DARK ONE, VOL. 1
Created & Story by: Brandon Sanderson
Written by: Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly
Drawn by: Nathan Gooden
Published by: Vault Comics
WHAT IS IT?
A dark modern fantasy that blurs the line between black and white, with our protagonist torn between two worlds and a dark destiny that awaits him.
It has all the hallmarks of Brandon Sanderson's writing: detailed worlds, creative histories and mysteries, and an addictive story. Mix that with the world-hopping of Steven King's The Talisman and you're pretty close to this comic.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Paul Tanasin is having a hard time.
Haunted by terrifying visions and the ghost of a sister he never had, he seems like a puzzle piece that belongs to an entirely different puzzle.
Soon, Paul falls into a world so different from his own – a world filled with magic and adventure. With beautiful, sword-wielding Princess Feotora at his side, this other world would be far preferable to the one he calls "home." That is, if it weren't for the dark destiny that awaited him.
Will Paul be able to escape his fate and side with the side of light? Or are there more shades of gray to this story than it seems?
This is my first time reading a Nathan Gooden comic and, my goodness, have I been missing out. Gooden excels at facial expressions, panel layouts, and tone – or, at least, those are my favorite parts of his art. Gooden sells the title's promised darkness in scenes dripping with dread and shadows. Even with very little time with the characters, you understand them through their body language and the personality written on their faces, ranging from stoic or steadfast to morose or completely unhinged.
Overall, Gooden's style leans toward photorealistic characters and environments, but with a slight dramatic interpretation, treating the medium more like theatre and less like film. You get a very strong sense of Vertigo, like you're reading a classic Vertigo title with the visual clarity of 2020.
Gooden is a pro – he uses establishing shots well and leaves plenty of room for dialogue, and this is especially helpful with Sanderson comics, which can change location often and can sometimes have a good deal of dialogue and exposition on a page.
Though it's difficult to know what to attribute to creator, Brandon Sanderson, and co-writers Jackson Lanzing & Collin Kelly, the three work excellent magic together. Characters are three-dimensional, fitted with their own goals and flaws and personalities, and these motivations lead to strange bedfellows and enemies who would otherwise be friends.
Everything about this comic turns tropes on their head. Paul's a protagonist who feels like he doesn't belong. He's transported to another world, but whether he'll save the day like so many adventurers before him, or bring it to destruction, is still to be seen. This extends to themes of light and dark, good and evil, optics and interpretation in a way that's unique for a fantasy story. The beginning may seem like traditional fantasy, but the more you read, the more differentiated this story becomes. This ties closely with one of the book's central themes, "optics," and makes you wonder at what the "real" story might be behind your other favorite tales.
AndWorld Design's lettering style shows mastery of the craft without a desire for the spotlight. There's so much attention given to different sizes of sound effects, typefaces, when balloons stay within the panel vs when they break the border. But the sound effects never cease to amaze. Parallel to a blade. Big and explosive. Small and almost invisible. Almost. And the one page that's almost entirely sound effects! It's so much fun.
It may seem small, but AndWorld's letterer(s) use just the right cadence of bolding and italicizing the words to give you an exact sense of how the characters would speak. Balloons are usually contained within the panel borders, but every now and then, they break the border for a little extra emphasis.
The page that IS almost entirely sound effects is one example of many of how this isn't simply a Brandon Sanderson story adapted to the comic book medium. This is a comic that wouldn't work nearly as well in any other medium. It's meant to be a comic book, and the massively talented creative team prove that in the pages of this first volume.
There's a lot here for Sanderson fans. While, as mentioned, it's hard to say who's responsible for what, amidst all the people who had a hand in bringing this comic to life, you can still see Sanderson's fingerprint on the story. Interstitial chapters that hint at the history leading up to modern events. A class structure in need of a hero to destroy it. A unique and memorable adventure in a rich fantasy world. Strong, three-dimensional women. Reveals that will make you stop in your tracks to fully absorb how this one fact could change everything.
Also typical of Sanderson, this first volume is a complete story, but it is not, however, THE complete story. Things do not seem finished by the end of this first volume, and many seeds have been planted here that are not ready to be harvested yet.
I mentioned "optics" before, and I want to talk a little more on that. The concept is such a behind-the-scenes thing, a concept used by PR firms to gauge public perception. But this story places it front and center, with characters talking about "The Narrative" like others might talk about prophecy or destiny. The ruler of the fantasy land is called "The Chronicle King" and another character named something similar to a main element of all stories.
Personally, I'd love to know how editor, Adrian F. Wassel, would edit a story like this one, created by a fantasy titan like Sanderson. It has so many moving parts, and such a talented team, I want to see how it came to life.
Um, in my notes, I just have "Feotora is a badass" written over and over again. This is an accurate statement. She is originally presented as daughter of the king and a likely love interest, but she's a three-dimensional character all her own. Her “I’m not a lady” comment earned a well-deserved fist pump. Then paying it off with “I’m the princess” as she dives into battle flips the “damsel in distress” trope on its head.
Paul and Feotora’s banter when they first meet is a joy. They have a delightful dynamic. And their black and white color scheme plays up their personality differences (and, potentially, their alignments, if you believe in public perception).
