(This review is courtesy of an Advance Review Copy through the good folks at NetGalley)
Wow, I missed this. Must be what it feels like for a baseball player coming back from the off-season.
There were a few things peppering the release schedule in January, but not much. Nothing that’d make me shell out $60 for a hardcover that’s gotten middling-at-best reviews, anyway. Oh, sorry, should’ve mentioned – X-Men: Battle for the Atom came out early in the month. No, I haven’t read it, and no, I don’t know if I will. Not only does it purport to be a game-changer the same way Avengers vs. X-Men wasn’t, but it’s sixty-flippin’-dollars of hardcover that I A) cannot afford now and B) think is hellaciously expensive for what you get. It’s barely 10 issues for the same cost as a trade collecting twice that amount, and yes, I know trades cost less than hardcovers, but still. Marvel and DC need to cut this stuff out if they hope to corner markets that earn less per annum than the average brain surgeon.
Anyway, during the holidays I stumbled upon a great site called NetGalley, which offers early looks at to-be-released titles online in exchange for reviewy goodness. It seemed like a natural fit for me to yammer on about comics for people who are actually going to read the yammerness, and thus you will occasionally see prefaces like the big, bold one at the top, which denote titles given to me by the wonderful people at NetGalley. This may mean sometimes titles will be looked at well in advance of their street date, and sometimes we’ll see books that were released not too long ago. In this case, today is the latter.
Sheltered is an Image series I’ve not heard of by a guy I haven’t read anything of before, featuring art from someone whose name I’ve never previously been told with a story I’d not considered experiencing. “Sailing into the unknown”, indeed.
Continuing Image’s current trend of releasing stories seemingly intent on kicking the ass of superhero narratives in terms of innovation and ingenuity with no regard for staying within conventional boundaries, Sheltered is not what it appears at first glance. The story begins with a community of families living secluded out in the snow, evoking a little Revival-esque setting, and just as several characters start to get introduced we see the children of the community’s leaders gunning down every adult in the camp. Once the unexpected (as long as you didn’t read any of Sheltered‘s marketing material) shock of that subsides, a quiet psychopath named Lucas is revealed as the driving force of the camp’s familicide and strives to protect his flock of nervous killer children from the (alleged) impending eruption of a nearby volcano. The story focus switches between Lucas, his gathered underage plebs, and two young girls doing their damnedest to escape Lucas and bring him to justice.
Ironically, the day I read this and finished with the thought of “Huh, this’d make a great TV series,” it got commissioned as such. There’s definitely a feeling that Sheltered was designed with big screen aspirations in mind, with artwork resembling cinematographic angles and characters with just the right amount of fleshing for a weekly character exploration. What sets it apart from other books with those perceived aspirations, like Lazarus, is there’s considerably less substance in the finer details. Almost makes you think it started life as the TV show chicken to the comic book egg.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely worth a read. The concept of a “pre-apocalyptic” narrative, touted as such by its own media, is certainly intriguing and a fresh take on any kind of -ocalypse title going at the moment for Image. The narrative pacing works well once the adults start kicking buckets, and there are plenty of apprehensive scenes – such as a conversation in the book’s latter half between Lucas and one of his lackeys who’s started to stray from the Lucas Path of Righteousness™ – constructed with an almost psychological-horror-movie bent which function supremely well at building tension. Lucas and his kids come across as a real threat rather than wannabes, mostly due to their leader’s unfettered actions towards achieving his goals, and as teenage villains go he’s certainly more effective than Anakin Skywalker ever was.
Where things lack a little is in the other characters. True, the two female opponents to Lucas are distinct and separate from each other visually and motivationally, with one being the soft and near-helpless damsel while the other kicks more ass and takes more names than Duke Nukem during a bubblegum dry spell, but that’s really where their characterisations end. The lackeys of Lucas who start questioning their fearless leader’s activities have the same sort of “Uh, whoops, maybe we picked the wrong side” motivations that drive similar turncoat characters in The Walking Dead, Manhattan Projects and almost any Star Wars book written by Timothy Zahn. They’re all fairly shallow, with just enough depth to distinguish them from any character Daniel Way’s ever written.
This isn’t a kiss of death for the story though; it’s clear we’re still early days here, and most of the early narrative has to rely on driving the plot forward to establishment before dwelling on characters specifics. East of West did a similar thing with its first volume too, and like that book Sheltered feels as if it’s the first piece of a puzzle rather than a novel in and of itself. The success of the story going forward will rely a lot on making both the heroic and villainous protagonists interesting, since the story tries to present both groups in Volume 1 as having diametric but nonetheless sympathetic goals going for them for the reader to relate to.
Also, any validation of Lucas’ character and status as a protagonist will come from whether or not this impending eruption is serious business or not; if the latter, expect him to be lumped in the same category as George W. Bush and anyone who thought the shark culls up the Australian coast were a good idea.
The art’s great. I’d not heard of Johnnie Christmas before this book, and I’d be keen to see more of his work elsewhere now. There’s an almost abstract quality to the artwork’s musings, with strange body proportions and almost independently-animated hair evoking the odder styles of Filipe Andrade’s Captain Marvel work. It really adds to the psychological horror when the colours blur, physical proportions become indistinct and the background elements either fade or are thrown into sharp relief, such as during the early parental execution scenes when the background trees get obscured by snow and leave focus only on Lucas and his patricide. Some of the outlines of characters can get a little thick at times, and there’s something about their eyes that unnerves me in a way that both adds to the horror tone and leaves me fearfully awake at night.
Dialogue’s pretty good, especially as far as teenagers go. Angst is limited beside the character of Victoria, the aforementioned frightened damsel opponent, and most of it comes from situations that are genuinely acceptable to get angsty about – like killing a whole bunch of innocent puppies to ensure loyalty from a henchman straying off the straight-and-narrow, which Lucas inflicts on one of his guys late in the book. Right now the only distinct voice is Lucas, with his lack of much cursing and quiet, methodical acceptance of his place in this new world for him and the other kids, so it’ll be nice to see the other characters take on much stronger presences as we move forward.
Sheltered is certainly worth your time to check it out, especially with a TV series on the horizon and an opportunity for a plethora of readers to get onboard “Before it was cool”, and I’m certainly interested to see where we go next. It kind of feels like Lord of the Flies but with snow and better gender equality, so if that sells it for you then go for gold. If it doesn’t, feel free to suggest a better way for me to entice you with it.
PUBLISHER: IMAGE COMICS
BEST QUOTE: “The end is coming. Choices had to be made. You have to die so that we can live. I’m sorry Dad.” – Lucas