Magic artifacts, secret plots, and assassinations — not bad for a first issue.
Though a little rough around the edges, Umbral #1 builds a solid story that begins with a familiar but meaningful portent — an eclipse. A day with two dawns is a huge occasion for the citizens of the Kingdom of Fendin, and the masses are awaiting an appearance of their King and Queen.
The eclipse is also the reason why Prince Arthir has gone missing. Young Arthir and his accomplice, the foul-mouthed thief Rascal, have plans to steal the magical Oculus while the kingdom at large is distracted. Their mission to loot the treasury fails when they’re beaten to the punch, and the children discover the body of Borus the Redguard in a pool of blood.
Things go from bad to worse when the grisly remains of the King and Queen are discovered during a ritual that opens up a portal into the Umbral, a place filled with darkness. The brave but overmatched Prince becomes their next victim, and Rascal flees her assailants by running into the portal, snatching the Oculus from the staff it was joined to. A strange trip into a nightmare world — or just a nightmare — ends with Rascal returning home to the Thieves Guild where she comes face to face with one of the malevolent beings from the Umbral.
While the scripting by Antony Johnson feels a little scratchy in parts, the larger plot and world feel mapped out with a sense of purpose. There’s evidence of a grand story here that comes from terse glimpses into two different and contrasting settings, and the Umbral as Fendin’s threatening and intimidating shadow adds intrigue.
Fantasy tales are usually heavy with lore, and Umbral #1 is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a double-edged sword in this case, and the first issue might have some readers scratching their heads feeling uninitiated when characters carry on about unfamiliar particulars. Johnson’s style is light on explication, giving only the most important details, and while Rascal narrates the story, it doesn’t drive the narrative as much as give it character. The story takes a get-what-you-can delivery system with a lot to read in between the lines. The thing to point out is that there are so many lines.
Christopher Mitten’s pencils toe a fine line in between cartoony and comic book with a style reminiscent of Greg Capullo’s, in a scaled-down simpler fashion. Facial expressions are a weakness — Prince Arthir has about the same emotional range as an action figure on Robot Chicken, and Rascal wears the same pursed-lip expression, panel to panel. But Mitten doesn’t skimp on backgrounds — his lineart adding layers of depth to the setting. Mitten’s best pencils come in the form of architecture and the more abstract and ethereal Umbral assailants whose billowy forms resemble the kind of shadowy nightmares we’ve seen in our dreams.
Overlaying Mitten’s artwork with watercolor textures, John Rauch’s colors go from purplish pinks and blues that transition to lighter yellows and greens when Rascal returns home, only to find that it’s been infiltrated. The environmental colors are a little muted, and the skin tones give characters an earthly feel, but outside of the microscope, Rauch’s work helps to lift the art from the page.
Umbral is a title with plenty of potential, and Johnson and Mitten’s shoulders have a lot to bear. Fantasy settings are familiar, and without something fresh, things can go quickly south. Nothing so far has been absolutely stellar, but there’s nothing to say that won’t ever happen. Issue #2 could be the most important issue yet of this book’s young shelf-life.
Writer: Antony Johnston
Pencils: Christopher Mitten
Inks: Christopher Mitten
Colors: John Rauch
Letters: Thomas Mauer