Unsympathetic protagonists aren’t something on which I’m too keen. There are some notable exceptions—the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia springs to mind—but usually I prefer to root for my heroes. Right on the first page Dream Thief’s John Lincoln is as flagrantly unlikable a character as I’ve come across in a long while, and he doesn’t improve significantly in the following five issues. He’s selfish and irresponsible, a brazen liar and cheat, and is not the least bit guilty or apologetic about any of it. He may not exactly be proud of his flaws, but he’s not ashamed of them either, content to be a lousy guy if it means living life on his own terms. Nevertheless, I like John. I care about him and his story. The comicbook that contains them is so surprising, singular, and well-crafted that John’s shortcomings are a very small price to pay for a dense, rewarding read.
The premise of Dream Thief is sneakily simple: the spirits of recently murdered people take over John’s mind and body while he sleeps, using him to get revenge on whoever killed them. Then he wakes up, often in unfamiliar locations, and finds fresh corpses lying around while the memories of the dead person who just possessed him slowly trickle in. John has no control over who will take him over or when, and there’s no apparent pattern or criteria to it, either. Other than being murder victims, the spirits who inhabit John have very little in common, save for their bitterness, rage, and thirst for often-vicious violence against those who took their lives.
The craziness all kicks off after John steals an old aboriginal mask from a museum, a stoned move he makes just for fun and to see if he can do it. The mask seems to be the cause of everything, or is at least connected to it all, since whenever John wakes up again he has the mask on, even after ditching it in a swamp and burning it. Over time, John comes to accept the inescapability of his stolen disguise, and even starts to seem happier with it on than off. It gives him a certain confidence and sense of purpose. He embraces his new position as avenger of the unjustly murdered, and the mask is what he uses to slip into that role and get things done.
To be fair, John never actually has too big a problem with his new situation, at least not morally speaking. He’s immediately on board with the idea that since the folks he kills when he’s acting as someone else are killers themselves, they deserve whatever he and the people inside him deliver. This is the case even with his first victim, despite the fact that she is (or was, anyway) his girlfriend, Claire. They weren’t especially close anymore, it’s true, but being in a failing relationship with someone and being ok with ending their life are far from the same thing. Yet because John learns that Claire also murdered somebody—a totally innocent man named Armando Cordero who she incorrectly believed to be the same man that broke into her home and attacked her not long ago—he isn’t bothered by her own demise at his and Cordero’s hands. After that initial incident, John only grows more comfortable with being a vessel for the vengeance of strangers, and though he never directly takes anyone out when he’s in control of himself, he does put an ever increasing amount of energy toward making sure the many wicked people he meets all get their comeuppance.
Here am I am still summarizing the plot and John as a leading man when what I should be carrying on about is the art in Dream Thief. Credit where it’s due, writer Jai Nitz does excellent work in his own right, fitting a lot of information and plot progression into every chapter. Most of the details I divulged above are just from the debut issue, and I haven’t even mentioned the other two main characters, John’s best friend Reggie and sister Jenny, who each have their own arcs and are at least as well-developed as John. Plus there are four different people who possess John over the course of the narrative, each with their own equally interesting life story (and death story), as well as unique skill sets that John gets to learn instantly and use as his own. Nitz has no shortage of fresh ideas, introducing each of them as quickly as possible without being unclear, so he always has room for more. The only place where he slides just a shade is in the last issue, where some of the resolutions feel like they were a tad crammed in so that the book could end when it had to (and even then, it closes with many threads left dangling for a planned second volume of the title). Be that as it may, with Dream Thief Nitz has conceived a tale as original as it is ambitious, and proven himself to be head-and-shoulders above most of his contemporaries when it comes to assembling a tight, expressive, successful script.
Even with Nitz’s regularly stellar writing, though, Greg Smallwood is the guy who elevates this comic to another level. He produces not just the lines but the colors and letters, too, meaning that once you open the cover of any issue, what you see is 100% Smallwood. And he does great work in every area, deftly using all the tools at his disposal. His style is fairly realistic, which is right for this series even though the story is all magic masks and risen spirits and such. These elements are easier to digest when they take place in visually familiar territory, and Smallwood’s pencils are intricate enough that everything looks like it comes from the real world. Backgrounds are full of tiny odds and ends, the characters all have a wide emotional range, the action and gore are intense without being over-the-top, and every new geographic location has its own distinct vibe. Though normally the phrase “world-building” is reserved for the sci-fi and/or fantasy genres, I think it’s appropriate here, as Smallwood truly builds an entire world from the ground up with no noticeable gaps.
His coloring choices are more stylized and heightened, not as true-to-life as the linework, but with good reason. The colors don’t shift just to set a new mood, though obviously that’s part of it. They’re also used to quickly distinguish between past and present, with panels being washed out in a deep blood red when John recalls something he did while one of the dead people was in charge, and in black-and-white when he is remembering their more distant pasts. And though most of the backgrounds are, as I said, packed with detail, in scenes of great emotional upheaval, Smallwood draws his images on top of solid blocks of much brighter than usual colors to underline the impact of the scenes. He also does a lot with blank space, sometimes making his panels smaller than needed to fit on the page so they look like they’re floating in a sea of white. This tends to occur when John is feeling shocked, confused, or lost, meaning when the main character is set adrift, so are the visuals.
The two things I personally liked most about Smallwood’s art were his thoughtfully structured layouts and the way he displayed what it’s like for John to have access to other people’s knowledge and abilities. In the first issue, for example, Smallwood has the same panel layout appear at the top of three different pages, each one a new instance of John waking up in a strange place with no memory of how or why he’s there. It’s a simple, almost obvious touch, but an effective one, letting the reader know what they’re seeing before they even have a chance to be told by the narration. There are several instances of groups of panels that form a question mark and/or exclamation point, very clear symbols in which to frame the most confusing or exciting scenes. And Smallwood is a big fan of fitting in as many panels as he can on a page without making any of them feel overcrowded. He can do a lot in a very skinny sliver, and all with the energy and clarity as he brings to a full-page splash. Just like Nitz with the narrative, this approach lets Smallwood put a lot in a small space, meaning every issue has more meat on its bones than it otherwise would.
Showing how John has to share his mind and body with the spirits of the dead is where Smallwood does his best work. In a single panel, he’ll draw John as being simultaneously himself and whatever ghost most recently arrived, separating small fractions of his body with sound effects lettering and color. So for example, when John uses Cordero’s boxing skills to beat somebody up, part of his face is Cordero’s face, too, and the same goes for his fists. The image is sectioned off by the lines of the giant bubble-lettered “Wham” and “Slam” noises that accompany every punch, with John being John (in full color) outside the letter borders and Cordero (in black-and-white) within them. Smallwood accomplishes this in a way that’s unobtrusive yet impossible to miss, not showboating for or distracting the reader but still firmly and confidently doing what he’s doing. It’s a technique worth studying, seen numerous times during this series without losing its appeal or growing less impressive.
I’m missing things, I know I am, stuff I meant to say about Smallwood when I was rereading Dream Thief in preparation for this column but has since slipped my mind. Or parts I didn’t even notice, contributions from Smallwood that you’d have to be more artistically trained to spot, or that I whizzed past while I was soaking up the rest of his awesome work. But for a guy who hasn’t done much (or perhaps any…?) professional comicbook work before, Smallwood sure brings both the noise and the funk to this title. He and Nitz are an amazing pair, collaborating seamlessly on a project that started strong and wound up as one of the absolute highlights of the year.