In The Grim Darkness Of Comics Fantasy There Is Only Reaver #1
by Noah Sharma
Reaver has been described as Game of Thrones meets the Dirty Dozen and, frankly, that’s not merely accurate but basically exactly what you’ll find within this thirty-two page first issue.
Justin Jordan and Rebekah Isaacs craft a low-fantasy world engulfed in dirty, ugly war with impressive efficiency. There’s a lot of exposition in this issue and it’s really not disguised very well, but nothing is added that isn’t necessary and anything that is missing is not an omission so much as a mystery. What exactly are drakes? What are the beliefs of the Rael? Are the Imperials or the Escalene colonial powers or natives to Madaras? None of this is spelled out, but none of it is essential to this issue and all of it serves to intrigue and entice the reader.
The introductory sequence is another example of the book’s directness. In eight pages Jordan crafts a charming short war story that forms the backbone of the issue, aligns the reader’s morality to the nature of the world, and provides character development to the two most generic members of the team, getting ahead of that reasonable criticism. Jordan knows just what to include and what to omit and brings a real ‘war movie pathos’ to it all.
Mahan, as I alluded, could easily have been a generic moral compass for the story, but Jordan and Isaacs provide just enough of the foundations of a ‘model minority betrayed’ story to give it a human dimension. Now, that said, it chooses to tell that story with an entirely white cast, which is…well it could be better and detracts from that message a little, but it’s not a disqualifying flaw. Those looking for a reason to be wary would be better off being aware of the ethos of the book.
It often seems that there are only two kinds of fantasy war stories: glorious and grim. This is undoubtedly the latter. Reaver is a fun book and a funny book, but is humor is of the gallow’s variety. One side of this conflict is made up of unfeeling, self-righteous bigots willing to throw the rank and file to the wolves for the slightest advantage, while the other commits staggering atrocities without batting an eye (and they don’t even have the decency to obey this world’s magical ethos of sacrifice). There’s no good people to root for here, Mahan being the only thing close, and, though the morality of our sinister six is growing ever more complex, there’s maybe two of them that seem to have any chance of ending up better than monsters.
Let me put it this way: there is one woman in this issue and the moment after she’s first mentioned, the moment before she’s actually introduced, we learn that she was sexually assaulted. This is never mentioned again after this conversation, but it’s there because it allows us to know that this character brutalized her attempted rapist and therefore is a badass. The closest to follow up we get on this is seeming confirmation that it won’t be a meaningful part of her character when our heroine (who I’d guess is portrayed as somewhere between four and five feet tall, depending on the panel) spots another member of the party who is at least twice as tall as her and three times her mass and immediately wonders…
It fits. It’s hardly the first time I’ve seen these tropes and, though I find them personally distasteful and important to mention for other people’s sake, it doesn’t make light of such issues so much as establish them as too common in this setting in a somewhat flippant manner and I think that it makes sense for the tone Jordan is aiming for. If that bothers you, it may get better – Jordan’s work is generally supportive of capable female characters, heroic underdogs, “cripples, bastards, and broken things” – but it also just might not be for you. If you’re into that kind of bleak fantasy and jet black humor, however, I stand by my opinion that this is a pretty strong take on the genre.
The threat our heroes find themselves faced with is a pretty brilliant idea and the unabashed, unironic joy that Jordan takes in throwing a slew of tried and true action movie staples together into his stew of clever fantasy concepts is infectious. The pacing is just right, the dialogue fun and evocative, and the book has a spot on knowledge of how anti-social and dysfunctional these characters can be before it becomes obnoxious.
Of all of Jordan’s strengths on display in this issue, it must be said that one of his most consistent and significant is his seemingly endless number of perfect artists to work with on any given project. In this case, Rebekah Isaacs’ sword sharp lines and almost classical compositions provide an immediate draw. I wouldn’t say that this is a book where the art is an irresistible attraction. There are plenty of panels that are just solid and the style is strong but not revolutionary. However, there’s just such confidence in the art and a real grasp of what each panel is saying that make Isaacs’ contributions feel enormous.
One thing that I adore in Isaacs’ work this issue is the degree of humanity that she imbues the characters with. That means the charm and warmth of even the most performative characters but it also means the quiet, introspective quality that she gives to half the cast, even when you know that these human moments don’t do anything to make up for their war crimes.
Alex Guimarães‘ colors are restrained but effective, muting down most of the shades with a palette defined by the interplay of desaturated velvet and occasional bright teal. It seems like it might combine with the tone of the story to become overly bleak, but it actually gives the book a lovely vibrancy through its use of contrast.
Reaver #1 is exceptionally honest about what it is. Between a number of a familiar tropes recombined in new and interesting ways and a short essay by Jordan acknowledging his inspirations, the goal of this issue is presented in a variety of ways, which makes it easy to say that it succeeds in meeting it. The art is well suited to the story and doesn’t toot its own horn, preferring to use intelligent storytelling tricks that you’ll understand without necessarily being able to put your finger on them at first. The bleak ethos of the setting and the fairly direct acknowledgment that this story hasn’t yet innovated its concepts so much as cherry picked and placed them alongside each other might dissuade some readers, but, for the right audience, Reaver is an impressively slick package. It acknowledges its weaknesses and delivers on its strengths with precise and electrifying punch. Especially with so much to pack into a first issue, Reaver can feel as though it didn’t cook evenly, but it’s garnished beautifully and the structure its built upon is top notch. A must read for fans of grimdark fantasy who remember that the genre is still supposed to be fun.
Reaver #1 is currently available in comic shops from Image Comics and Skybound Entertainment.