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In the past decade or so, there’s been a surge in imaginative science fiction/fantasy comics that combine complex, unique ideas, deep and mature themes, and innovative creativity with top-notch art and characterization. It seems you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a half-dozen comics with evocative and fresh takes on SF&F, particularly from Image Comics (Saga, Rat Queens, The Wicked + The Divine, East of West, Pretty Deadly, The Autumnlands, Outcast, Umbral, Undertow, etc. etc. etc.).

Image Comics – 2014

So, Umbral. The protagonist is a girl thief named Rascal; she starts out perusing the royal palace with her friend, the crown prince, on the day of a rare eclipse. That’s when the monsters from under your bed turn out to be real, and they use the eclipse as cover to attack the palace. (These would be the Umbral, mythical shadow-creatures from a surreal, dreamlike hell.) Rascal was using the eclipse as cover to steal a priceless jewel, which also happens to be the magical artifact the Umbral are after; now Rascal is on the run for her life from the Umbral invasion, which nobody knows is happening… the monsters have taken the form of the slain king, queen, and prince, and stay hot on Rascal’s heels.

That’s a pretty solid setup; we have Rascal on the run with a magical artifact, hopping back and forth between one fantasy world and another, with a few mysterious sidekicks thrown in who may help find a way to use this gem to drive back the Umbral. Rascal is a pretty awesome heroine with excellent characterization; some people may complain about a teen girl protag, but y’know, screw them. The art is a bit loose, and very gritty, but it’s drop-dead gorgeous; the color scheme is incredibly evocative–it’s dark but vibrant, full of lush, radioactive purples and reds that evokes a twisted nightmare. The writing is fast-paced, full of action and adventure, and has a great sense of humor–again, Rascal’s a well-drawn character–but really, while the writing’s good, the art is just killer.

It does have a few flaws, though. A lot of stuff happens without being explained until (much) later, such as the unexplained reveal that the Umbral can take the form of someone they’ve killed (which is not confusing as hell or anything in the way it’s presented…). I’m happy that I binged on these (via a Comixology sale), as I probably would have pitched the series if I was reading issue-to-issue. It’s also notably plot-heavy, but instead of feeling too plotted it feels like a lot of things are made up they go along. Despite starting with a two-page map spread, the characters (beyond Rascal) and setting can feel very shallow in volume one. But dat art tho! It’s a darkly gorgeous comic, and visually it’s one of the best I’ve seen in the last few years.

Maybe this is both the good and the bad of creator-owned comics—the creators are free to come up with a brilliant idea and use an art style that does it justice, but I think it could really benefit from more editorial input, another set of eyes to help point out pain-points and to assist in smoothing over the rockier elements. Alas, the series was killed after 12 issues/two volumes, which seems like a shame; there’s a lot of great elements here, and it’s not like its issues were insurmountable. If you want a refreshing new spin on yesterday’s old fantasy tropes, and don’t mind those occasional sluggish and confusing parts, it’s well worth picking up.

Book Details
Do I recommend this/will I continue reading it?: I liked it enough to keep going, and really enjoyed volume 2; note that the series was cancelled after two volumes
Recommended for fans of: Rat Queens, The Woods, Saga, , YA-ish fantasy/horror series with female protags
Not recommended for readers who: are allergic to fantasy in any shape or form; who get annoyed when an author is un/intentionally misleading or withholds info, leading to unnecessary confusion; who obstinately won’t read something good just because, say, it stars a young girl instead of a young boy
Title: Umbral
Author: Antony Johnston
Illustrator: Christopher Mitten
First Published: 2014
What I Read: Image, 2014
Price I Paid: $0.99/issue (Kindle/Comixology sale)
MSRP: $9.99 hc / $7.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 1607069849 / B015XAYNAE