REVIEW: Sheltered #1

Look at some of Image’s recent debuts, and you’ll see stellar examples of how to do a great issue #1.  Comics like Saga, Chew, East of West, Revival, Think Tank and last week’s Lazarus are good examples of opening chapters that create well-realised worlds and immerse us into them.  It’s a tried-and-true formula: you sell the reader on a status quo, make them believe in it, then they will hopefully become invested in that world and its characters, and come back in future issues to learn more about them.  Another, riskier, more challenging approach to doing an issue #1 is to establish a status quo, then almost immediately detonate it, pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet and leave them in a place where they can go back and reread the issue and discover that everything has been cast into a strange new light.  The Manhattan Projects pulled this off with panache last year.  And now we have Revival.  You think you’re reading one story here, but it soon turns into something quite shockingly different.  The end result is one of the most audacious, gripping issue #1s of the year thus far.

Sheltered #1 arrived in comic shops a week early here in the UK, so in writing this I’m aware that American readers won’t get a chance to check this book out until next week, and I therefore have to be careful about how much I spoil.  I fear I’ve already given away too much.  But I won’t delve any further into the specific workings of the narrative, beyond saying that this story centres on the “prepper” subculture.  This is a real phenomenom in America: people who are preparing for the impending end of the world as we know it, be it through catastrophic natural disaster or mass social/political/economic collapse and the anarchy that will inevitably emerge from it.  And so they create makeshift bunkers, live off the grid, accumulate food, supplies and weaponry for the apocalypse: whenever it comes and whatever shape that may take.  It’s a culture I’ve heard about in passing, of course, but I’ve never really studied it in any depth.

Writer Ed Brisson really helps bring it to life, and in a manner reminiscent of what Jason Aaron did with the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in Scalped or what Tim Seeley is doing with the secluded Wisconsin town in Revival, takes a community that’s not often explored and manages to make it feel “alien” and distinctive while simultaneously underlining how instrinsically familiar and American it nonetheless is.  The front cover cleverly bills Sheltered as “a pre-apocalyptic tale,” and really it could be post-apocalyptic, given how we see nothing of the outside world, with it only referred to in vaguely menacing terms.  The preppers live in their own world, but Brisson crafts it in a way that it doesn’t feel “genre,” but rather it is grounded in a reality removed from our own.  He’s ably assisted in this endeavour by the backmatter essay of Ryan K Lindsay which further explores the “prepper” ideology.

I don’t often mention the editor of the book in my reviews, but I feel compelled to touch on the fact that my eyes lit up when I spotted the familiar name of Paul Allor on the inside front cover credits.  I know Allor as a gifted writer, and have favourably reviewed the likes of Clockwork and Orc Girl in the past.  He specialises in a kind of bruised, bittersweet humanity that should be a smart match for Brisson’s narrative, where even as he has to keep precise motivations close to his chest, the humanity of his characters shines through.

Brisson has also found the ideal artistic partner for this story in the form of Johnnie Christmas.  I’ve never heard of Christmas or seen any of his work before picking this book up, but I’ve quickly become a fan.  He excels here with some complicated layouts, where suitably ambiguous panels and meaningful exchanges of facial expressions can be ready in multiple different ways depending on how much knowledge of the larger plot the reader has.  There are lots of dense pages, with the average panel count per page about 6-7, and Christmas often frames these as quite oppressive angles, edging in uncomfortably close  to his characters.  It gives the whole narrative this kind of edgy, claustrophobic vibe, and as the plot turns and things get increasingly nightmarish, Christmas throws us increasingly off-kilter with his visual arrangements.  And when the art finally opens up into a big spread for the final page, the impact is devastating.  It’s ambitious storytelling, but Christmas is up to the task.  If I have any niggle at all, it’s in his depiction of central character Lucas.  In some panels, he’s drawn looking quite old, while in others he’s quite baby-faced, and though I realise this ambiguity may be on purpose, given how the precise age range of this character impacts how we view him, I’d have liked to have had his appearance nailed down more definitively.  But like I said, that’s only one small criticism in what overall is a very successful showcase.

Rounding out the creative team is colorist Shari Chankhamma, whose contribution proves invaluable.  Given the slightly odd, angular character designs of Christmas, I think it would have been easy for a colorist to go rough and scratchy, or for a washed-out Dave Stewart styled pallette that often compliments the stark imagery of a Sean Phillips or a Dave Aja well.  And that would have been effective enough, but it would totally have changed the vibe of the story, something more along the lines of pulpy noir.  Instead, Chankhamma goes rich and lush, having the flush of a cheek, the texture of skin and the brightness of clothes really pop against the stark white, snowy landscape.  It adds a warmth to the atmosphere, makes the characters feel more human and vulnerable, giving the story an almost fairy tale quality.  It’s amazing how much the choice of colorist can impact your comic.

Amidst the sea of high-profile announcements at the Image Expo, with a bevy of A-list creators well established in their body of Marvel/DC work coming over to launch new Image projects, I’ve seen some people voice concern.  “With all these heavy-hitters making a splash,” they say, “What’s going to happen to that platform for emerging comics talent that Image has long provided?”  Sheltered #1 demonstrates that we needn’t worry.  Here’s a book filled with talented but comparitvely-unknown creators, being given a chance by Image to present something that could cement their reputation as breakout comics talent of 2013.  In my recent Comeback review I talked about how far Ed Brisson had progressed and how primed for success he was.  Since writing that, it’s been announced that he’ll be writing Secret Avengers.  And Sheltered is another leap in quality from Comeback, a book that should put him on the map and show that any success coming his way is well-deserved.  If you only pick up one comic next week, make it Sheltered #1.

Sheltered1Sheltered #1 is out in the UK now and will be available in comic shops worldwide from next week.

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