Steve Orlando has been a very fun and interesting creator to watch. Gaining a lot of popularity through his work at DC, he has brought a fresh voice and an adventurous perspective to some of the best, most untapped corners of the DC Universe. With a body of work that includes Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman, Milk Wars, Supergirl, Justice League of America, and Midnighter and Apollo, you’re sure to have a few you liked and a few you didn’t. No matter how you felt about one book over the other because of subject matter, tone, or a multitude of factors, there’s one thing you can be sure of: he cares. You never know what kind of story you are going to get, but you always know that Steve Orlando will make you feel something, and that’s as important as anything else. It’s been a while since Steve Orlando has dipped his toes outside the Big Two, and this book is definitely going to hit some more than others, but there’s no doubt that it contains his entire heart and soul.
The book opens right away from a state of fear, which is, in many ways, the emotion that drives most of the narrative. Characters make decisions and actions either out of fear or despite fear, and every character deals with it in different ways. Orlando opens with an intense sense of struggle and persecution — themes that he is quite familiar with writing — as we enter a world very different from our own. There are similarities, especially in the symbolic and topical sense, but this is a world you probably wouldn’t recognize. We’re quickly thrust into a tale of queer resistance, catching up on the struggle through flashbacks and cutaways. Matthew Dow Smith’s artwork is quite gorgeous and unique, most of it utilizing noir sensibilities in the vein of Mike Perkins, Szymon Kudranski, or even Steve Epting. There are definitely some larger-than-life elements at play here, but the story lives in the grimy back alleys and dark, ruined shadows.
The other style we often see is almost in the vein of Jamal Campbell, especially in the textures and poses. They connect from panel to panel very well, and you can tell this is the work of an experienced comic artist. These art styles are necessary to the tone and foundation they set. The book takes place in an apocalyptic Russia devastated by war, persecution, and authoritarianism, and the sharp, defined, thick line work helps show that. These characters, particularly Stone Mary and Sasha, have been through a lot. Unfortunately, it seems as though Orlando had some difficulties giving these characters a specific voice. They are given a very heavy workload because Orlando chose to provide most of the exposition through dialogue, and this causes a bit of a disconnect. Sometimes these characters invoke passion, while other times they sound like robots explaining things to each other. There can be an inescapable stiffness, even across a narrative that anyone can tell is very personal to Steve Orlando.
The biggest obstacle, most times, is actually the world itself and some of its quirks. Every location, scene, and character we are presented with has a history and a reputation, and sometimes, it feels like everyone knows it but you. The world is in a geopolitical state that is very difficult to understand just by reading intermittent explanations from one character to another. You can feel the stakes and absorb the raw emotion from the pages, but every time you want to jump into this world, you slam into a glass barrier of heavy jargon and difficult language. Sometimes those elements can make a world feel more lived-in, but it doesn’t work well in this instance. You have to respect the effort and the faith Orlando has in his audience, but it just doesn’t pay off as much here. A lot of the tone and feeling is conveys through the coloring choices, which Lauren Affe absolutely nails. The shady blue-grays, blacks, and the off-white color that simply evokes the dreaded, lifeless spirit of winter all convey a very intentional mood while the pop-art fluorescent oranges, reds, and purples give off a vibrant determination which signifies that all is not lost and that the fight is important.
If there’s one thing to gather from this review, it’s that the emotional weight is still very real and permeates throughout every aspect of the book down to the lettering. Thomas Mauer does some really cool things with his lettering choices here including using sharper, jagged word balloons to add personality, to adding style and flair to elements of action by creating strange SFX we don’t usually see. Instead of a BANG or CRASH, there are SFX that literally say DODGE and SLAM. There are plenty of unique SFX in this book, and they all add a little bit of extra characterization while showing a fight or action sequence from a slightly different perspective.
From a narrative standpoint, the mission is clear and poignant and the motivations are compelling, but the context isn’t there and the jargon is too thick. Perhaps some of the larger world-building elements will be clarified in future issues, because it currently muddles a lot of the emotional impact. The foundation for a very powerful story is there, but the execution needs a little work.