THIS REVIEW OF ‘DEAD KINGS’ #1 CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.

by Brendan Hodgdon. It is an essential part of culture that we create stories that reflect our world back to us. Not every story needs to do this, but we cannot refuse to tell such stories altogether. Our societal sins and blind spots need to be examined through art as part of our cultural growth. And when it comes to LGBT persecution and survival, Steve Orlando reflects our sins back to us as well as any comics creator. Even as the current administration prepares to legally dehumanize transgender people, Orlando, along with the art team of Matthew Dow Smith, Lauren Affe and Thomas Mayer, is poised to deliver another hardscrabble tale of queer resistance in Dead Kings.

The new AfterShock series takes place in a fantasy Russia following a great war and social collapse. We follow a man named Sasha as he seeks out a warrior known as Stone Mary to get her help to free his brother, who has been imprisoned for his sexuality by corrupt enforcers of the fallen regime. This is a motivation that Orlando has used in various forms before, in both Virgil and Crude, and it still hasn’t lost its resonance. Taking place in the shattered husk of a superpower, where its citizens are at each other’s throats while the elite engage in authoritarianism, Dead Kings feels particularly impactful amidst Orlando’s bibliography.

The collapsed nation of Rus is central to what the series seems to be working towards, and both Orlando and Dow Smith do quality work to realize the world in full. We are immersed in this realm without hesitation or hand-holding; Orlando skips easy exposition when jargon-heavy dialogue between people with shared knowledge would do. He has enough faith in his audience to understand context until the stakes can be explained at the proper time. That it all hangs on recognizable cultural and geopolitical components makes the world feel more real, just as the world makes the commentary easier to process.

In this mostly-grounded opening chapter, Dow Smith’s work recalls John Paul Leon’s excellent Winter Men series, in both style and run-down Russian aesthetics. But the glimpses we get of the more fantastical elements, like towering mecha and ornately-armored stormtroopers, Dow Smith brings a keen eye for design. He also captures the perpetual exhaustion and bruised determination of the various characters, all trying in their little ways to keep afloat in the wreckage of their world. Affe’s colors are also key here; the subdued blues and grays make you feel the cold of Rus and its people alike.

The main cold people we meet in this issue are the aforementioned Sasha and Stone Mary. Sasha is a solid, if standard, sort of lead character; while there’s nothing distinct or revelatory about him in this opening chapter, he still serves as an effective prism through which to view the world. Stone Mary, the bitter war veteran drowning her sorrows in a variety of vices, is just as familiar. But Orlando and Dow Smith so effectively capture their respective pain and desperation that they remain compelling players in this tale. We only get a slight glimpse of Sasha’s imprisoned brother Gena, but it’s enough to drive home his awful predicament and the importance of Sasha’s quest.

While the protagonists might work well in spite of their archetypal nature, it is precisely the anonymous, faceless nature of the villains that makes them so impactful. There is no singular enemy established in this issue. There’s just a shattered country and a collection of jackals named the Oprichniki looking to exploit it for their own sense of power. One wonders if Orlando was motivated more by explorations into Russian history or the current American political landscape in creating these oppressive forces. Regardless of the source, their detached and senseless destruction of “degenerates” and other dissenters makes them very appropriate villains for the present moment.

Dead Kings #1 is an incredibly personal opening chapter. It brings us in at the ground level, showing us the seediest angle of its world first and making us experience it with the most downtrodden and vulnerable of its denizens. The opening juxtaposition of a mother giving birth in the shadow of a massive mecha battle seems very indicative of the direction of the series, and representative of Orlando’s best creative instincts overall. Paired with Dow Smith terrific art, Lauren Affe’s colors and Thomas Mauers’ letters, Dead Kings is the sort of sobering and intimate reflection that we will always need from our art.

AfterShock Comics/$3.99

Written by Steve Orlando.

Art by Matthew Dow Smith.

Colors by Lauren Affe.

Letters by Thomas Mauer.

8.5 out of 10

 

Check out this seven-page preview of ‘Dead Kings’ #1, courtesy of AfterShock Comics!