Writer: Antony Johnston
Artist: Christopher Mitten
Colorist: John Rauch
Letterer: Thomas Mauer
Publisher: Image Comics
On sale: Nov 13, 2013
People who don’t read a lot of high fantasy do not, I think, understand that the genre is not all elves, unicorns, and rainbows. This is the genre that gave us Sauron, after all. It also gave us the far more frightening Saruman the White — the evil that good becomes when good ceases to hope. High fantasy is the home of apocalypses, orphaned children and dead parents, mentors who lie and deceive, it is the home of angry, insane, or apathetic gods.
Umbral is high fantasy. I think it will fit right in.
The first issue of Umbral goes on sale November 13th, so I shan’t spoil it here. The gist is straightforward. There’s a kingdom, there’s a royal family, there’s magic. There’s a thief, there’s a magic artifact. There’s a plot. Mayhem ensues, and then … And then the first issue ends and the story begins.
The trick to telling a story in a well-worn genre is twofold. First, love the tropes with which you are dealing. Second, put something of yourself into the work, something that distinguishes your use of classic and beloved conventions from everyone else’s. If you fail to do the first thing, you aren’t writing in genre, or you write it badly. If you fail to do the second thing your work becomes unmemorable and interchangeable with countless other stories.
Johnston and Mitten clearly understand the high fantasy tropes. The protagonist is a feisty teenage girl named Rascal. There’s a Thieves’ Guild, for goodness’ sake! I love a good Thieves’ Guild. There is a map of the kingdom in the first issue. This is a map book. Read more than two high fantasy trilogies and you know what I mean.
At the same time, they bring an edge to those tropes that makes Umbral intriguing. Johnston has made me curious as to the relationship of Rascal to the the royal family. Mitten has drawn antagonists who are genuinely creepy, both in appearance and in what they imply for the story.
If you are not interested in high fantasy, Umbral may not be for you. You need to have a certain tolerance for normal-sounding names spelled in weird ways, and an affection for scale mail, tunics, and people wearing belt-pouches next to their belt-knife. Also, I expect that readers will want to be looking back at the map from time to time to figure out where the characters are. The story has that sort of feel.
If you like high fantasy, though, I recommend Umbral. The story feels both familiar and fresh. In the firsts issue we already have secret passages, mysterious and possibly hostile strangers who may turn out to be good, and Rascal herself. If Rascal does not end up either a missing heir, grand wizard, or some other equivalent thing, I will be surprised. Yet, I don’t know what sort of antagonists Johnston and Mitten are establishing. I anticipate plots twists that I won’t see coming.
Umbral #1 is a promising beginning. I know I’ll be reading the series, excited for whatever happens next.