In the last decade, the Fantasy genre has seen a revitalization like few others. After the success of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the door was blasted wide open for new audiences to embrace a genre that was, for so long, reserved for a very specific kind of nerd. Now films and shows like The Hobbit and Game of Thrones along other fusions of Medieval and Fantasy are among the most popular kinds of entertainment we have available. No surprise then that the trend would continue in the medium of comic books. The aforementioned GoT currently has an ongoing book on the shelf, Rat Queens sells out month after month, and countless other iterations have come and gone. But now, even non-fantasy books incorporate the elements of expansive, hierarchical world-building and the supernatural into their stories in a a sort of mash-up of genres. Basically, there is a lot of competition currently in this market and it is now taking all sorts of various forms. So, for the creative team of Chris Roberson and Paul Maybury to introduce a brand-new world for us to take in could seem redundant. Luckily, the writer has plenty of experience with crafting this kind of tale and he could not have chosen a better artist to work with. What we get in these pages could go on to rival the biggest names in this genre, and I am very excited to review this book.
“Sovereign #1” is a tale of three disparate groups of people in totally separate parts of this nameless world. Each story begins with a quote from a historical figure from each of the groups. First a story called “Leaving Silence.” It opens with a quote from Sant Koel, a martyr from an Order known as The Lunimari: “The Luminari cannot simply sit behind the walls of Silence, ignoring the world around us. We must venture down into the lowlands and carry out our sacred duties, even if it means our death.”
From the here, we see a band of three priests attempting to do just that. They are traversing the lowlands, and they have just come upon a raided town. Hardened people, they address each other as “Brother” and “Sister,” but feel cold and direct when communicating with one another about the slaughter they have encountered. They were on their way somewhere we do not know, but now it is their solemn duty to carry out a specific ritual to bring the murdered townspeople to peace. What this entails is the eldest of the group ingesting a form of hallucinogenic that helps the priests use their “vision” to see that the townspeople aren’t dead. They are in the process of being reanimated and possessed by what they call The Unreal. From here, a battle between warrior priests—one an old man, one a young girl, and the other, what appears to be a gigantic robot—and formerly dead bodies. It is a short vignette, but in that time we are given a great deal of information about who these priests are, where they are from, what their intentions are, and the world around them. The art in this portion of the book reminds me of Paul Pope’s most recent work, Battling Boy. Not as off-kilter in the line work, but the similarities are definitely there. Especially in the faces of the people and the armor that they wear. The ritual sequence in particular stands out to me. It is after this scene that we transition to a different sector with a nice use of the original quote that started the tale to begin with, set to the battle between a robot warrior priest and the possessed undead.
“Blade and Bow” is the second short story that introduces us to the world of the Horse-Lords. The art in the transitional pages between stories is spectacular. Each feels like the start of a new book, even though the story could have easily continued without them. It is further credit to the work of Paul Maybury. He didn’t have to do that, but he did and the book is all the better for it. The quote this time tells of the first Horse-Lord, Vorghiz Rhan, who is either an ancestor or a descendant of the man who killed the martyr quoted in the first story. It is small touches like this that aide in the world building in such effortless ways; the reader learns pieces of these histories without even trying, and it is something that many writers strive for, yet miss if they falter even just a bit.
The tale itself focuses on the hunting trip of a young prince named Janramir. He is on the plains hunting a type of Minotaur and enjoying camping under the stars with his friends. It is in their dialogue that we see the first differences between the groups. These people are part of a Royal Court. There is politicking, luxury, and feasting. We also see that the names of these people sound like a combination of Arabic and Nordic, as opposed to the Christian monk-ish names of the Luminari. Even more in depth, specific races of people are discussed. The Horse-Lords are the Tumarid. The settled peoples of another similar place are called Khendish; and while their people seem to be at peace, they certainly do not consider each other to be like their own. All of this is explained during the hunting or during the trip back to their encampment. It works well as an expository device and it also allows for the art to do the heavy lifting while the writing can expand on the essential information. Once Janramir and his friends arrive back at camp, he is greeted with the news that while he was away on the hunt his father, the King, has died. We get the idea that Janramir is heir to The Throne. But, as with any tale of Royal politics, there is sure to be some back-stabbing ahead.
The last of the three short stories is called “From The Depths.” Of the three, it is the one that stands out to me for a few reasons. First, the man quoted in the introductory page is a person who is alive and involved in the story we are reading about. The other two are not. This story is also focused on the lives of people at sea. Up until this point, we didn’t even know if there were bodies of water in this land. Last, this story focuses on characters who are clearly a version of Anglo-Saxon Christians. This is the most distinctively similar quality to our own, “Western world” reality that any of these characters have displayed. Again, there are three central characters: the captain of the ship, a Lorian woman (what appears to be a version of a Puritan or Evangelical Christian), and a Lorian scribe. They are on a journey to conduct research in a far away land, but, they are met with conflict before they can discuss much more than their beloved Allfather. Much like in the first tale, a long-dead sea monster has been reanimated and is headed straight for their ship. From here, this story is all about the masterful artwork that of Maybury. Like his work in Aqua Leung, Paul Maybury shines the brightest when he gets to make monsters and make them cause damage. The battle between man and monster is epic in every sense of the word. The captain, Commander Argus mac Donnac, this world’s version of a Scotsman, takes the leads and heads the charge against the beast. It’s a fantastic sequence to look at, but the deck of the ship does seem to grow and shrink in size depending on which panel you’re looking at.
Once vanquished, the decomposing creature is left to be analysed by the two Lorians, who while religious also have an interest in scientific research and classification. Their belief is very Darwinian and also provides another conflict when we learn that the young scribe doesn’t even believe in the tenants of this faith. He sees himself as a man of Reason: “I envy people of faith. For they live in a world of answers. For a man of reason like myself, the world holds only questions.” This is the quote from that start of this story and, like the two before it, it is the quote the ends it. A very strong closing story, this bookends what has been a well-crafted and intense exercise in table-setting and introductory story-telling.
Since the beginning of January 2014, I have reviewed a slew of first issues. “Sovereign #1” is easily the meatiest, most weighty of any of those books. The sheer amount of raw information and establishing history is a lot to take in. But, like the successful predecessors before it, this book achieves a rare kind of world-building that envelops you from the moment you read the first page. The exposition never feels too heavy-handed and it is balanced with a healthy amount of action that never leaves you wanting. The use of the short story format, keeping the realities separate from one another, works well. You get the distinct feeling that each one has it’s own layers, and layers underneath of those. To weave them all together at once could feel overwhelming. The richness of that story crafting combines well with the consistently brilliant art of Paul Maybury, who continues to affirm his self as a premiere action-oriented / monster artist, the likes of Jeff Stokoe and Paul Pope. Although, again, the scene on the ship after the giant shark was killed did have some spacial problems. It looked like that ship went from housing about sixty men to a little under a thousand in just a few panels. But that was literally the only instance where I noticed any flaws in the artwork; it wasn’t even enough to take away a full point in my rating. Also, I did have a lot of questions of exactly who these people were and what their places in this world were. We have an inkling of what that is, but it could have helped to zoom out, just a little bit more with the scope of the world. But, you can only fit but so much into one issue.
When it comes to comic books, I’m not a huge fan of the fantasy genre. But I can not deny that I was captivated by the writing and the art, which succeeded in equal measure, all throughout this book. This world is in turmoil and I want to know what happens from here.
“Sovereign #1” earns a mighty 9.5 / 10