by Jarrod Jones. “Confinement or danger” is a cruel choice to make, especially when it’s handed down by a system that doesn’t give a damn about you. For some people, it’s hardly any choice at all.

Deep inside the Arroyo wildfires labors Crew 513, a firefighting brigade assembled from willing convicts who would otherwise be cooling their heels inside a California women’s penitentiary. Among its ranks: Sawyer, who runs the heavy tools; Zinn, the strategist; Ramos, the lookout and resident goof; and Brooks, the unit’s Swamper, the newest kid on the block with the highest profile jacket of the lot. They’re a strange bunch but they’re out here fighting death and destruction for folks who will never even know their names. It doesn’t matter what they did in their past lives, we’re told, not when they’re laying their lives on the line.

Leading the 513 is Ruby Ma Ning, a correctional officer who has recently contracted Stage One throat cancer from smoke inhalation. The imminent surgery is about to put Ma on her ass for at least two months—doctor’s orders—which will leave the team without her guidance for too long by half. “The doctor said I should take eight weeks away from the smoke,” she muses. “But he can go to hell.” 

Ma’s long since broken a cardinal rule of the prison-industrial complex: she’s gotten close to the criminals she’s paid to watch over, knows their individual stories and doesn’t judge them in the slightest. This unit’s as tight as it is because of Ma, and her leadership helps them effectively put out the fires that threaten the various multi-million dollar estates which dot the Californian landscape. 513 is so close they even share post-prison dreams with each other during their safety-first cigarette breaks, with Ma, the custodian of a special brand of smokes, listening intently.

Those cigarettes, by the way? Candy. Chew ‘em if you got ‘em. 

The topicality of all this, the ceaseless forest fires and the constant reminder that the systems that have made our lives both miserable and dangerous are still in place, is about as bleak as it gets and that’s the point of the premiere storyarc of Dark Spaces, a new creator-owned anthology series sired by writer Scott Snyder which dwells in the fight-or-die worlds of desperate people in desperate situations. Illustrated by Hayden Sherman, colored by Ronda Pattison and lettered by AndWorld Design, Dark Spaces: Wildfire is a succinct and lushly conceived depiction of desperation, one that shows us all the ways we end up twisting and breaking rules and reason when opportunity knocks. 

And opportunity has kicked the door in on the 513. A moment arrives when Brooks looks up from the scorched earth and recognizes the terrain: her boss lives around here, their manse a treasure trove of untraceable cryptocurrency valued well north of a billion dollars—easy pickins if her fellow travellers are willing to make the excursion. In the limited space of this debut issue Snyder & Sherman establish each character with clear definition; as their purpose on the 513 is clear, so too is their function in the story. Sawyer is 40 years-old, no buillshit, all business. “If there’s a leader [in this unit,]” Ma muses, it’s Zinn. Ramos is closer to her release than anyone else, and she’s clearly enjoying her final days a bit too much (“I don’t know why I even give her goddamned cigs,” Ma says).

And then there’s Brooks, as white-collar as they come, who either isn’t as unscrupulous as her headline-grabbing crimes would have us believe or she absolutely is—and will soon become the 513’s biggest liability.

The entrancing nature of fire is often used as a metaphor for the conflict burning in the hearts of a story’s characters. Thankfully Snyder & Sherman take a different and far more interesting tack by exploiting the chaos fire brings in order to push their ensemble to the point of no return. Wildfire uses an inferno as cover for its retribution-guided heist, which makes for tantalizing drama.

This is some of the best work Sherman’s done in their career so far, by far; the more abstract sketchiness of their work in earlier titles like Cold War and Wasted Space has tempered into something more formal and complex here. Multiple panels scattered over double-page spreads detail the merciless grind of daily firefighting as Ma’s story plays out in deliberately-placed captions set by AndWorld Design. A fateful cough is given an appropriate hugeness. Uncertainty causes a page’s layout to fracture into infinity. And when we’re in the shit alongside Crew 513 Sherman conveys the sweat and soot with precision while Pattison makes sure her orange-and-teal movie poster color scheme functionally contrasts against the expansive vistas which burn like a living Hell.

It’s a collaborative effort that maximizes the effectiveness and lyricism of Snyder’s story. Wildfire is the leanest and most intriguing tale he’s spun in a minute, and its mini-series format suits his novelistic style, at least so far: this issue is bookended by an opener that depicts a horrific vision of death and a finale that appears to confirm this as the last moments for this series’ motley crew—and while Dark Spaces: Wildfire is still early in the telling and little has been set in stone in terms of this new anthology’s format (are Shyamalan-esque twists gonna be a thing?), Snyder’s closing flourish is an effective twist of the knife just the same.

As oppressive heatwaves grip our planet and fires rage as a result, we are trapped by the constant reminder of how tenuous our grip over nature truly is—and if nature has made its point, that our comfort and security has indeed always existed on borrowed time, then why continue to toe the line for the systems that has failed both us and our planet so spectacularly? Dark Spaces: Wildfire aims to offer catharsis to those of us who demand a better hand than the one we’ve been dealt. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and the pressure’s on.  

IDW Publishing / $3.99
Written by Scott Snyder.
Art by Hayden Sherman.
Colors by Ronda Pattison.

Letters by AndWorld Design.

Dark Spaces: Wildfire #1 is in stores now. Issue #2 drops August 17.

Check out this 5-page preview of Dark Spaces: Wildfire #1, courtesy of IDW Publishing: