Have you ever cracked open a novel and found a massive, sprawling map on the first few pages? That’s the vibe Umbral gives off (complete with its own splash page map), drawing us into a dark world of swirling colors and fantasy archetypes. After a successful run on Wasteland, writer Antony Johnston and artist Christopher Mitten switch from post-apocalyptic to high fantasy with successful results.
Kings, queens, bards, and shadow monsters have all been done many times, so it’s impressive that Johnston is able to meld those classic tropes with an exciting story that hits the ground running only one issue in. We get a quick introduction to the main players, but the blood starts spilling almost immediately. Rascal, the main female character, is instantly likable. Adventurous, but not impatient, she seems set to be our thief with the heart of gold throughout the series. As more death and destruction happens, magic begins to weave its way into the story. These are the best parts, especially when Mitten pulls us into his purple and blue soaked world of the Umbral. I could have easily spent most of the issue wandering around that hellish realm, so my hopes remain high that it gets fully explored in later issues.
Artifacts play a big part in fantasy stories, so something as strange and wondrous as the Oculus is a welcome sight. Right off the bat, Johnston shows us how powerful it is and in turn, this makes most of the characters hard to trust. Themes of Rascal-against-the-world, lust for power, and weighty choices are all very well done for a debut issue. #1’s usually have to end with a hook, but a story this involving doesn’t even need one (that’s not to say there isn’t though).
Mitten’s art is the highlight of the book. Characters have an old-time feel that fits in with the King Arthur days (the prince is even named Arthir). Human faces are expressive, but nothing can compare to the shadow monsters. Disformed, hideous, and angry, their glowing red eyes and razor-sharp teeth draw all eyes towards them. The chase scene between Rascal and the monsters is tense due in large part to the horrifying character design. Their perceived lack of humanity makes a scene of laughter extremely creepy as well. Mitten soars through the scenes of magic and sorcery, revealing all sorts of imagery while still keeping most of it shrouded in secrecy.
More monsters. More magic. More mystery. All of these things make the world building of Umbral top-notch fantasy. With Wasteland wrapping up around its 50th issue, you can imagine Johnston and Mitten have a long road planned for this epic. If you’re the type that enjoys barreling through a thousand page, hundred character fantasy tale, this series is a no-brainer. For everyone else, the twisty plot, dark impressive artwork and strong main character should be more than enough to make this an easy addition to the pull list.
Alex Smith is a news and reviews writer for Capeless Crusader. When not wasting away in class, he spends all his free time with comics, movies, and video games, and has been since birth. He can spend hours discussing Saga, Hawkeye, or Game of Thrones. Lying Cat’s number one fan. Random brain thoughts: @imapensfan