as well as towards many of those around him. This is not really a book for the faint of heart as it delves pretty deeply into the shadowy corners of one man’s tortured soul.

Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1 is in stores now.

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