The promo from Dark Horse for Dream Thief #1 warn you that "spirits of the vengeful dead" are going to "possess" John Lincoln and turn his life into a nightmare, so there's plenty of mental preparation provided for the darker side of this new series written by Jai Nitz (Heaven's Devils, Green Hornet) and drawn by impressive semi-newbie Greg Smallwood. They really pack the storytelling into this origin issue, but what you find out about Lincoln is both off-beat and surprising, and Smallwood's artwork has a subtle way of getting under your skin enough to suspect that things are about to become quite a nightmare for John Lincoln.
Lincoln's rather a sad bastard, for one thing, struggling from moment to moment to keep his life together, and unlike many sad bastard tales, Nitz and Smallwood really crack down on allowing any sympathy to develop for the character. It's part of the tone of the book to keep you quizzical, and they elevate that to an art, really, by taking you as far as they can into Lincoln's fairly vapid life in extreme detail. The structure of the story is overtly crafted to hint at things to come, from Lincoln's dad's strange letter delivered in parts overlaying early scenes to Lincoln waking up, not sure of where he is for mundane reasons. It's important that the story introduces Lincoln's thoughts early on since they will be the guiding force through the unusual premises of the book later on, too.
From a more successful and attractive best friend to a deeply troubled relationship, Lincoln seems to have all the cards stacked against him, but again, no sympathy because he comes off as rather passive, stumbling through life without really addressing the issues that plague him and retreating into a pot haze to inspire him to lie to his girlfriend to cover up cheating on her and no doubt dull the edge on realizations that he is broke and pretty clueless. These details may suggest that the book is rambling and unappealing, but that's not the case. A strange tension slowly builds up as we follow Lincoln through his life, and part of that is due to the intentionally disorienting page layouts that jump between color schemes and locations to form a collage-like introduction to Lincoln's average lacklustre day. He does the wrong things, he says the wrong things to his sister and traumatized girlfriend, and he sees himself as a man assailed by the difficulties of life.
There's an abruptness to Lincoln suddenly turning up at a museum party with hunky friend Reggie that suggests that Lincoln is well outside of his natural element: he hardly seems like a museum-goer, but that works well because what kind of average museum goer (again in a pot haze) would steal a priceless aboriginal mask. The disaffected kind, the kind who feels that life can't get much worse than it already is. If there's any sympathy for Lincoln in the book, that's where it exists, in the fact that he thinks things can't get worse, but they do get so much worse, really, for a guy who just doesn't want to engage with his problems. He's not a hero or an anti-hero, John Lincoln, and that makes things a little frightening for the reader. He's a mediocre guy who's fairly self-absorbed. What happens when someone like Lincoln gets "possessed" by vengeance? What kind of moral compass is going to guide that train wreck? At 10 pages, all of Lincoln's amoral qualities suddenly become a problem in a big way. They become suddenly significant and alarming because he becomes a kind of psychologically unstable weapon. Reassessing the daily life we've seen from Lincoln, we know he avoids cops, deals with petty criminals, cheats without compunction on his girlfriend and wants her to just "get over" a psychologically scrambling home-invasion she's been dealing with. It's not an inspiring picture. He rationalizes everything he does, so how's he going to rationalize the most extreme behavior that he may suddenly be capable of?
It's pretty breath-taking how extreme those rationalizations are, too. After becoming possessed by the mask, and waking up after a mental black-out, the ball really starts rolling on Lincoln's already characteristic behavior, now magnified to the Nth degree. "I killed my girlfriend last night. I killed her because she deserved it", he tells us. Easily the most disturbing lines in the comic, but his explanation doesn't give us much relief. She didn't deserve it because she's a cold blooded killer herself; she deserved it because she did kill someone, who she thought was actually her attacker and near-rapist, and covered it up. What? That would be manslaughter in a court of law at best, not murder. The fact that she got the wrong guy is unfortunate, but she didn't intentionally get the wrong guy. It's all very messed up. But that's the key to the intentional amorality of the series. If you read closely, you begin to realize that some spirit of justice in the mask did not force Lincoln to kill someone who was a killer. Justice had nothing to do with it. Vengeance did. The spirit of the enraged man who was unjustly killed sought out vengeance, and Lincoln became the vehicle for it. From the deceased man's perspective, his unbalanced killer deserved death, and that makes some kind of sense. From his innocent perspective, a sense of righteous indignation could inspire such brutal retaliation.
There's not a strong explanation for why Lincoln suddenly becomes a detached body-dumper and is able to carefully cover up his girlfriend's death, but presumably those mysteries will be revealed. He's fulfilling some kind of role as a vengeance-god being controlled by the lurking spirits of the victimized. To keep filling that role, he'd need some kind of instinctual programming, or else he'd be caught by authorities immediately. Those instincts remain steady, but in other ways Lincoln is totally out of control. That is to say, this new being the Dream Thief, is now totally in control. There are some eerie echoes of a mental break embedded in the character's actions. He slips in and out of personalities through sleeping, and finds himself on the other side of horrific deeds he barely remembers perpetrating. From a man of total inaction and coping, he's become the definitive man of action.
Does that mean he's suddenly an absolutist in terms of personal morality? An eye for an eye is one of the most ancient moral codes in human civilization, but the truth is that Lincoln is now in the grip of many moralities, as many as the variety of tormented souls who may possess him. And they are all convinced that they are right to do what they are doing, killing their killers. Maybe they are, and may they aren't. A reader would be likely to judge this on a case by case basis. Lincoln's girlfriend was a very unpleasantly ambiguous case, and it remains to be seen what could possibly justify the mass killing Lincoln finds himself in the midst of as the first issue ends. But that's the question, and it's a very psychologically engaging way to address readership, to ask them to weigh Lincoln's actions as the Dream Thief, and to decide to what degree he is actually culpable for his actions. One of Smallwood's greatest artistic strengths in this comic is to keep psychological realities hovering on the surface. The reader's role as observer actually becomes a little maddening as we watch Lincoln drift through life and into shocking actions because we want more exposition and explanation, but the artwork is intentionally not yielding that information, building suspense, until important moments when inside-views are offered. When Lincoln recalls the mentality of his first vengeful spirit, Smallwood employs a serpentine, flowing grid of images across a double-page spread to fill you in on what you need to know. And he keeps that information on a need to know basis. Smallwood's depictions of Lincoln actually encourage you to wrestle with your knowledge of the evolving character as much as Nitz's writing does.
The scary thing is that in his new gruesome role, Lincoln is actually a much more appealing character than in his previous life. He suddenly becomes complicated, with multiple mental angles, and if he's still clueless, he's actually affecting the world around him directly for better or worse. If he was a little crazy and definitely amoral beforehand, what does that say about the man in the mask at the end of issue #1? Of course, one of the more resonant implications of the comic addresses vigilantism. Usually vigilantes find sympathy from the reader in their own horrifying tragedies, like Bruce Wayne's murdered parents, Rorschach's abusive childhood, or the Punisher's murdered family. It's ambitious that Dream Thief is attempting to pursue the same course of action as a vigilante comic without any of those excuses buried in an anti-hero's psychology. Dream Thief is a perplexing comic, but that's the route its choosing to take and that sets it apart from many other new comics on the market and asking the reader to decide what is right, or reasonable, or wrong, or unreasonable, is a pretty sure-fire way to keep them reading.
Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics journalist and scholar working on books about Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman for Sequart.org and is a contributing editor at TRIP CITY. She is @HannahMenzies on Twitter and @hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.