Image Comics Challenges the Comics Industry with ‘Island #1’

Island #1 brings something to comics that hasn’t been as popular for a long time now, the anthology comicbook. When DC, Marvel and most other publishers started out in the comics industry, they published a generous amount of anthologies and used many of them to introduce some of comics’ most long-lasting and recognizable (world over) characters. While Peter Parker is no longer Spider-Man, the character started out in the pages of Amazing Fantasy, an anthology. Superman came from Action, Batman came from Detective, Thor came from Journey Into Mystery. These characters became so popular that they took over those titles before getting titles with their own name on the cover. in more modern times, titles like Solo, Flinch and Vertigo Quarterly prove that DC never gave up on the idea of the anthology, even if they couldn’t keep the first two titles alive for long.

With over 110 pages, Island #1 has Brandon Graham (Prophet) and Emma Rios (Pretty Deadly) working on new material alongside a range of new talent, exposing them to the audience of mainstream comics. This first issue starts off with a two-page cover spread, a four panel sequence above a small island leading into a bigger and more developed island, with open ports, docked ships, houses scattered around the edges and a view of the fish, abandoned submarine and relics that exists under the ocean.

From Island #1 by Graham & Rios, Image (2015)

Marian Churchland starts the interior with two oil paintings, where the first comes off as an image of waves crashing against one another and the second (seen above) a darker look at the ocean with an island in the distance, taking place during the night or the moment before a storm where the clouds cover the sky. These paintings set up Island as a different kind of anthology, one that could be part art book, part comic, part prose, part unexpected collection of polaroids found in the locked drawer of an abandoned building. A mix tape of what Graham and Rios think deserve the spotlight.

The first story, “I.D.”, is written and drawn by Rios and brings four people, that talk like they’ve never met before, into a diner to discuss what we later find out is body reassignment. In what comes off as the not too distant future, readers find themselves looking into a world where the media has just reported on the explosion of the Deimos Mission Vessel, part of a mining colony project. Not long after, a riot and storm break out and police come in to pacify the situation, dragging our innocent group into the dispute and putting them on their way to seek shelter.

With a main theme of what seems to be change, “I.D.” starts off with the world full of exploration, development, social transition, displacement and an unknown organization offering people to take on new bodies in an untested experiment. With glimpses of character insight taken from the interviews the unknown organization has with the protagonists, “I.D.” hints at a story full of commentary on personal politics, the ways people identify themselves, deal with the identities society places on them and how to live with them.

From Island #1 by Graham & Rios, Image (2015)

After “I.D.”, Rios sticks around for a few pages to provide water colors for Kelly Sue DeConnick’s prose piece, “Railbirds”. The autobiographical short story takes a confessional tone as DeConnick describes events in her past that deal with becoming a writer, feeling like a writer and reminiscing on her relationship with friend and mentor Maggie Estep before her death from a heart attack.

The story weaving from memories of times spent on the race track with Estep, her first encounter with her husband, and the death of her grandmother and time as a smoker. These memories are looked at through a metaphor of horse racing, with the numbers and odds tied to them, and rules of writing as ways of living life. The writing is executed with odd transitions, coming off as stream of consciousness at some point and exposition at others. This can make reading it awkward, and make a reader wonder what images were in Deconnick’s mind and what “Railbirds” would have been like if it was split up through panels in comics form. Or where Rios was given more range to work with. Nevertheless, there are rewarding moments, especially towards the story’s resolve, “Causality gives me comfort. But the truth is, bad things just happen sometimes and you don’t get to know why. You can’t steer a rollercoaster and the form won’t tell you who’s going to win.”

Graham’s contribution brings readers (back) into the world Multiple Warheads. Familiar characters Nikoli (a werewolf) and Sexica (an adventurer) walk through their alternate version of Russia, where inhabitants can be anthropomorphic animals or flying whales that have restaurants built around them and have parts of their body harvested to feed diners. With each page, Graham packs information into his panels. With very detailed environments, readers aren’t only shown a new sci-fi/fantasy world, they have many new details identified and explained with meticulous notations, regardless of how superfluous these items seem. These notations often come off as a way for Graham to pack puns and jokes into the pages, giving his audience more than just a story, but a sort of narrative aside that somehow doesn’t break the pacing of his story.

Nikoli and Sex’s story starts off as a sort of romantic comedy in disguise, where the humdrum details of their relationship and personal lives, and Nikoli’s sense of inferiority to Sex, are focused on. But some of the most visually impressive and enthralling moments aren’t concerned with their relationship at all. Starting off the chapter, Nikoli’s dream of “the wolf’s life” where a child rides a wolf on a short adventure through a magical forest that, along with its inhabitants, could have been in the movies Labyrinth or Never Ending Story. These few pages show animals with numbers in place of detailed faces, and works with a pacing similar to his other Image book, Prophet.

From Island #1 by Graham & Rios, Image Comics (2015).

This pensive sort of development is also present in the short part of the story that focus on the mysterious wizard that hides in the depths of the wailing walls and is delivered in a way that excites and begs to be elaborated on. By the end of the final chapter, Nikoli is left on the beginning of what could be the start of his own adventure and “Multiple Warheads: Ghost Town” leaves readers with plenty of reason to see how it picks up. The only downside is that three months will pass before it continues in Island #4.

“Dagger Proof Mummy” is the third cliffhanger in the first issue of Island, and marks the first entry for a relative unknown that goes by one name, Ludroe. Besides a credit in Prophet #44 and King City (both Brandon Graham books), there’s not much out there about Ludroe, besides his blog. Dagger Proof Mummy shows a world of skateboarding, anthropomorphic cats and a mysterious figure that doesn’t seem to be fatigued by the knives those cats keep stabbing him with. Drawn in a graffiti style, the story focuses part on Reno and her teenage struggle of finding a group that fits in with. Choosing skateboard culture, she focuses her attention on Dirk, the king of the local skaters.

With a backwards cap, Dirk gives her the advice on pulling off tricks by telling her, “It’s mental. Most people rehearse for failure. Once you break down your barriers… Anything is possible,” before before skating around the arch of an underpass. When Dirk attempts to jump the narrow bridges, something goes wrong and he vanishes in the gap between them. Soon after, dagger wielding cats appear, surrounding Reno before a mysterious figure wrapped in bandages comes to save her and taking daggers in the back in the process. Is this mummy Dirk? Maybe the next issue will answer this question.

Merriam-Webster’s final entry for “Island” reads “an isolated group or area; especially: an isolated ethnological group”. While the stories in Island aren’t connected to one another thematically, the book exists as a sort of island in the ocean of contemporary comics that mostly concentrate on the genre-based stories of spandex heroics, science fiction, fantasy and whatever Vertigo post Karen Berger is turning into. With a business model of turning out quality books of all kinds and selling the first volume of trade paperbacks for $9.99, Island also functions as a way to look at Image Comics as an Island in the comics industry, one that takes chances that pay off, excites readers, and worms its way into becoming a top contender of Marvel and DC with the guts to put out an anthology that has 30 pages more than Vertigo Quarterly for same $7.99.