John Lincoln is a bastard. For his sins (and our enjoyment), Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood put him through the wringer in a story that is both incredibly imaginative and well-executed.
Written by Jai Nitz
Illustrated by Greg Smallwood
Your dreams . . . His nightmare!
After stealing an Aboriginal mask from a museum, John Lincoln realizes that the spirits of the vengeful dead are possessing his body and mind while he sleeps! His old problems have been replaced by bloody hands and the disposal of bodies-and now remembering where he spent last night has never been more important!
Usually the deadbeat protagonist of a redemption story faces the consequences of his or her behavior, which results in lessons learned and a changing of said behavior. It’s not often that said deadbeat protagonist suffers the consequences of supernatural acts independent of their own unscrupulous nature. (Overlooking the fact that they stole the cursed Aboriginal mask in the first place, of course.) The real magnetism of “Dream Thief” #1 is not the premise of waking up and having no idea where you are or how you got there, though that is always a pretty good hook to pitch a story on. No, the thing that makes “Dream Thief” such a refreshing and compelling read is how it manages to draw you into a largely character-driven piece without needing you to identify with or like any of them.
Jai Nitz shows an ability of a writer far beyond his experience level to engage the reader and to fill out his characters through natural conversational dialogue and by letting their actions define them. Though many of the choices made throughout the story are questionable on the parts of the main characters, Nitz presents them as the result of the perpetual motion machine that is life. When nothing seems to be going right, it’s easier to let your life tumble downhill. The key is that Nitz doesn’t allow his characters to do anything so unbelievable as to defy reality. Well, at least not before the supernatural premise of the book kicks in. And he is patient in building the human aspects of the story across the first half of the issue, so that by the time the mystical Aboriginal mask is stolen, we care about what happens to everyone involved. And while Nitz proves to be a natural storyteller in the way he develops his characters by playing them off of one another, the situations that John Lincoln finds himself in once he’s playing the “Dream Thief” are so outlandish that we can’t help but follow our, um, “hero” down the rabbit hole. Lincoln is the kind of guy that has probably woken up in strange bedrooms more than a time or two in his life, but certainly never like this. As readers, we’ll hope that Nitz’s eventual exit strategy for Lincoln’s improbable situation is a good one, but for now his bloodied hands work as a thematic extension of a man who tends to dig himself deeper into the holes in his life.
Greg Smallwood’s art is a revelation and a huge boon to Nitz’s storytelling, as well. The two have been longtime friends and have collaborated for a few years on what would eventually become “Dream Thief.” The synchronicity that should come from knowing and working with someone for so long is present in the pages of issue #1. Smallwood has cited Sean Phillips as an influence and this is probably the clearest comparison that can be made, given his heavy use of shadow and his attention to detail. But Smallwood’s storytelling is all his own as he finds new ways to keep the setting and mood in mind on every page. He fills the panels out with unique objects and details when he can, and drops them out at key moments to highlight a reaction or emotion. Every artistic decision is made deliberately and with service of the story in mind.
Recurring motifs in the paneling and positioning of characters in recurring situations act as an intellectual exercise that pay off for careful and engaged readers. As John Lincoln finds himself tumbling out of control, so go the panels. Flashbacks are integrated into the story with consistent and specific color schemes and are never confusing. There is so much going on conceptually that could cause a disconnect between the writer, artist, and ultimately the reader that Smallwood’s ability to keep everything crystal clear is a credit to his immense talent even as a fledgling of the comic world. Color schemes and motifs are crafted in such a way that they are intuited by the reader without straining to follow along. He even experiments with a few panel tricks that act as stylish bits of flair in action sequences that would have been captivating on their own. When a character punches someone, the blow is split off into a separate panel in a way that maximizes impact but also plays right into the concept of the “Dream Thief” – it’s very clever and difficult to describe without spoiling the story.
So don’t spoil the story for yourself. “Dream Thief” is one of those rare stories that is so much better than the gimmick of the concept that it’s being sold on. The tagline about waking up and not knowing where you are or how you got there is a good one, but it doesn’t begin to describe the densely packed comic book that you get here. Nitz and Smallwood have a robust story on their hands and passionately deliver it in a way that only a comic book can.
Final Verdict: 9.0 – It’s stellar. Buy.