Joshua Williamson (Nailbiter, Ghosted) and Andrei Bressan’s new series Birthright will likely resonate with those of us who were reared on the narrative kernel underpinning such books as The Wizard of Oz, and Harry Potter, and films such as The NeverEnding Story, and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland: that a seemingly “normal” child is removed from a ordinary or mundane existence, and elevated to the role of “savior” in a fantastical realm (usually) far removed from our own. Let me tell you, for a kid that wore Velcro shoes well into the fourth grade, and spent 95% of recess getting into my snowsuit, the notion that I could be swept away into another world where my poor motor skills would somehow be inconsequential was a massively appealing one.

Fun Fact: Little Nemo's creator, Winsor McCay spent his childhood in Southwest Michigan.

Fun Fact: Little Nemo’s creator, Winsor McCay spent his childhood in Southwest Michigan.

My favorite tales were the ones that weren’t interested in the outright shelving of our world for another, but those that existed at a confluence of the two. Those that dared to ask what would happen to our world’s culture and beliefs when confronted with the existence of another. Birthright #1 is just that, equal parts police procedural/examination of a family tragedy as well as a fantasy epic, and is a fantastic read for fans of either genre.

However, it all begins with an autumnal game of “catch” between father and son on a day that seems unnervingly perfect, or at the very least, cut straight out of a fall color tour brochure. Yet this age-old bonding experience is a facade, a sinister distraction orchestrated by Mikey Rhodes’ father to…keep him out of the house long enough long enough that a surprise birthday party can be held upon his return. You know what? That does seem too good to be true…and I’m not just saying that because the most frequently unpackaged thing on the birthdays of my youth were poorly-veiled feelings of disappointment.

Daaaang those woods are creepy.

Daaaang those woods are creepy.

Us cynics don’t have to wait long for the other shoe to drop, it falls alongside the overthrown toss from Aaron Rhodes, effectively changing the game to “fetch” as lil’ Mikey rushes down into the woods to retrieve it. Minutes later, Mr. Rhodes learns the hard way about allowing one’s son to head unchaperoned into what resembles prime Nazgul real estate, in favor of “sexy chat time” with the wife. Don’t fret though, Aaron does find the baseball in the underbrush. And what about the sentient being that Aaron was entrusted to look after? Well, a baseball in the hand is worth…well, admittedly nothing comparable to one’s child…but you at least have to respect my attempt to locate a silver lining.

Note how they handle the passage of time without a hardcore info dump.

Note how they handle the passage of time without a hardcore info dump.

From here, one only needs to have spent ten minutes with any of the 784 police procedurals currently airing on broadcast television to have a notion of what to expect following Mikey’s disappearance. Yet, Williamson doesn’t fall on the genre’s crutch to saturate every panel with the date, the location, the time, like a Law and Order title card. Instead, he utilizes the seasons and other context clues alongside sparse dialogue to indicate the passing of time, as well as the family’s understandably waning hopes of finding Mikey.

This point on, it becomes pretty difficult to keep this plot summary (relatively) spoiler-free. So we’ll just leave it at this: down the line, the police discover a strangely-dressed drifter in the woods (I mean, stranger than the usual weirdos that spend their free time mucking about in the wilderness) where Mikey was lost. Not only does he claim to have information pertinent to the disappearance of Mikey Rhodes, but he also provides the segue to Birthright’s fantasy narrative. If the stranger is to be believed, Mikey is alive and well…but he’s discovered something that threatens the well-being of all of us.

WARNING: THAR BE SPOILERS BELOW, NECESSARY TO THE DISCUSSION OF BIRTHRIGHT’S PLOT.

The only time you expect to see someone like this in a police station is during Comicon.

The only time you expect to see someone like this in a police station is during Comicon.

For the sake of not having to dance around this plot point in further discussion, let’s just get this out of the way: the fellow found in the woods, resembling Jon Snow if he bothered to gain a smidge of self-esteem, put in a couple extra reps, and perhaps rummaged around in Mark McGwire’s medicine cabinet in the late ‘90s…is none other than Mikey himself. He somehow found himself in Terrenos (described as “the meanest land in all creation” by one character) and, not unlike the exploits of Pevensie siblings in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, has returned to discover that time moves at a much slower rate in our world than in the one they became the savior of.

One of my favorite characteristics of Williamson’s work is that he’s not afraid to deconstruct and tweak the genres or narratives he’s working within. In Ghosted, he inverted the “haunted house” formula, and made it about a team actively seeking to catch the spirits within the manor. In his Batman tale, “I Hate When he Does That,” Williamson sought to shine a light on Bruce’s rarely explored globe-trotting upbringing, and also demonstrate why Alfred is a more than capable protector of the young Wayne.

