Umbra #2 (2006)
By: Tristan Jones on July 13, 2006  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
Publisher: Image Comics
Writers: Steve (Murph) Murphy
Art: Michael Hawthorne
Hopefully, a couple of weeks ago some of you reading this may have noticed the review of a comic I'm pretty sure none of you had ever heard of before. The comic in question, Umbra, was the first issue in a three-part saga and hands down one of the best comics I've read to date. It was one of those rare gems that manages to combine great artwork with great storytelling and gets as far away from insanity of things such as Super Hero Registration Acts and the 52 weeks in a year as one could want. Now, before I go on, I suggest you take a look at the review for Umbra #1 if you haven't already so you can catch up on things, because it's a full on story and you may get a little lost in this review if you don't.

Part two of Umbra picks up shortly after the cataclysmic finale of part one, with a very nicely plotted sequence where Askja recounts what has taken place between parts one and two to her psychiatrist. Having spent time recuperating in hospital, Askja is plagued by dreams that seem to be intruding on her reality, and her reliance on the anxiety drug Ativan appears to have become a full blown addiction in the wake of the devastation. The mysteries surrounding events of the first issue deepen as Askja finds that her partner, who was assumed dead in the destruction of the labs, discovers that, although his body had been consumed by fire, the same sort of bullet that was discovered with the corpse of a Neanderthal woman, is responsible for the death of her colleague. In the same stride, Askja now appears to be the direct target of a Russian assassin.

The first part of Umbra was about as predictable as a wild animal. You never really knew what to expect next, but you had that nagging feeling that something bad was coming. Part two, while comparatively very different to the first issue, continues to present the same unpredictability that keeps you wanting more and more with every page. The difference between the two however, is that part two is significantly more action oriented than the first. So far, both issues of Umbra run in at forty pages with no ads (which is pretty damn big, considering most commercial books come in at 32 pages – which also includes what seems to be more and more advertising each month). Over twenty of those pages are solid action, largely focusing on a spectacular gun fight between Askja's lover Freyja, and a Russian hitman in Iceland's Hallgrimur's Church (you too can learn to call someone a fucking bitch in Russian!). Thankfully, the story does not lose any of it's initial impact or intrigue amidst the events of this issue, as so many stories across multiple platforms seem to these days.

Surprisingly few answers are given to the questions raised in part one, and more are actually raised regarding the conspiracy our protagonist seems to have found herself embroiled in. Some may find this somewhat of an annoyance just based on reading this review, but this instalment is so gratifying in what it does give you that you can't help but grin like an idiot and wonder what the hell is around the next corner, especially on the note this book ends on!

If it wasn't already evident enough in the first issue, a lot of time and thought has gone into the creation of this story. Writer Steve Murphy's ability to avoid slipping into the ever increasing "talking-heads" problem books like these tend to have, along with being able to effectively build suspense through both words and events is something rarely seen in comics these days. The quieter moments of the book manage to very quickly, but also very naturally, shift gear into highly intense sequences without feeling out of place or forced, and the more seeds are planted with great subtlety in the reader's mind throughout. There's also a very definite sense of reality to ground the whole situation (and situations presented accordingly), in spite of how completely bizarre the events themselves actually are (which in my mind is a testament to the amount of research put into the story along with extremely believable characters).

Of course, no matter how good the writing is, a comic book relies just as much on it's artist as it's writer to work, and Mike Hawthorne continues to give us very solid, and consistently great artwork. I was a big fan of his use of different angles and perspectives in issue one, as well as his use of solid blacks and whites over tones, but here Hawthorne truly shines. The man has intense down pat. The whole chase sequence and shoot out is fantastically drawn and inked, perfectly encapsulating the sense of desperation and intensity and making it easily one of the best chase sequences put to paper – and the last few pages perfectly convey a very ominous sense of dread. Hawthorne again manages to nail facial expressions without the need to go into too much detail, and Freyja's expressions throughout and following the shoot out are fantastic. I think a large factor in this is his ability to draw eyes, and his characters truly come alive through their eyes, though this isn't to say the rest of the character isn't drawn well – it's just eyes are a very hit and miss thing in comics, and Hawthorne manages to hit every time here.

Something I had also intended to comment on in my review of the last issue, but is thankfully more pertinent to this review, is that Hawthorne also manages to giving us generic looking characters. By this, I mean that he manages to draw those subtle differences that different ethnicities distinguishable. It's all well and good to draw all your white people looking like white people, but here Hawthorne manages to apply those little physical variations that makes a white person from Iceland look noticeably different from say; a white person from England. Most, if not all the Icelandic characters have noticeably strong, sharp but very sort of slender, almost Elfin features and that you generally notice amongst people of Norse decent. Likewise, the Russian hitman actually looks Russian without looking in any way like a stereotype.

The only minor quibble I suppose anyone could rake from this book is the cover. The artwork is great, but alas all you horny lads (or lasses), female nudity and lesbian sexual interaction are not to be found within book two (check book one though)! It does however, cap what's come before and encapsulate the mood this story consistently exudes, and

Again, we get a neat little extra in the back, this time being a great little interview with Steve Murphy about writing for comics in general and some bits and pieces about the man himself, along with previews/solicitations for the final chapter of Umbra (which looks to be awesome), the three current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles books and Mike Hawthorne's Hysteria: One Man Gang.

Once again, I could go on and on about how much I'm loving this book. I read a lot of different comic books (and I mean a lot !), and I've had my favourites for a long, long time, but Umbra is proving to be one of the best things to have come along in a long time. There's still time (though very little) to hit your LCS up for issue one if they don't carry it (which is a high possibility here in Australia), so if you have been if-ing and but-ing about putting Umbra in your pull list, go and do it now, but if you see this book on the shelves – do not pass it up!
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