Umbra #1 (2006)
By: Tristan Jones on June 21, 2006  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
Written by: Steve Murphy
Art: Michael Hawthorne
Publisher: Image Comics
Very rarely does a comic book come along these days that genuinely impresses me. I mean genuinely impresses me. You get a lot put out by the bigger companies that have impressive moments, but moments aside, the comics themselves are not necessarily completely enthralling. In a world where Civil Wars, Infinite Crisis' and licensed titles dominate the comic sales charts and advertising spaces, it's all too easy to allow some of the best comics you ever read become some of the best comics you'll never read. Especially here in Australia, where shops really only carry what they know they'll sell. This is why I am telling you right now, get Umbra.

If it weren't for the fact that I've been a reader of Mirage's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the gritty, black and white, real TMNT) pretty much since I could read, I would probably be in the same boat. I first came across Umbra while reading up on some of my favourite writers, one of those being Steve Murphy. Steve Murphy, the leading writer for the most recent volume of Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (one of the most underrated titles currently on the comic stands) is also the man who wrote Umbra, with this being (as far as I know at least) his first foray into ongoing comic books outside of Mirage Studios and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and trust me, you couldn't get further away from four mutant turtles than this.

Umbra is a three issue miniseries published by Image. Written by Murphy with artist Michael Hawthorne (Hysteria, Machine Teen, Queen and Country, Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) taking up duties as penciller and inker, it presents the reader with Askja Thorasdottir, a young forensic technician with an apparent drinking habit and a reliance on Ativan (an anxiety drug, relieves those prone to panic attacks, calms schizophrenics and is also taken by alcoholics to prevent symptoms associated with sudden alcohol withdrawal). After the discovery of an extraordinarily well preserved Neanderthal body in a cave in the Icelandic wilderness, Askja makes a series of bizarre discoveries that throws the whole case into an entirely new light. The fleece the body wore bears a corporate tag (along with hairs from a Woolly Mammoth), a tooth from the Neanderthal skull has a porcelain filling, and to make things even more baffling, evidence points to the seemingly impossibly fact that the Neanderthal was shot in the back by someone in the Soviet military! Things get even stranger when Askja is accosted by a small group of Great Auks (a species of penguins that became extinct in the mid 1800's - which she also dreamt about the night before) moments before witnessing the catastrophic destruction of the forensics lab.

There's a huge amount happening in this issue, aside from what was mentioned above, but at no point does it ever feel as though Murphy has bitten off more than he can chew. The events so far have been expertly woven and do what every comic should be doing these days, leaving the reader desperate for more, which is a true testament to the writing (Michael Hawthorne's artwork is also fantastic, but more on this a little later). Murphy also manages to incorporate a number of important traits to his leading characters, the most obvious being Askja herself, without having them get in the way of the character or become more of a talking point than the story they've been incorporated into. Askja is a hard working, hard drinking, chain-smoking lesbian with a possible addiction to drugs for an anxiety disorder. If this had've been a Marvel or DC book, we wouldn't be hearing about the story, we'd be hearing all about how the main character is an alcoholic lesbian with a drug problem, and the skewed publicity would likely impede the book. Look at what happened with Marvel's Rawhide Kid and more recently DC's new Batwoman. Thankfully, all these characteristics of Askja are played out in such a way that they never draw unnecessary or excessive attention to themselves, helping form a character who's traits are just another part of their lifestyle. Sure, there are moments here and there that dive into these traits (that includes the lesbianism guys), but they never feel gratuitous or forced, and are clearly building to something bigger further down the road (particularly Askja's dependency on Ativan and her interactions with her superiors).

It's also very clear that Murphy has put a lot of research into Umbra. Everything from the patronymic names (dottir is meaning daughter in Icelandic, which is added to the name of one's daughter's name by law and tradition, eg: say I have a daughter named Jessica – in Iceland, she would be called Jessica Tristansdottir… or something along those lines), to the forensic clues uncovered with the body, all have solid, factual groundings. Even smaller things that would normally be overlooked, such as alcohol, the Ativan, and locations are all firmly based in reality, which helps the reader completely buy into everything unfolding, as unlikely as it may seem. It's also worth pointing out that Umbra isn't an Icelandic term or name, it's actually the name given to the darkest part of a shadow, so before even reading there's a hidden, sinister quality to the book.

Michael Hawthorne's artwork perfectly suits the unravelling story. The character designs are very clean cut and simple, but not so much that it takes away at all from the characters or story. Your eyes are given enough information to easily establish characters, locations, moods and emotions (Askja particularly) without getting lost in sketchy or overly abundant details (as so many comics fall into habit of doing these days), and the whole thing manages to convey a total sense of realism in spite of the simplicity. Hawthorne's mastery of perspectives, angles and lighting truly stands out too. A lot of artists (it may also have something to do with the writers) tend to use similar angles throughout their books, without too much deviation, and while the art and the comic itself may be great, it really makes books such as Umbra (another good example being Frank Miller's Sin City) stand out. I'm also a big fan of these noir-ish elements in comic books (again, things like Sin City and the works of Eduardo Risso and Mike Mignolo), so I know these particular visuals have an audience all of their own too.

The artwork is the only thing I can see as being a real problem for anyone. That problem is simply the fact that some people can't come at black and white art in comics. It's fair enough, and really a matter of personal tastes, but to not at least give this book a look in for that reason alone would deny you of a fantastic read. Others may have a problem with the $5.99 U.S. (roughly $8 Australian) price tag, but we are talking an independent book that's comes in at 48 pages of fantastic story (no adds either), with a few pages of extras courtesy of Mr. Hawthorne at the end. So it's a pretty fair deal when you consider your average comic sits at the $3 U.S. mark.

So far we've stuck mainly to reviewing collections or complete arcs, but the stories we've covered so far have been pretty accessible to just about everyone. I have not seen Umbra on the shelves at any of the Melbourne comic stores, which is a true shame (but justifiable from a business point of view), as it really is one of the best comic books I've read in a very long time. If you like a really good mystery, if you're a fan of shows like The X-Files (we're talking ol' school X-Files here, not the monster it eventually became) or comics like Fell, or just want something different to read, go down to your local comic shop and order Umbra. The first issue came out last Thursday here in Australia (Wednesday in the U.S.), and Diamond Distribution usually has about a two month timeframe for ordering in recent comics, so hit up your local as soon as you can, otherwise you'll have to trawl through the online retailers to get a copy.

Issue two comes out next month, with the final part seeing release in August, and judging by the previews for the following parts, this series is only going up. Seriously - don't miss out.
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