It’s been a long time since I’ve opened up a book to find a map in the front—and a fictional map, instead of some sketch of the migration of the Saxons across the British Isles.
But Umbral, by Anthony Johnston and Christopher Mitten, really commits to the dark fantasy genre, replete with demonic eyes peering out from the corner of every page and, instead of a writer and an artist, the comic book claims to have been manifested by a scribe, an illuminator, painters and a flourisher.
The book is visually fantastic, with sometimes vaguely Seussian architecture, people who are no more than shapes and ink smears, and blood that falls like it’s under water.
The whole thing is a mix of dystopia and fantasy, where all the underworld is full of looming piles of what could be disposed electronics. The world where the protagonist Rascal lives is an island and a port town called Strakhelm.
It’s also where their king and queen live, which is a bad idea. Don’t put your monarch near a port, and especially not an ocean. That is to say, the king and queen and their son don’t survive the first issue.
The prince even dies twice like some kind of overachiever.
They were all killed by Umbral and, for a quick grammar lesson, Umbral is the singular and plural word for giant shark-toothed, bubbling shadows with fire for eyes. It’s also the name of the realm in which the Umbral live.
All the Umbral, each and every Umbral, live in Umbral. They really like shadows in this series. In fact, the first issue is titled “The Day Dawned Twice” and the entire story starts when the moon’s shadow falls on Strakhelm during an eclipse.
It’s a little bit of a complicated read, and it’s a struggle to tell all of the Santa characters (old white guys that are more beard than face) apart, especially since one keeps developing a mohawk and eye mask when he appears in the Umbral, but only sometimes. It’s not clear why yet.
It doesn’t help that the whole plot jumps back and forth, sometimes five hundred years and other times 20 minutes.
The whole mythos is important too; false histories and different cultural ideologies cross and clash to inform reasonably straightforward but mysterious politics that motivate characters and define alliances.
That complexity is always the best part of fantasy stories. And the fog. There’s always mystical fog, and it’s always great.
In this universe, magic is illegal, as well as religion. One wizard king really just ruins it for the rest of us, though maybe a wizard president would be better. Immortality doesn’t matter so much if you only have a four-year term.
It’s all a very typical fantasy story—unfortunately without dragons—though the Umbral are similar in appearance and generally delight in eating people. They’re also after the mythical Oculus that Rascal steals, so they hoard shiny, powerful objects like dragons.
Rascal is an orphan thief, which is pretty typical to the genre. Plus it means that she’s really good at keeping her hands on the one item that all of these centuries-old magicians and monstrous demons are trying to take. Apparently a good thief really knows how to employ anti-theft techniques.
Umbral is already 12 issues in, but they were all just collected into two volumes. It’s cheaper to buy this way, so it’s a perfect time to pick up a copy and read them for yourself.