Color is a huge part of public perception, especially in stories and, perhaps even more, especially in this story. Colorist, Kurt Michael Russell, is incredibly well-suited for this role. Though I've seen more of his bright-colored palettes in comics, and this book feels much darker, his attention to detail and how he brings every panel to life in a way that benefits the book and its central theme is nothing short of masterful. Not only do his colors combine with Gooden's line art to make truly gorgeous pages, but how Russell highlights tiny-yet-important elements in the art to draw the eye, or how he differentiates between the two worlds using warm and cool colors, or how he emphasizes a final panel using red...it all just made me pause and shout "yes!" to myself as I read along.
With some comics, dialogue can bring flow to a standstill and make reading feel like a chore. I never felt that way once while reading DARK ONE, however. Part of that is the well-written dialogue, itself. (In fact, I very badly wanted to tweet one panel, where a character says “A man said something exceedingly racist so I bit his tongue out.”) But another part of that goes back to Gooden's line art. With that same character, Mr. Caligo, his body language and pacing is so creepy, particularly in his facial expressions and deliberate movements. The whole scene plays out in perfect timing to 9-panel grids. Then, when it shifts to untraditional panel layouts, you feel that stability and control rocked. Dialogue-heavy pages are made even more visually interesting with a big moment acting as the centerpiece or framing important panels to emphasize a moment or build contrast between two juxtaposed panels. Gooden also enjoys playing with the traditional 9-panel grid, with panels that pop out. And, when the layouts become wilder, AndWorld's balloon placement helps guide you in the right direction.
All this is to say that this is a creative team working together in lock-step, not as an assembly line, to bring you one incredible and comprehensive story told perfectly. Plus, if nothing else, you know this is going to be a good fantasy story because it has a map in front.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
Because this is a comic, which is much more condensed than one of Sanderson's sprawling, epic novels, character development that usually progresses over many, many chapters takes place over a much shorter period of time. This first volume has so much ground to cover and world-building to do, you don't quite get as much time to fall in love with the characters as you do reading Sanderson's books.
The "optics" theme is a tricky one for readers, or at least, for me personally. I wanted the story to play with Paul's morality a bit more, to keep us guessing and raise the stakes. Instead, he really does seem like the hero. He seems like a hero, albeit haunted, who may arguably make some questionable choices. But, for the most part, he seems in the right. And maybe this is one shortcoming of the medium, as mentioned in the bullet above – you just don't have room to do everything.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
For Brandon Sanderson fans, this is required reading. But even if you haven't read any of Sanderson before, if you love stories that traverse modern and fantasy dimensions, and tales that take place in those shades of gray between Good and Evil, you'll definitely be into this.
But even beyond genres and tropes, this is a dream team creative casting. Vault is the reigning champion of fantasy comics, and they're working with a fantasy literature heavyweight and a phenomenal cast of creators including Vault's co-founder and Art Director, Nathan C. Gooden, on line art.
You're gonna want to give this one a read, friends.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
If you like the writing:
White Sand, Vol. 1 by Sanderson, Hoskin, Gopez
Zojaqan by Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing & Nathan C. Gooden
Forgotten Home by Erica Schultz & Marika Cresta
If you like the art:
Preacher by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon
Seven to Eternity by Rick Remender & Jerome Opeña
ABOUT THE CREATORS
Brandon Sanderson – Creator, Story
Name Recognition: He's a massively well-known figure in the world of fantasy and sci-fi literature, especially for his Cosmere universe and finishing the Wheel of Time series
Award Winner: His literature, particularly within his Cosmere universe, has won many literary awards
Don't Google too much about the Cosmere unless you're all right with spoilers!
Jackson Lanzing & Collin Kelly – Co-writers
Dream Team: Lanzing & Kelly have been writing partners for nearly a decade, writing for comics, film & television
Lanzing lives with spina bifida
Nathan C. Gooden – Illustrator
Worked in film production, before co-founding Vault Comics
Acts as Art Director at Vault
I don't think he's a big fan of social media, since I couldn't dig up much about him online
Kurt Michael Russell – Colorist
Dream Team: Collaborated with Tim Seeley on all of Hack/Slash and continues to work with him on Vault series Money Shot
Hosts an Adobe Photoshop and coloring tutorial YouTube channel
AndWorld Design – Letterer
Founded AndWorld Design is a lettering & design studio founded by Deron Bennett
Multitalented: Bennett also wrote the comic, Quixote
Founder Deron Bennett has a cool video where he talks about why he loves lettering
Adrian F. Wassel – Editor
Name Recognition: Is the CCO & Editor-In-Chief of Vault Comics, and plays the role of editor on most of Vault's titles
Also runs Vault with his brother and father
Has personally helped other comics creators in their endeavors, even for non-Vault comics work
Tim Daniel – Designer
Multitalented: Also does all the design work for Vault Comics
Inspired by others in the business: Sonia Harris, Sean Phillips, and Fonographics
Dream Team: Co-wrote The Plot, Curse and Burning Fields with Michael Moreci
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