By Andrew P. Stevens. Dark Horse Presents is a monthly anthology series, offering a buffet of art, narrative, and style with serialized sagas, one-shots, and  experimental sequential art ranging from smash-‘em-up monster stories to collage pieces about psychics. This comic venue can move anywhere from the intellectual heights of Action Philosophers (grab the trade!) to the simple, brutal pleasures of Wrestling with Demons. In issue #3 we get a continuation of three previous stories, two new multi-parters, and a wordless one shot about turtles, which means that any reader will find a something suited for their palate in this monthly offering.

Dream Gang, the cover story of Dark Horse Presents #3, occupies the front pages of this issue. Over the past two installments, a clear and coherent story has yet to emerge, aside from Dream Gang‘s initial exposition: a man has emerged from his dreary black and white world into a technicolor dream reality, where he takes on an avatar that is a surreal, pop-art mix of David Bowie and Batman. He teams up with a punk rock dog and traverses a surreal landscape that includes a phallic lighthouse with wings and a scrotum of dirt that might actually be a small body part to the series’ antagonist.

Brendan McCarthy makes dramatic leaps in a plot that mimics the acid-drenched dreamscape the writer flows about these two characters, but then seems only content to let those characters catalogue, like dueling encyclopedias, what the names are for everything that occurs around them. The protagonist at one point even pulls a book from his chest and begins reading from it aloud (“… its an embedded guide… an annotated atlas of all the dream worlds discovered so far,” our punk rocker dog informs us).

There are few things that derail a narrative more quickly than characters in the midst of an expository conversation choosing to read something aloud instead of relying on their own loquaciousness. Given that we’re operating in a visual narrative, in a dream world, we don’t need every symbol and object named, explained, and defined in confusing syntax and bold capitals. Near the end of McCarthy’s tale we stumble into a scene with enough characters through which the story might finally get us somewhere, anywhere beyond the recitation of invented facts. (There’s a possibility where we’re in a narrative styling not unlike Southland Tales, where the absurd all has an allegorical corollary and an end purpose. We’ll see where McCarthy takes us.)

Following Dream Gang is Amala’s Blade, created by two relative newcomers, Steve Horton and Michael Dialynas. This segment’s artwork shows Dialynas as an emerging talent, his color choice unique and panel pace energetic. The story has some promise, but shares similar issues of exposition to Dream Gang.

We’re in a robot-operated galactic cantina where ethnically-vague, katana-wielding smugglers negotiate travel into the infamous Sea Monster Bay. The story’s setup here has potential, but the plot’s machinations chugs along too loudly over its more subtle elements (namely, its gorgeous colors). The creators blast the reader with a cacophony of invented terms that might – might – prove worthwhile three months from now, which is a hard sell for a medium often predicated on instant gratification.

The art rescues this story, largely imbued with blues, pinks, blacks, oranges and purples, along with an attention towards light and shadow that breathes a life into the action that its writing might soon support. The story ends with a young street urchin bard singing about Sea Monster Bay’s dangers, a full page splash with both subtle movements and heavy-handed foreshadowing.

Beyond being a weather report of the various artistic climates in the industry, Dark Horse Presents serves as a demonstration of how to approach exposition, and the strength of issue #3 lies in Wrestling With Demons. One of the most literal titles in DHP also features its most robust creative team, with Andy Kauhn’s art paired with John Rauch’s colors and John J. Hill’s letters. Demons effectively establishes its characters with quick stroke, and its two writers, Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, demonstrate their experience. The story, while absurd in premise, generates pathos and momentum in equal measure with script and art flowing effortlessly together.

In Demons, we follow a cage-fighting dad working his way to Las Vegas with his daughter, both of whom are looking for a fresh start after having suffered a familial loss due to cancer. They make a stop at an old mining town tourist trap, where the daughter gets snatched by demons who run an underground fighting ring. Though the narrative frame that shuttles our characters into this den of violence might seem flimsy, it works, and that makes Palmiotti and Gray’s story all the more enjoyable.

