Break from the Bat #18: Sombra

Welcome back to Break from the Bat, our monthly trip outside the dangerous streets of Gotham and into the wider world of comics. This time, we’re merely trading one heart of darkness for another, as we take a look at Boom’s Sombra, a four-part mini by writer Justin Jordan, illustrator Raúl Treviño, colorist Juan Useche, and letterer Jim Campbell.

Art by Raúl Treviño

Jordan lays it out right at the start: Sombra is an interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness—a story about blind spots, human depravity, and the wreckage of benevolent imperialism. Jordan’s tale takes us to Mexico and the so-called War on Drugs, as DEA agent Danielle Marlow tracks down her estranged father, Conrad—a former agent who has taken the war rather personally after the death of a colleague. As Danielle tries to find and stop him, she must come to terms with her own complicity in this conflict, both as an individual and as a citizen of her homeland.

My (largely) conservative lens of looking at the world prompts an immediate mental backlash against Jordan’s premise. My leftward friends tend to view systems as being made up of oppressed and oppressor, and the white West almost always clenches the fist of power in their narratives. So in some sense, Jordan’s stance seems at first like a political one—one I ought to resist because of its source.

And yet my Christian faith informs my worldview more than any political affiliation, and the notion of human depravity looms large in the way that I look at the world. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick”, writes the prophet Jeremiah. If I am faithful, I must be willing to entertain the possibility—even the likelihood—of arrogance and corruption twisting the best of intentions.

Sombra is a hard book to read. Most of the story’s horrors center around children, either as victims or assailants, and neither Jordan nor Treviño shy away from plainly depicting brutality. The artwork initially struck me as inappropriately soft and bright, with characters that look more whimsical and cartoonish than this book’s dark subject demands. But then it hit me—this is how we see things from afar. Hard edges are made softer by distance, and the weight of this conflict becomes inconsequentially light. And when the subject matter of Sombra gets exceedingly dark? The contrast between the aesthetic and what it depicts is arresting. That contrast drives home Jordan’s point as well as anything else, and is perhaps the most faithful translation of Heart of Darkness in this book: once you see these horrors up close, you can no longer view them as elements of a far-off fantasy. Once you see these horrors up close, everything that surrounds them changes—they bring their own edge, their own ugly.

As a narrative, Sombra works very well. Jordan does a good job of making us care about Danielle, even without an excess of backstory, and there is consequently a great deal of organic suspense as she moves from point A to point B through an enormous amount of danger. Her father even inspires some measure of sympathy, both because he has lost his mind, and because it was lost by the horrors of this war. But he is also one of two clear villains, because he is ultimately responsible for creating the conditions that led to the evacuation of his sanity. More than that, he represents (what Jordan sees as) the arrogance of the civilized West—that “everything is a problem to be solved”, even those problems that he himself created.

Do I have a clear stance on the War on Drugs after reading Sombra? I would need to do more research. It’s easy to be emotionally swayed by a well-crafted piece of art, but it’s much harder to do the work of getting a hold on the actual facts. But the wider implication—about man’s tendency to fix one mess with a bigger mess—rings true, and it lends a plausibility to Jordan’s claim that warrants further investigation. If you’re looking for light reading, Sombra isn’t it; but if you’re willing to have your heart and mind stirred and your preconceptions challenged, it is well worth the effort it takes to get through.

That’ll do it for my look at Sombra. As always, let us know if you’ve read it and what you thought, and let us know what else you’re reading, too. And if you like free digital comics, follow me on Twitter @mrwarshaw and send me a tweet with the hashtag #bftbheartofdarkness. You’ll be entered to win all of the digital codes I’ve acquired in the past month, which includes (at a minimum) Black Bolt #4 and Aquaman #27, both of which are excellent books. Until next time!

Angel: Season 11 #7

Art by Scott Fischer

Angel has provided a slow burn so far, but there are a number of intriguing plots in play here. If you’re familiar with the show, then you’re used to seeing a mental war between Angel and Angelus, but we’re actually getting a full-on physical fight between the two here. If Angelus weren’t enough to deal with, Angel is trying to keep the ship they’re on from reaching land, plus he has additional factors in the form of Illyria and a mystical beetle. I recommend the read if you’re a fan of the show, but the ultimate fate of Season 11 will rest heavily on how the season ties everything up! For now, I’m enjoying this insane time-travel story.

– Josh

Aquaman #27

Art by Stjepan Sejic

Never much of an Aquafan, I decided to check out Arthur’s book once Rebirth began. While some of those early chapters were quite entertaining, consistently-good artwork was hard to come by. With the news that Sejic was joining with Aquaman #25, I decided to jump on and start buying the single issues at my local shop. Three issues into “Underworld”, Aquaman is now one of the best books on the stands, and a testament to the benefits of going back to a monthly shipping schedule. Sejic’s artwork is predictably mind-blowing, but the unexpected delight is how much tighter Abnett’s writing has become. There’s as much (or more) dialogue as ever there has been, but it’s all incredibly well-done, and not a single issue has felt like a drag. Cap it off with some excellent lettering by the incomparable Steve Wands (whose use of the borderless balloon is probably my favorite), and you’ve got a wonderfully cohesive package the likes of which we’re only really getting in other monthly books like Super Sons and Red Hood. This is high-stakes, high-drama Atlantean theater, and the whole team is nailing it.

– Brian

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 11 #9

Art by Steve Morris

Season 11 is easily the best season to date of the Buffy comics. More so than the previous seasons, Christos Gage manages to capture the tone that made the television show so successful! The legacy of Buffy is alive and well under his pen, and this issue knocks it out of the park with a number of twists that turns the series on its head. Buffy, Willow and team are in a fight to regain their powers, but if the teases in this issue are epic! I have no clue how this will turn out, but strap in for this roller coaster of a ride!

– Josh

Mother Panic #9

Art by Tommy Lee Edwards

This arc of Mother Panic is much better than its predecessor, and the unhindered dive into Gotham’s mythology is helping the title tremendously. The current villain is equally mysterious and creepy, and Violet’s personal tribulations involving her enhancements are equally gripping. If I have one complaint, it’s that most of the supporting cast is falling flat. Early on, this series thrived because of the supporting characters, but now they’re starting to feel like more of a hindrance. We get more Batman in this issue than we’ve ever gotten before, though, so that’s a plus!

– Josh

The Sandman Oversize Special #1

Art by Paul Pope and Lovern Kindzierski

These Jack Kirby 100 specials have been a great idea: take King Kirby’s original creations and have some of today’s best talent introduce them to a new generation. The New Gods led off, which was a wise choice given the fact that they’re still popular and Mister Miracle is kind of a big deal. It was a solid, enjoyable, and relatively unremarkable issue. Last week’s Newsboy Legion and the Boy Commandos tale was practically impenetrable to the point that I couldn’t even finish it. Things are back on track this week, however, as the Sandman will be tough to beat.

Now, when I say “Sandman,” one of two characters probably pops into your head. This guy isn’t either of them. Instead of detective vigilante Wesley Dodds or Morpheus of the Endless, the actual king of the dreamscape, this is costumed superhero Garrett Sanford and/or Hector Hall. He’s kind of an obscurity, but given the surprise cameo at the end of Metal the release of this issue is rather timely.

Truth be told, the only prior exposure I’ve had to this incarnation of Sandman has been the currently running Bug! and Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece The Sandman. Without much of a connection to him I didn’t know what to expect… until I turned to the first page to see the Kirbyest of Kirby homages.

I would say that’s when it hooked me, but this first story is written by Dan Jurgens and illustrated by Jon Bogdanove. I was hooked before I even started.

The story follows Sandman as he tries to prevent the dreams of one man from creeping into the dream world and affecting the dreams of other people. The writing is snappy and Bogdanove channels Kirby’s style perfectly, down to a truly triply mixed media collage of a two-page splash. The twist is appropriately meta, as the identity of the initial dreamer breaks the fourth wall. It’s a blast of a story.

It’s Steve Orlando and Dan Green’s contribution that really hit home, though. Sandman has to do what he can to prevent a young man from being overcome with regret. The story is remarkably touching, hitting almost too close to home for me. See, Jed Walker, Sandman’s charge, is overcome by guilt over drifting away from his grandfather. When his grandpa dies, there were too many things left unsaid, too many memories they didn’t make because both men were too stubborn to call the other. On a personal level this really touched me: my grandpa died suddenly last year, and while we had a great relationship and saw each other all the team, his absence still hurts. Not everyone will respond to this story the same way, but I’m thankful to Orlando for what it meant to me.

The issue closes with an assortment of “D.N.Alien” shorts, which are a bunch of crazy two page ideas (the Mountain of Judgment!) that are fun to read because of their zaniness. My personal favorite was Arin the Armored Man, a creature that was raised in an airless environment and tasked with carrying Superman’s genetic code to a far-off asteroid.

If you’re uncertain about these specials, give this one a chance. It’s written well, has great art from some top talents, and doesn’t suffer from too much familiarity, so it’s perfectly accessible to a new reader.

– Jay