Umbra #3 (2006)
By: Trist Jones on October 31, 2006  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
Cover Art
Publisher: Image Comics
Writers: Steve (Murph) Murphy
Art: Michael Hawthorne
I don't recall as agonizing a wait for any comic than the one that accompanied the final instalment of Umbra. Initially slated for an August release, the final chapter to what I consider one of the finest comic books (or series of), Image Comics announced that it would hit the shelves in the second last week of September, and I was already ripe with anticipation. Those who are familiar with the inner workings of the larger players in the comic book industry are probably well aware of Image's reputation when it comes to getting books out on schedule, and those who don't are probably connecting the dots already, needless to say, when I arrived at the comic shop on the anticipated date, Umbra #3 was nowhere to be found… and wasn't to be, until mid-October. Now, for those who may have been following the book since it first hit the shelves, you'd know that some big things have occurred in other comics leading up to Umbra's delayed conclusion (like Freddy, Jason and Leatherface all finding homes at DC), so was it worth the wait, even with so much else going on for readers to put their money into?

Hell. Yes.

Just as the second chapter of Umbra picked up almost immediately after the cliff-hanger ending of the first, the final chapter continues immediately on from the ominous final panels of the second book. For those who haven't read my reviews for the previous two issues, take a look here and here, as a lot has led up to the final issue. Our unlikely protagonist, now more dependent on the situational anxiety drug Ativan than before, has taken a kayak out into the ocean off Southern Greenland, driven by an urge or instinct she cannot define, with a Soviet killer on her trail, and her lover racing against him. Her search for answers regarding the mysterious skeleton of a Neanderthal woman found in the tundras of Iceland, leads her to a truly bizarre and somewhat unnerving discovery, all tied to her pursuer and the Neanderthal skeleton, and ultimately leads her into a desperate battle for survival.

The final chapter of Umbra is everything it should be. After such an incredibly strong opening issue, the second issue managed to carry that same strength and raise the bar even higher, and the final chapter doesn't disappoint. Even after the lengthy delay between releases, the story is just as strong, if not stronger than the previous instalment. We are given closure to all the seemingly impossible situations and revelations that arise in both the first and second books, and though not as fantastic as one might anticipate, the realism behind the How's and Why's is logical and very satisfying. To say I foresaw anything in the conclusion would be a lie, so I had no idea what to expect of this book; all I knew was that I wanted answers, and answers were what I got. There's no doubt in my mind that people may want or expect those answers to have a much more mystical grounding than they do, but I think that would go against the very heavy sense of realism that permeates Umbra, and would likely rob the story of the unpredictable nature that makes it such an enthralling read. This isn't to say that it is completely devoid of any mysticism though; when Askja finds herself face to face with a hidden group of Chukchi (Native Siberians – similar to the Inuit people) children, the more bizarre events of the previous books seem mundane in comparison (This particular sequence is one of the most oddly disturbing things I've read in a comic).

Writer Steve Murphy definitely has a knack for writing moments that manage to exude tension and dread, and Mike Hawthorne's visuals bring these moments to life perfectly. In previous reviews, I'd made mention of the surprising realism present in the simplicity of Hawthorne's character designs, and this third issue showcases this skill better than either of the issues that came before. Here, not only do the character designs help accentuate the intended feeling behind particular panels, but the overall composition of many of the panels – wide shots in particular - really manages to encapsulate and amplify the sense of wonder and inherent dread at what will come next. Panels play with the readers expectations (most notably during Askja's encounter with the Orcas) constantly, which, in retrospect, has added to the welcomely unpredictable nature, and continues to do so right up until the end of the book.

While I have found the series to be faultless, there is one particularly key element of this final chapter that I fear may have some people thrown off balance or left scratching their heads in confusion: with so many of the more fantastic elements of the book having very firm and logical roots in reality, the final moments of the Chukchi people in the hidden bunker does stand out as one of those eyebrow raising moments. Even I found myself asking "What the fuck?!" initially, but re-reading and reassessing the book, I was able to put the aforementioned moment into satisfying perspective (although my interpretation of what happens may be completely different to yours, and I should probably refrain from saying anything so you can form your own opinion or interpretation). The story's conclusion raises the question of reality (as the previous books have also), This is the only major concern I have been able to extract from this entire saga, which, ultimately, isn't even that much of a concern, considering it seems to be one of those Eye of the Beholder situations.

In all, Umbra truly is an incredibly rewarding reading experience. The story is constructed flawlessly, and it's clear once the story starts to draw to a close and threads start tying together that a huge amount of thought has gone into it. Every single character plays their part perfectly, never becoming over exposed as so many lead characters tend to in comic books, and never allowing even minor characters to be simple throwaways – every character is fleshed out perfectly, and utilized in the best way possible. Every personality is clear simply though the writing, but the art truly raises them beyond what one would expect (again, the surprising amount of character present in such straightforward designs is incredible). It's a rare comic that manages to build up as much strength as Umbra, both visually and in terms of story, and the comic that maintains that strength throughout the entire run is rarer still (some may say that it's easy with three issues, but each of those issues comes in at nearly fifty pages a book – so that's still bigger than many of the more "mainstream" stories out there).

In all honesty, this has been the single most satisfying comic book I have read in years, and I really can't stress enough that anyone who enjoys good writing and good art in their comics should not let this one slip by, as even though it should eventually be collected as a trade paperback, such a thing can't be guaranteed. Take a look at the other reviews and know that the conclusion is every bit as satisfying as everything that leads up to it. This book gets a full marks from me, and anyone – not just comic fans – looking for an excellent read in a vein atmospherically similar to The X-Files (though far, far deeper in terms of storytelling and symbolism) should be picking this up.
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