The plot then centers around a hostage situation between the dad and Lucifer himself, where dad is forced to gamble his soul in order to regain his daughter and his freedom fighting in MMA matches against a parade of monsters. Enter his ringside coach, Ted, a fedora-sportin’, air-of-mystery type whose goatee barely obscures his dark past, and while these plot points might evoke giggles from some, the team handles the elements well. What makes this narrative succeed is that from panel one the story telegraphs its intent: Las Vegas’ high risk is countered by Dad’s MMA skills, but trauma and peril persist anyway, perfectly illustrated by his wife’s death and the decay of the ominous mining town, so nothing occurring seems unwarranted or unnecessary. In Demons we encounter a creative team that knows their craft and promises a satisfying story in future issues.

Now we arrive at Peter Hogan’s Resident Alien, a story about a stranded alien protecting his race’s technology from a violent human species, all while disguised as a doctor/professor/hermit/gambler/ex-counterfeiter. Those facts only become apparent three issues in after a confusing milieu of plot twists, pseudo-character introductions, and muddled back story that leaves one curious as to whether this tale is a medical drama, alien sci/fi piece, or a Native American bildungsroman featuring an asexual alien mentor. While this myriad of possibilities may sound interesting in list form, they show the way this book resists congealing into a narrative, leaving the reading experience uneven. Granted, some leeway must be given, primarily because DHP provides such small slices to numerous stories, juxtaposed so closely to others that it can become easy to spot tiny flaws. Artist Steve Parkhouse has a sense for landscape, color, and exteriors that make this story appealing to the eye, and draws the story’s nameless, teenaged character with grace, which leave some hope for the tale.

The Chaining, a story almost entirely free of exposition, centers on a group of Vikings – namely on Christian Vikings – who seem caught up in a rite that involves a virginal young woman with an unknown fate. Our setup for this journey includes God, patriarchy, and the global frontier all in a span of eight pages. Tyler Jenkins takes on the story and art along with Kelly Fitzpatrick on colors, and together they establish a mood of mystery and a narrative filled with possibilities in quick and spectacular order.

This comics seems to be Jenkins’s Dark Horse debut (his other works include his co-created Image Comics title, Peter Panzerfaust). His story hallmarks a traditionalized Dark Horse style not too dissimilar from Mike Mignola: he illustrates panels high on physical action and mood, keeping it low on exposition and dialogue, and The Chaining offers a respite in an anthology that contains other narratives with far more complex storylines. The Chaining, a title that suggests both bondage and future liberation,  foreshadows a moody adventure in ancient times that will weigh cerebral issues of identity with axe slicing action, and it is an exciting addition to this month’s issue.

The issue ends with Age Of Reptiles: Baby Turtles by Ricardo Delgado with colors by Jim Campbell. This eight page story, much of which splashes across every available inch of the anthology’s two-page spreads, tells the story of turtles as they journey in prehistory towards the ocean. The turtles traverse a world of violent super-squids, sharks, and piranhas, all intent on bloodshed and mayhem. Delgado renders all the creatures involved in stunning detail, illustrating massive land and seascapes that are feasts for the eye. The inclusion of this piece makes for a nice ending after the juggling of so many plots.

Purchasing Dark Horse Presents allows the reader to the support the comic book industry’s new and emerging voices in a format that divorces Dark Horse from their higher-selling compatriots. If we scan all of Dark Horse’s offerings, we see an emphasis on style and art, and experiments in the form of comics that are hard to find elsewhere. While each story may not match cater to one’s desire for the caped ubermench, it is a chance to spot new talent in a field that will only keep growing.

Dark Horse/$4.99

Written by Brendan McCarthy, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Peter Hogan, Tyler Jenkins, and Ricardo Delgado.

Art by Brendan McCarthy, Michael Dialynas, Andy Kuhn, Steve Parkhouse, Tyler Jenkins, and Richard Delgado.

Colored by  Brendan McCarthy, John Rauch, Steve Parkhouse, Kelly Fitzpatrick, and Jim Campbell.

6.5 of 10