Title: The Mantle Volume 1
Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: James Roberts
Artist: Brian Level
Colorist: Jordan Boyd
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. Read at your own risk!
The Mantle is an unorthodox superhero tale with impressive art and a fairly enjoyable story, but I don’t think it will set the industry on fire. I give credit to writer Ed Brisson and his co-creators for some interesting concepts, but a few elements could have used more polish. That said, Brisson’s letters, Brian Level’s art, and Jordan Boyd’s colors come together to create an aesthetically pleasing package.
I can praise the ideas found in The Mantle, if not everything about their execution. The title comes from both a powerset and the person using it. The power appears to someone as crackling rainbow lightning, entering them and giving them incredible power as well as a superhero outfit. However, the Mantle is unknown to the world at large, and most people believe superheroes aren’t real. There are other superpowered people who help the Mantle, but it’s a very small and exclusive group, and the Mantle looks the most like a traditional superhero. For the Mantle to be, for all intents and purposes, the only superhero in the world is an interesting choice, as, equivalently, there is only one superpowered villain who also operates in secret. Typically in superhero stories with only one hero, he or she works very publicly, and is typically the most famous person in their world, so The Mantle provides this twist. The Mantle’s helpers are also unorthodox; they’re young counterculture punks with unique powers. Kabrah has both super strength and super intelligence; Shadow can travel through shadows, stepping into one and walking out another anywhere in the world; and Necra is able to enter Purgatory, the realm of dead spirits. Their unusual powersets create an atypical combination, and none of them are just homage characters to other, more famous superheroes, for which I applaud the creative team. Thus, the sight gags of previous Mantles looking like Marvel and DC characters are funny little jokes rather than wearying nuisances.
The art always fits the tone of each scene. The book opens on a rainy night that is suitably gray and gloomy. When the first new Mantle starts learning to use the Mantle’s powers on a cape by the sea, the palette is bright and sunny. The Mantle is surrounded by a malleable, crackling aura, and speaks with ghostly blue letters. These create a feeling of the Mantle’s sheer power. Level and Boyd work together to make the Mantle’s aura a flexible, living weapon. Some of their character designs are neat, too, such as Walter/CCTV, a rotund double amputee in a high-tech wheelchair, and the Plague, the antagonist. The Plague has gray skin and Kirby line-like scars running from his face to his chest. He takes a few cues from Darkseid with his red and black armor, but they are visually distinct. The Plague looks like a terrifying and imposing match for the Mantle, and he proves it with brutally-rendered ultraviolence.
I thought the Plague had promise as a villain, because he is fully committed to killing the Mantle whenever one appears, but he speaks as though his goal is an annoyance rather than something he absolutely needs to accomplish. This angle really interested me, as he explicitly says that he doesn’t derive enjoyment from his violent acts, even though he doesn’t care who he hurts in his pursuit of the Mantle. It turns out he only wants to die, and for more than 50 years he’s been killing Mantles in the hopes that one would have enough determination to kill him after the first Mantle let him live. The Plague has a death wish, his body ravaged by disease, and the Mantle’s refusal to compromise his ethics by killing the Plague angered the villain so much that he developed a grudge. Knowing this, Jen, the newest Mantle, kills the Plague in an anticlimax that doesn’t feel earned.
The extremely powerful nature of the Plague means that the Mantle and the supporting cast spend most of Volume 1 running and hiding from him. This robs them of any agency, which made it difficult for me to root for them. It’s not that I didn’t want them to succeed in defeating the Plague, but if they couldn’t believe in their own mission, I had a hard time believing in it myself. This also causes problems with pacing. It doesn’t feel too slow, nor too fast, but just sort of plodding. Because this is Volume 1 of an ongoing series, the end of the arc should have had some kind of hook for the next story, and I didn’t see it. The Plague is dead, and Jen and her friends decide to stay in a cabin in the woods for a while. No hints at another antagonist, no final threat by the Plague, no indication that he will or could return.
While I found some enjoyment from The Mantle Volume 1, it didn’t make me hungry for more. There’s a sense of history to the plot, but it’s never capitalized on. The art buoys the experience, but the whole thing ends up less than the sum of its parts.