Genre-Busters: Realm #1

I heard something recently in a podcast interview with writer Simon Spurrier, where he was discussing the artificial restrictions placed on only telling a story within a specific genre, and rejecting the notion of genre itself, suggesting more that creators should simply tell the stories they want to tell and bring together the elements they want to include, without worrying about whether this fits within a particular genre. I bring this up to say that I really approve of this trend, and some of my favorite comics of recent years (books like God Country, Birthright, East of West, Saga and Lazarus) succeed because they are fundamentally great stories, and they reach a next level of greatness because they bring together many different ideas and conventions from different genres. So, I'm hoping to periodically highlight stories that play with multiple genres in fun ways (i.e., genre-busters).

Realm #1
Created by Jeremy Haun and Seth Peck
Colors by Nick Filardi
Letters by Thomas Mauer 
Edited by Joel Enos
Published by Image Comics

I'm not necessarily the natural audience for a post-apocalyptic "survival in the world of monsters/zombies" story. But I will always read an interesting story, and after 1 issue, Realm is off to a promising start. Realm is a ground-level story that drops you into the middle of the world, and hooks you with tense moments, terrifically choreographed action, a detailed, decaying cityscape - oh, also, there are orcs and what appear to be dragons. Realm (from creators Jeremy Haun and Seth Peck*, colorist Nick Filardi and letterer Thomas Mauer) is worth a look. 

At some indeterminate point in the future, it appears that our modern world was invaded by magical fantasy beasts and creatures. Organized society has collapsed, and what's left of humanity seems to be living in fear and hiding, and carving themselves out little fiefdoms, struggling for the scraps of what's left of the world. Will Nolan is a man who knows how to navigate this treacherous world. At the beginning of the story he's bringing a woman (Sasha) to someone who's paid for her transit. This circumstance turns out not to be what Nolan was originally told, and is a real indicator of the dark turn that what's left of society has taken. Nolan makes his way back to his handler who lets him know about another job. As the issue progresses, we meet the people he'll be escorting, along with seeing a number of different hints at the weird and dark turn this world has taken. For Nolan in particular, it's clear that he's got a complicated story and is dealing with all sorts of demons.

My introduction (at the top) was meant to provide the context in which I read Realm. I already knew that this story was marketed as post-apocalypse meets high fantasy, so I was intrigued. But mixing genres is no guarantee that a story is going to be good. However, I'm happy to say that I was absolutely hooked by this first issue, and by the end I was immediately ready for more. This is a world that I absolutely don't want to live in, but I really want to explore. This is accomplished from the first few pages of the story as the creators use a very effective technique that goes back to Jaws (and way further back I'm sure) which is not actually showing the monster. Nolan and Sasha are trying to make their way to their destination and Nolan stops and hides them. We don't see what they're seeing up in the sky, we don't even see the word "dragon" uttered, but from their reaction and expressions it's clear that this is something fearsome.

By the time we get to their destination, which is an old Costco that's been turned into the home of the "King" of this area, we have something of a sense of the world these characters live in. As the story moves to Nolan's home in what was downtown Chicago, we see what was the city and also see the devastation wrought by the giant, inhuman monolith that now resides in the city. The art here is detailed and haunting. They've captured the sense of what was Chicago in great detail, which makes the scenes of the city abandoned and broken carry real emotional heft. They also offer hints of the goings on inside the monolith, and the creative team hear brings that to life in creepy, disgusting, vivid detail. It's clear that the supernatural has descended on earth, and earth was in no way ready for it.

We meet a number of characters in this story but Nolan is clearly the story's focus. There are elements of the story that feel like in other hands they could be cliche, but I found him compelling and interesting as a character. He's a "rogue with a past" who's good at his job; he's sort of like a cross between Aragorn from Lord of the Rings and Han Solo, if that makes sense. He's clearly good at what he does, hes focused on his business and survival, he's got a tortured past (and some weird issues), and he's absolutely someone not to be messed with. But there's something in his characterization that works for me; he's terse without being a jerk, and he's highly skilled without being smug, and he has a clear friendship with his handler (who's name we don't learn). 

Nolan is brought to vivid life in this issue by Haun and the rest of the creative team, as are all of the characters. The art style from Haun is falls squarely in the realm of gritty realism, with tremendous attention focused on distinguishing each character carefully through design and expression. No two characters here look the same, and I appreciate that sort of attention to detail. In fact, each character is highly distinguishable; there's great attention here paid to Nolan's pragmatic look, the ridiculousness of the "King", and the weird cross between drab post-apocalypse and high fantasy fetish wear that seems to have become more common in this world.  The art reminded me of a cross between Tony Harris and a less-stylized Sean Murphy, as there's real grit and grime in this world, but the people here are presented as realistically recognizable people. Even the monsters that we see seem to fit well within the defined look and aesthetic of this world. 

That sense of realism, of this being an instantly recognizable world, extends well beyond the character design to the bombed-out city scenes. The creative team provides a big double-page spread in the middle of the comic to really established what has happened to the City of Chicago. And this really feels like Chicago, not just like "generic city" that I've seen in plenty of other comics. Haun and Filardi (on colors) have really put a lot of care into these pages and it shows. I can't say enough about the great work that Filardi does on bringing this story to life through color. It really feels like a burnt-out, washed-out world, and the browns and grays throughout the city scenes bring that to life.

When the story turns to the enormous alien monolith floating in the middle of Chicago, the colors turn weirder and more ominous - the inside of the alien/monster ship has a darker, more shadowy feel to it with what feel like interesting and unusual coloring. It's clear that this is a strange and alien place. The muted tone of that place makes the inevitable splattering of blood all the more striking. There's some gruesome, ominous and very effective color work in these pages. Elsewhere, there are some scenes involving monstrous transformations that are effectively frightening, thanks to some wonderfully detailed and weird illustration, and incongruously vivid coloring (with great use of contrasting blacks and reds and weird glowing eyes).  The detail and care extends to the lettering in Realm (from the always-excellent Thomas Mauer), as I was really impressed with the fantastic sound effects lettering throughout the story (which always enhances a good action scene). There was also some scenes of screaming characters where the font took on a monstrous look and extended out of the dialogue bubble, which was a really nice, fun touch and really conveys the guttural inhumanity of these screams. There's also some great storytelling (through lettering) in the scene where we see some sort of demonic character talking, and the dialogue bubble has an inverse color scheme (weirdly bright green letters and black background) along with jagged edges, which add to the otherworldly scene inside the monolith.

Realm absolutely does what a successful first issue does, which is that it makes me want to read issue 2. I'm really looking forward to taking more of a dive into this weird, magical and scary world.