By David Dissanayake
Dark Engine is a series that I don't think everyone will enjoy.
I, however, enjoy it immensely and I am going to tell you why.
In case you haven't heard of it, Dark Engine is written by Ryan Burton, drawn by John Bivens, and colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick. It is grim, it is dark, and it is disquieting –in the best possible ways. It's also incredibly well structured, impeccably rendered and full of a kind of self-resonant poetry that makes me honestly surprised that this is the creative team's first comic.
The story follows Sym, a dark and enigmatic woman created as a weapon by twisted alchemists from a post-apocalyptic dark fantasy world. The alchemists impregnated Sym with a dark engine of their design that propels her backwards through time, with the purpose of sending her to kill their greatest enemy and ultimate bringer of the apocalypse. Unknown to the alchemists who created it, The Engine is actually alive, and it diverts Sym's trajectory through time, sending her careening through different time period after different time period, from the prehistoric age of dinosaurs, to ancient Egypt, to the cold Viking fjords, and beyond. The Engine teleports her literally inside a living animal where she has to rip her way out into some new and alien world that is ready to try and take advantage of her.
I really liked the first issue, but I don't think the series really clicks until the second issue. It's a stronger issue in which the scale of the story really begins to unfold, and it becomes clear exactly just what has been happening. Reading the second issue actually makes you realize how good the first issue actually was, because now all of a sudden you see the intricacies and context of what came before. It's a hard trick to pull off but Burton and Bivens succeed with flying colors.
With the second issue you start to see that the book is actually playing with genres within genres. We're getting stories within stories. The savage, Conan or Turok like dinosaur battles of the first issue gave way to a strange Egyptian tale of ancient religion and exploitation that leads us into a tale of frigid mountain scout Vikings. All of this is told against the backdrop of the future from whence Sym came, a brutal and unnerving place of giant dead, half-buried leviathans, suicidal alchemists, apocalypse bringing dragons and twisted schools that teach their children about horrible Sporedevil lizards who hook their face inside your mouth as they release poison spores into your lungs that cause you to spasm so violent you'll snap your own spine.
Burton's writing is oddly poetic. Odd not in terms of his prose or execution –both are excellent- but odd in that he manages to catch these bits of other-worldly narration and dialogue that are both resonant with what little we have been shown and allusive of what we haven't simultaneously. He has an authoritative control of character voices from radically different historical times, and a great eye for the disconcerting. The world building is excellent but not overstated. The creative team shows us just glimpses of this strange and compelling world, while constantly hinting at a much larger and greater landscape just beyond our vista. Bivens' art is perfect for the tone, taking Burton's unsettling world and rendering it in this wonderful -almost tactile- line work that is at once gritty and visceral, portraying the dirt and pain of this dark world in every single line. Bivens has an excellent eye for storytelling and page structure that allows him to lead your eye around the page in that seamless manner available only the most skilled of draughtsman. Kelly Fitzpatrick's colors' are pitch perfect, mixing muted and vibrant tones to make Bivens' strange landscapes and unique line work pop off the page.
Dark Engine feels almost like a new incarnation of the old principles and tones that suffused the great original Vertigo horror comics in the early days of Milligan, Delano, and Gaiman – dark, poetic, disquieting, wildly imaginative, and unrepentant in its desire to push boundaries and its refusal to talk down to the reader. It makes me wish Hellblazer was still around, because these guys would MURDER that book.
It's a story where it isn't immediately apparent what's happening or where it's going, but therein lies Dark Engine's strength, which is expertly leading you through a strange and unknown landscape so you can discover the story for yourself. It's a book that is getting better issue by issue, and I think in order to really enjoy it you have to trust the creators, and I recommend that you do.
Not everyone is willing to take the chance with a new and decidedly different book like this, but those who are will be rewarded. This is a new and decidedly different ride that you need to be open to and willing to take, but I'll bet money that when it's over, you'll be damn glad you were.
Dark Engine #1 and #2 are in stores now.
Pre-order Dark Engine Issue #3 with Diamond ID: 140539
You can buy Dark Engine digitally here
Check out a preview of issue #2 below: