Just recently, I gave a glowing review to the first issue of Theremin: the MonkeyBrain Comics digital series from writer Curt Pires and artist Dalton Rose. After that first instalment so thoroughly rocked my socks, of course I was going to give the second chapter a go. Which brings us to Theremin #2. Do the creative team managed to maintain or even build upon the momentum they built up in issue #1?
I would say the answer to that is a resounding “yes.” One of the few mild criticisms I had about the previous issue was that Curt Pires’ plotting was a bit opaque, tossing us headlong over the precipice into alternate history time-travel lunacy with little in the way of established equilibrium to ground us. I also said that I trusted the story to settle into its own strange logic, and I think that’s what happens here. Our narrative is much more linear this time round, giving us more breathing room to immerse ourselves in Leon Theremin’s life as head of the Science Killer Squad, a team of Russian time-travelling assassins operating under the instructions of Lenin as he tries to reshape history to his liking. We meet some supporting players, and the antagonistic threat against Theremin that will likely drive the series going forward more clearly emerges, calling back to the opening of issue #1 in a chilling way that suggests a shifting predator/prey dynamic of one’s actions forever determining the other’s in an oroboro-like cyclical manner.
But if the chronology settles to allow us to get better acquainted with this world, that in no way means this issue is any less crazy than the first. If anything, it’s more crazy! Talking, telekinetic, chimpanzee death-Buddhists… need I say more? The Manhattan Projects has shown us that giving cherished historical figures guns and turning them into unconventional action heroes can be a neat shortcut to crazy-awesome, but Theremin is bustling with enough brutal invention to carve its own niche in the slowly-growing “FUCK YEAH SCIENCE!” sub-genre.
Once again, a crucial component in marking out Theremin as an odd, distinctive gem of the current comics scene is the offbeat visuals of Dalton Rose. There’s a shift in his artwork here from the first issue. It feels a bit rougher, looser, less meticulously crafted. One delightful tableau in Theremin’s bedroom makes delightful use of various small, window-like panels in a manner that recalls the ambitious layout of that showstopping fourth page in issue #1, but generally the work here is more dialled back, simpler. But I don’t think it loses any of its storytelling power. The looseness and the lighter linework that is emerging is reminiscent of the work of Garry McLaughlin – an artist I greatly admire – and when combined with Rose’s delicate colour palette, it creates a real softness in the aesthetic. This creates an effectively jarring contrast with the flashes of extreme violence that permeate the narrative. And Rose doesn’t pull his punches here. People don’t just get shot in the world of Theremin: bullets punch chunks through their body, blast out brain matter, blow off fingers. In one particularly gruesome framing choice, one panel gives us a view of a character through the cavity in an enemy’s head they’ve just created, complete with dangling chunks of bone and brain. So, a light touch, but with a hard edge.
Are there any negatives to remark on? I was all ready to complain about the length of this second issue. In my review of issue #1, I commented that 14 pages really felt too short for a full issue of a comic, though I largely let it slide. This issue is even shorter, at a mere 10 story pages: half of what Marvel/DC these days consider to be the standard length of your average comic book! I’ve actually written what were considered “shorts” for anthologies that clocked in at 8-9 pages. When combined with a slightly less robust selection of backmatter this time round, you could argue that the package is more markedly insubstantial, even though it’s still good value for money at the bargain 69p/99 cents price tag. However, to play devil’s advocate, I should comment that I was actually shocked the story only had 10 pages after I counted it, because when you read the comic, it’s absolutely PACKED with incident and it feels like loads has happened. It’s hard to be too angry at a comic for having half the number of pages of your average Marvel/DC single issue when it manages to cram in over twice the story that they typically have. And I think that’s one of the advantages of a digital package: there’s no need for uniformity. You can deliver as many pages as the story needs for that particular chapter. One chapter might be 14 pages, another 10, another might be 30 for all we know. The digital comic allows for more flexibility in this regard.
So, another home-run for the creative team of Theremin. Length quibbles aside, this is pretty much your textbook example of how to do an issue #2. If the first issue sells you on the concept, the second issue fleshes it out and makes it more real. Both Curt Pires and Dalton Rose are getting into a good groove with their respective disciplines, meshing into a narrative delight that shows promise of becoming a comics cult classic. This should be considered a crown jewel in MonkeyBrain’s impressive roster of comics, and based on the strength of this, I feel inclined to give more of their books a try. Amelia Cole, here I come!
Theremin #2 (as well as #1!) is currently available to buy from Comixology.