Royals, monsters, and everything in between.
One of the key elements to any effective work of speculative fiction is the authenticity and believability of the world being built within it, what J.R.R. Tolkien described as instilling the work with the “inner consistency of reality.” Even the most fantastical realms when adhering to their own logic and rules can feel real and three-dimensional to the readers; it’s ultimately what allows extravagant worlds such as Westeros from Game of Thrones or the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe to feel so genuine to fans, even when the rules of such worlds permit White Walkers and talking raccoons. And the earlier the readers are pulled into the world, the more likely they are to continue believing it.
This kind of worldbuilding is what makes works such as Brandon Graham’s 8House: Arclight a delight: their capacity to bring us directly into a fictional reality and keep us there. As the first of three mini-series detailing a land ruled by eight royal Houses, Arclight tells the story of how a royal lady of one of the houses finds herself trapped in the body of a hideous creature. The story told in this first issue is not only gorgeously rendered, but pleasantly moving and sincere.
The issue begins with the titular character, Sir Arclight, traveling through the woods with a plant-like creature that is holding the spirit of a royal lady to whom Arclight is loyal. The two are attempting to track another strange creature through the woods, walking along the borders of the “Blood House” lands that contain the eight houses. They stumble upon a wounded, bright red eel-like creature, and the Lady insists they need it alive to determine what wounded it. Arclight visits a small farm plot just outside the woods and purchases a goose for a sacrifice. The Lady then uses a vial of blood she’s carrying to perform a spell that permits the spirit of the eel creature to enter the body of the deceased goose, turning it the same bright red. The new creature then accompanies the group on their journey.
These opening scenes introduce what seems to be a dominant theme in the comic: that of bodily fluidity. The fact that the Lady and the eel creature have magically had their souls transferred into other bodies implies a world where the boundaries between bodies are very thin. This is further emphasized by the fact that Arclight seems purposefully androgynous or genderqueer, making a bodily designation difficult. It’s an already fascinating aspect of this world that leaves us curious how much this fluidity affects an individual’s place within it.
The Lady tells Arclight that they must return to the city, so Arclight may return home and so she may look further into the creature they’ve been tracking. They reach and begin traveling across a Bridge called the Kainek Tekniki, a “single stone artery” that runs through the entire Blood Lands. The group approaches a statue along the bridge that permits entry into the city of Cserce-Miasta, and that requires blood to allow entry. Arclight pricks a finger on the statue, and the group continues into the city.
This scene establishes the other main theme of the story: blood. Whether it’s used in spells or as a key to a city, or even used metaphorically to describe a bridge, it’s clear this is a kingdom literally shaped by blood. This is not only a clever approach to the typical hierarchies of royalty and monarchy, in which politics and status are determined by blood, but also a fascinating contrast to the aforementioned theme of bodily fluidity. How solid a social determinant is blood when a body could be just a temporary vehicle housing different souls?
Back in the city, the Lady stations herself in Arclight’s quarters, located under a bridge. What follows is a solemn scene showing the Lady’s adjustment to her new life, looking at a holographic picture of her old self and old life, only to place it down and continue to research the creature she’s tracking. The accompanying narration reads “no point in dwelling.” Even in its brevity, it’s a moving scene of a strong-willed woman consigning herself to her fate.
Meanwhile, back in the city, Arclight is busy enjoying the nightlife when another Knight named Sir Nowak steps up to denounce Arclight’s nobility for traveling around with “bloodless nothings,” seemingly unaware of the body transfer. When Arclight threatens Nowak for this accusation, Nowak reveals his loyalty for Arclight’s old master, the Lady Kinga. The final scene of the comic shows Arclight returning to the Lady, revealing that her possessed body has returned to the city.
Though the story is light on dialogue, Brandon Graham paces it expertly, gradually revealing the story of the two main protagonists as he pieces together their world for the reader. He has also definitely shown a talent for this kind of creativity and construction with past works, such as the within the expansive world of Prophet. Despite the odd rules of the world of 8House, he lays it out for the reader with enough consistency for it to be believed. The brilliant artwork of Marian Churchland helps tremendously, which is detailed, colorful and striking enough to leave an impression of a reality all its own. The combination creates a story that is light on backstory or history, instead allowing the pieces to fall in place for the reader.
8House Arclight #1 is a wonderful exercise in concise storytelling and world building, and is not to be missed by anyone seeking to feel transported by their fiction.