If you're looking for a supernatural/horror tale set in modern day, Ghosted would be a good pick.

If you’re looking for a supernatural/horror tale set in modern day, Ghosted would be a good pick.

In terms of Birthright #1, Williamson deftly skews expectations by shining the spotlight on the less-explored elements of the “child savior from another world” narrative. Usually, we briefly view the youth mired in the doldrums of a day-to-day life, one that usually falls somewhere on the spectrum between lackadaisical and miserable. Bottom line, it’s an existence from which neither the character (or the reader) would mind being extricated. From here, it’s a simple chronicling of their adventures in said “weird and wacky” locale to set things straight, which also, coincidentally, enables them to return home. And you know what? Usually nobody even notices that they were “gone.”

So Williamson questions how things play out if the disappearance is noticed, and parents find themselves having to explain to the authorities how their kid just vanished into a wardrobe, a tollbooth, or in the case of Birthright, a valley. You’d be surprised how unwilling they are to go along with the assurance that “they’ll probably return from a land filled with whimsy and mystery any minute now…any minute…” Furthermore, Williamson consciously bucks the trope that these adventures are neatly self-contained, a one-way romp that effectively ends upon the hero’s return. What if the true adventure began at said moment instead? What if that fun-filled prologue was an introduction to something far more sinister? These are the sorts of things Williamson hones in on.

Narnia, this ain't.  These things won't even offer you a bit of Turkish Delight before trying to "off" you.

Narnia, this ain’t. These things won’t even offer you a bit of Turkish Delight before trying to “off” you.

It’s also worth noting that Williamson is one of those writers that reinforces the idea that sometimes the most capable writers are the ones that don’t litter their panels with an over abundance of text boxes, or indulge in a hand-holding session of exposition. Aside from one or two text boxes, Birthright is strictly dialogue, and none of it feels stilted or contrived for the reader’s sake. This allows for the book’s pacing to truly flow unfettered, which is also assisted by some clever panel placement. I especially love how the pages recounting Mikey’s “sword and sandal” yarn of big panels and spreads are followed by narrow rectangular panels that frame the fantasy narrative firmly within the construct of the police interrogation.

How do you get away with silently scripting things from “behind the scenes,” rather than the heavy-handed approach abovementioned? Well, simply put, you have to have faith in your art team’s ability to render your scenes with the fidelity and justice they deserve. I’ll level with you, had you told me that Andrei Bressan was deemed “the man for the job,” I’m not so certain I would have deployed the obligatory “Dale Cooper” thumbs-up. And that’s not coming from a purely uninformed “who the heck is Andrei Bressan?” scenario. I actually ran into his work a year or two ago, when he provided the pencils for Marc Andreyko’s STALKER, one of the backup features for the New 52 rebooted book Sword of Sorcery. Simply put, I wasn’t crazy about the story to begin with, but the art didn’t do much to stand out. The pencils struck me as loose and slightly rushed, when compared to Birthright’s.

You gotta love Williamson's sense of humor.

You gotta love Williamson’s sense of humor.

When I heard just what Birthright would entail, the first question on my mind was how well Bressan would handle juggling “real world” visuals alongside “epic fantasy” ones…I assumed he would handle the broadsword and plate mail side of things better than bicycles and birthday parties. But I was wrong. Bressan’s rendering of our world is slightly stylized, but rich with detail, and offers up some very expressive characters. The looks on the faces of the Rhodes family as they slowly begin to realize that Mikey is missing are a gut-wrenching transition from frustration to confusion to nervousness to sheer unadulterated panic, and proof that Bressan is more than capable of conveying the emotional weight that Birthright possesses.

On the flip side, Bressan delivers another world that is wonderfully nothing like ours, which includes a towering axe-wielding orc named Rook that isn’t the enemy, winged humans called Gideons, and a redundantly named villain that goes by “God King Lore.” We only encounter a statue of Lore, but Bressan gives it such a menacingly skeletal visage that readers might not be in any hurry to see him in the flesh…provided there is any. It’ll be interesting to see if Bressan can keep up this huge variety of characters, backdrops, and creatures month-in and month-out, but I’d wager Image’s willingness to allow series to take months “off” will ensure the quality of this book.

