I knew going into Dream Thief #1 that there was already a fair amount of buzz and hype surrounding it, so I tried to keep my expectations tempered. But this book is absolutely as good (better, even) as any and all the hype says it is. I was stunned by this debut, which was an amazing comicbook by any measure, and a truly perfect opening chapter for an exciting new series.
At the beginning of the story, I felt very overwhelmed by what was going on. The opening page is of main character John Lincoln waking up in a strange place without knowing how he got there, and since I knew nothing about him yet, my own confusion was exponentially larger than his. That confusion felt like it lasted for a while, until there was a moment where I distinctly remember thinking, "Ok, Now I've settled in." Looking back, I can see now that this moment came on page six, which means in the first third of the issue alone, Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood took me from dizzied and lost to comfortable and clear. They had also, by then, fully introduced the series' three central characters, four if you count Claire (hard to say if she'll matter much in the future since she dies this issue), and five if you include John's father, who is so far just a voice in a letter, but we'll see. That's a shitload of work to do in six pages, but Nitz and Smallwood make it seem easy.
Nitz is a talented writer, able to show us his cast through their varied and realistic voices. Even when it serves as exposition, the dialogue sounds real, the characters talk to each other like people. That helps Nitz explain a lot about their relationships without needing to say anything at all---by seeing how they talk about the various problems in their lives, we also learn how they interact with one another. The strength of Reggie and John's friendship is apparent from their first phone conversation, and only gets bolstered by the scenes that follow. And John's general assheadedness comes through in his dealing with Claire and Jen, women who seem to want to love him but are running out of reasons. He has a strong supporting cast and interesting relationships with all of them, which helps him work as a successful protagonist. John's a thoroughly unlikable guy, but the story and people that surround him are fascinating, and so is his constant calm when faced with enormous, deadly, inexplicable things.
But it's Nitz's incredible pacing that truly brings this issue home, ultimately even more impressive than his character work. We meet the core cast, are introduced to the series' high concept, and have three separate inciting incidents: John steals the mask, John kills Claire, John kills all those other guys. In a standard 22-page story, Nitz has already written what could be, like, half of a mini-series in another writer's hands. And the high concept is a complicated thing, a mask that somehow transfers the memories of dead people into its wearer's mind so said wearer can avenge their deaths. By sticking us right into John's head after the mask takes control, though, Nitz gets this new and large idea across to the reader efficiently, and in a way that also always propels the narrative forward. John never sits still to consider the implications of what's happening to him, because he's too busy covering it up from the rest of the world.
For all the awesome writing from Nitz, though, Greg Smallwood earns most of the credit for Dream Thief #1, if only on the basis that all of the visuals---art, colors, and letters---are his work. And he impresses in all three areas. His stuff is moody and stylized but still down-to-earth, with figures and backgrounds that are equally realistic and detailed. His cast is expressive and consistent, everyone distinct and recognizable from their first appearances. Really, in terms of the characters, Smallwood delivers rock solid but not astounding artwork. But his layouts are inventive, and used for maximum effect, most notably in the scene when John first wakes up with the mask on. We get a page where the panels form a question mark followed by one where they're an exclamation point, but the images escape the borders of these shapes, too, heightening the drama and making the panels themselves a background. Then, immediately, there is a tremendous two-page spread done in all black and red and with curved, warped panels borders. These pages represent dreams or memories, so they reflect that visually, and the result is as surprising as it is beautiful as it is haunting.
Smallwood does a lot of good color stuff, too, sometimes reminiscent of Tonci Zonjic in Who is Jake Ellis? where whole pages are done in a wash of yellow or blue. At other times, though, the colors are more true-to-life, and they're always carefully chosen and emotive. Even in the lettering, Smallwood does good stuff, with John's narration done in white text on top of stark black captions, and his father's letter popping up in chunks of lined yellow paper and handwriting. The best bit of lettering, though, is when John attacks his drug dealer. I don't know how to describe it, exactly, but basically the bubble letters of the battle sound effects have small but detailed visual flourishes in them that are just delightful.
I can't say enough good stuff about this debut, and could not be more excited for the four chapters to follow. I haven't been so fully blown away by a single issue in a good long while.