As a lad, I used to pride myself on being able to finish reading any book, no matter how much I didn’t like it or didn’t understand it. In high school I read all 700+ pages of Henry James’ Wings of the Dove, not by assignment but by choice, even though nearly half the time was spent in befuddlement and I found James’ late-era prose extraordinarily baroque and nearly impenetrable. But it was an exercise in literary machismo (i.e. pointlessness) and I finished it.
How times and priorities have changed. I can’t afford to read just anything anymore. I choose works carefully because I want them to be good. I want to like them, and I want to write a positive reviews of them. And while my success-to-failure ratio has generally been auspicious, I can’t say that about today’s reading choice, unfortunately.
Dark Engine is a fantasy comic from Image Comics which is without doubt my absolute favorite comic publisher. As I have too little time for reading these days I’m intimidated by storylines where I have to read dozens of issues just to keep up and thus prefer self-enclosed, independent stories. The Vol. 1 trade paperback of Dark Engine had recently come out and the cover and title font was cool so I gave it a shot.
But after finishing Chapter 2 (or issue #2), I could not continue. I genuinely regret having to say this but I just couldn’t. So, yes, as unfair as it is, I’m writing this review after having only read the first two chapters and then having given up. So although the volume I picked up was the Vol. 1 trade paperback, this is essentially just a review of issues #1 and #2.
What are Dark Engine’s problems? Basically, poor exposition and a lack of clarity.
Dropping us into a story in media res is fine but we need to be given some sort of framework for understanding the world. Yes, we already know from the cover and the art that this is fantasy, but the world of Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal is not the same as the world of Game of Thrones, for instance. And especially if the world is a bit eccentric, as this one strikes me as being, we need to be skillfully oriented into it. Obviously, this can’t be done perfectly in just two short issues but I need to be given just enough, at least, to want to keep going so that reading feels less like work and more like fun.
(Rat Queens would be a fantasy comic I’d point to as a model that, in just the first issue, manages to establish familiarity with the world, fondness for the characters and a sense of emotional investment in the plot. Granted, Rat Queens borrows heavily from established D&D lore so it’s a bit easier whereas Dark Engine is a little more ambitious about originality, but two issues should be enough to make me want to keep reading because even though as a journalist I get my digital comics for free, that’s $7 to others.)
Pretty much the only thing I was able to glean from reading the first two chapters/issues is that some sort of coven of mages have created some sort of she-warrior with a teleportation or time travel device built into her. Only she’s not where she’s supposed to be to do what she was made for—though I’m not clear what that is either—so now she’s fighting one dinosaur after another and then teleporting into animals and making them explode (?). Or something. But other than that I didn’t understand what was going on.
Compounding the opaque nature of the script is the art which, on some levels, especially in the close-ups, is quite impressive. But it’s dense in detail, making dynamic action all the more difficult to follow because since I not know what’s going on at the macro level, it increases my confusion about what’s happening in the present moment. However, I would place the brunt of responsibility here on the writer and the editor because a clearer script would make the art less confusing. Low, also from Image, is an example of a comic in which I find the art much muddier and unclear (to the point where I’ve chosen not to read the comic despite an interesting premise) and yet I can still basically understand what’s happening in the story.
Anyone who knows me well knows I hate saying negative things about a work of art because I know how hard it is to create and distribute one. I applaud any creators—in this case newcomers Ryan Burton and John Bivens—who are able to successfully do just that. But I’m also beholden to my readers to give honest reportage of my reading experience.
Now, having critiqued the work, I want to also say that this is all the more reason that I celebrate Image Comics for having published Dark Engine. Why? Because it means they are willing to take risks and to take chances on unproven creators. I doubt the Big Two would publish a comic like this and Image is the third biggest publisher after them and yet it somewhat retains the spirit of a small, independent press. For that they have my loyalty for as long as they continue to be that way. To this you might say, well, if the comic’s not good then they should have realized it and fixed it before publishing, but no one has a perfect track record and there’s more to publishing than just poring over manuscripts trying to find flaws.
As for Burton and Bivens, it is certainly not my intention to discourage them in the slightest and I hope they keep creating. They show promise and may very well end up creating a great comic. Or Dark Engine itself may get a lot better during its run. If that becomes the case I’d certainly be willing to give it another try.