Bressan also has a real talent for burying the little details and “easter eggs” that add texture and a “lived-in” touch to locales (as well as perhaps a bit of foreshadowing) not to mention, reward the reader that allows himself or herself to fully “take in” what each panel has to offer. When Brennan stops by his dad’s unannounced, only to find him engaged in an alcoholically-assisted slumber on the floor of Mikey’s room, the toys and posters…well…just make sure you get a close look at ‘em. Or…if you don’t catch it…try to figure out what the theme of Mikey’s birthday party would have been. Sure, it could be simple foreshadowing, but part of me wonders if it hints at something more complex.

It's always a good sign when cover duties are handled by your interior art team.

It’s always a good sign when cover duties are handled by your interior art team.

I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t highlight colorist Adriano Lucas’ simply phenomenal job. Yes, I am one of those people that sided with DC’s colorists when they lobbied to get “front cover credit” and royalties, and Lucas’ work is definitive proof that terrific colors can truly elevate a book to the “next level.” From what I know about Image, they don’t just assign a colorist or a letterer to your book, you’ve got to assemble your own team from the get-go. I have to believe this, in turn, ensures a degree of collaboration and group cohesion that rivals the top tier work of the “big two.” Just take a look at transformation of the woods at the outset of the issue, the trees coated in leaves of bright oranges and reds turn into dead branches and ominous underbrush of browns and blacks. A few pages in, you’re left wondering if those are fireflies or sinister pairs of eyes hiding in the shadows, and the flickering glimmers of sunlight that have pierced through the trees have a strange unnerving intensity to them.

Simply put, Lucas’ ability to work in tandem with Bressan is undeniable. In what is probably one of the most understated panels (and possibly my favorite), we look into Aaron Rhodes’ kitchen a year after Mikey’s disappearance. Despite being the middle of the day, the blinds are crudely half-drawn, allowing the outside light to creep through in uneven slats, and onto the kitchen table. The light still illuminates some of the mess on said table: leftover packaging from Chinese take-out, pizza boxes, unopened mail, family photo albums, and dirty dishes. It’s a depressing, haunting image. It’s almost as if Aaron’s efforts with the blinds are an attempt to, quite literally, avoid casting a light on what he’s become…even though the blinds themselves reveal the same sort of slovenly behavior. Those looking to see more of Lucas’ first-rate talent would do well to check out Gail Simone’s re-imagining of Red Sonja.

Wanna see Lucas at the top of his game?  Take a glance at his color work on Red Sonja.

Wanna see Lucas at the top of his game? Take a glance at his color work on Red Sonja.

In the end, Birthright is the sort of comic that proves that time and time again Image Comics’ largely “hands off” template for series creation works. It’s a title that’ll have your mind harkening back to the fantasy adventure tales you inhaled as a kid, while wrapping itself in the decidedly mature topics of abduction, divorce, and loss. We have Williamson’s writing successfully adhering to the “show, don’t tell” approach, and solidly hops back and forth between genres, without messing with the book’s pacing. Bressan’s pencils are his best work yet, and Lucas’ colors dispel the notions of those horrible individuals that think colorists are an interchangeable lot. Look for this title to grab some hardware come award season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie rights are snatched up post-haste. And for those that roll their eyes at such a notion, know that Birthright is part of Image’s Skybound imprint, and to paraphrase a certain gonzo journalist, “we can’t get turned down, this is Kirkman country.”

Birthright is available digitally via Image Comics, Comixology, as well as in print at your Local Comic Book Store.

Overall Score
95 %

Birthright is more than another feather in the cap of Robert Kirkman's Skybound imprint. It's a wonderfully imaginative and colorful tale that straddles the line between our world, and one very, very unlike ours. Williamson weaves a perfectly-paced narrative, that always keeps the observant and intelligent reader in mind, while Bressan and Lucas deliver visuals that perfectly mirror Williamson's vision. A must-read for fans of epic fantasy or "real-world" drama.

Writing 97%
Pencils 92%
Colors 95%

About The Author

Growing up, Nick White dreamed of a career with the Chicago Bulls. This is because he was young and stupid, and his parents were of the "you can do ANYTHING" mentality.

When he was older, and probably not a whole lot smarter, Nick purchased Alan Moore's From Hell on a whim (that in itself probably says a lot). He was astounded to find that comics were as bizarre and twisted as his beloved Twin Peaks. After that he bought Batman: The Black Mirror strictly on the cover's aesthetics (Who the hell is Scott Snyder?" he said) and hasn't looked back since. Except, of course, in situations that necessitate such.

When he's not "busy" playing Castlevania or harassing Zander about what he ought to be reading, Nick continues to work on his makeshift shrine to Jeff Lemire.

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