Review - 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 #1 from 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 with interiors below.