Reaver #1 is a chaotic yet familiar story in a twisted dark land akin to the world of Conan the Barbarian. It’s the Suicide Squad — but far more perverse — set in a war-ravaged world of low fantasy and even lower principles. Six prisoners are forced together with a singular goal and disparate motivations: Sergeant Mahan, Styrian Eddios, Rekala, Essen Breaker, Thes, and Marris. This isn’t a team of anti-heroes with redemptive qualities; they are morally deprived sadists with a unified purpose. Genuine villains (and one fallen hero) forced to band together. But therein lies the intrigue of the title. They aren’t necessarily relatable in terms of shared experience, but they are captivating. What drives them? How can they work together? What will they do next? It’s these very questions and the unbridled nature of Reaver #1 that captures the reader’s interest and leaves a gnawing desire to see this through to the end.
Image Comics describes the issue as:
The continent of Madaras once promised a new start for settlers, but 200 years after its discovery, the war rages on. Deep within this savage and untamed land, darkness builds at that must be stopped at all costs. To do so, the Imperials assemble six of its most despicable prisoners–a turncoat, a skin eater, a sorcerer, and his bodyguard, a serial killer, and the Devil’s Son–the only ones who can stop the end of the new world.
Fans of film and graphic novels will be familiar with the premise: a ragtag team of misfits is brought together for a mission based on their unique skill sets. Reaver #1 wears the trope on its sleeve — writer Justin Jordan describes the title as a “Dirty Dozen type story set in a fantasy world.” However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t substance to Jordan’s work. A first issue has many tasks at hand: establishing a new world, introducing our protagonists and antagonists, laying the groundwork of the plot with an inciting incident, and most importantly making the story exciting and fun for readers. Reaver #1 manages to check off all the boxes with varied success. Readers should have enough fodder to warrant sticking with Reaver.
The best draw of Reaver #1 is the unique personalities at play, from Styrian Eddos, former intelligence officer and mass murderer to Rekala, a small cannibalistic woman that is deadlier than her stature implies. Although we get glimpses of each characters’ personalities, it is Ash Mahan that serves as the reader’s entry way into this world. His story is the most relatable, and thus far the most sympathetic.
The issue opens amidst the ravages of war, as Sergeant Mahan is embroiled in battle. Mahan saves his commanding officer from imminent death and navigates a barrage of bombs from the enemy. Within a few short pages, Mahan is quickly established as being adept on the field of battle. However, things take a turn for the worse. Essen Breaker, aka “The Devil’s Son,” goes mad amid all the chaos. The Behemoth turns on his allies, leaving death and destruction in his wake. Mahan flees the field of battle in all-consuming fear, leaving his commanding officer to die. As we catch up to Mahan some time later, he is on the brink of committing suicide, preparing a makeshift noose to hang himself in his jail cell. In a world where mental health is a more considerable concern, the scene shouldn’t be thrown away so quickly. Ash’s integrity and honor are his entire identity; having lost that, he is a man adrift. Only fate and the intrusion of Colonel Travvos stop Mahan from the inevitable. Mahan sees the mission to destroy The Anvil as his redemptive purpose; a means of restoring some semblance of his honor, regardless of the types of people he must associate with to fulfill this goal. Jordan also throws in some conflict for good measure, Essen Breaker, the source of Mahan’s turmoil is an integral part of the team. It is fascinating to see how this relationship plays out during the team’s mission.
The team itself is brutal. Comparisons to other anti-hero teams will be made (understandably so), but the group we follow in Reaver is far more vicious. By my count, the team kills 13 soldiers in the first issue alone, but it never feels like slaying for pure shock value. The team is the worst of the worst — to them, murder is a way of life. Mahan serves as a voice of reason, the group conscience if you will, with minimal sway. The mission is everything, especially with the incentive of preventing their deaths. Task Force X has small bombs embedded in their bodies to coerce them to play nice, the team in Reaver has been poisoned, forced to play along until Marris, the Raelish Warlock, provides them with an antidote only good for the day. The one to one comparison is evident, but it makes sense in terms of how one can truly bring this group together with such dissimilar dispositions and experiences.
In terms of motivations of backstory, the team is fun, but lacking. Establishing so much depth in a first issue seems like an impossible task. Instead, readers are granted small infusions of each character’s personality in short doses. It remains to be seen how three dimensional any of the characters outside of Sergeant Mahan prove to be.
In terms of a villain, we only have glimpses of the enemy and a name: Mahabra and Colonel Stabhan. It is far too early to determine if the opposition can live up to the team of “heroes” in terms of intrigue; the enemy is only shown in a final scene. Any details about the Esk is explained through expository conversation. We do gain some insight into the level of depravity it takes to fuel The Anvil. The Anvil is a massive tower for the sole purpose of human sacrifice — hearing it is one thing, seeing it is another. Blood is drained from hundreds of slaves to fill a literal pool of blood, the source of Esk’s power. Writer Justin Jordan provides a sliver of the sick minds behind The Anvil while establishing another aspect of Madaras. All magic comes at a hefty price.
Magic in fantasy stories can be ambiguous. What are the limits? What can and can’t specific individuals do? Must they channel their power through an enchanted item or simply will it to life? Justin Jordan plants the seed that all magic is expensive in terms of detriment, whether that cost comes from the user or a sacrificial “lamb” isn’t important. All that matters is that a price must be paid — the decision to establish rules to magic benefits the story firmly. An “anything is possible” mentality can remove a sense of urgency to tense situations. Setting limits allows for higher levels of tension and more nuanced storytelling.
Co-creator and artist Rebekah Isaacs imbues Reaver with a blend of old comic book flair and real-world depth. Every blow, lost limb, and gush of blood feels visceral, and there’s plenty of it. Character designs are unique but grounded. At no point do I question the layout of a panel or where characters are relative to one another. This isn’t Alex Ross or Jim Lee, but Isaacs’ touch is all her own. By far, her greatest asset is her ability to express emotion among her characters. A look of surprise has Mahan’s eyes as wide as saucers, his lips pursed ever so slightly. Styrian carries himself with a smug demeanor; Isaacs reflects as much in his expressions and cadence. Essen is stoic and emotionless; his eyes express as much.
Reaver #1 attempts to do so much in so few pages. A few minor points hold it back from complete success, like little in the ways of a protagonist, or only limited amounts of characterization. The book could have fared with leaving some elements out and establishing them over time. However, that is a minor gripe. With only a short window to capture the reader’s attention, Justin Jordan and Rebekah Isaacs crammed Reaver #1 with plenty of intrigues, new plot points, and captivating artwork to have fans seek out the next issue on store shelves.