“What can it mean to own a place? How can we honestly believe ourselves to own anything, we who are but ticks on this dog for a brief moment in time?”
Deadbox, the newest Vault Comics #1 from the superstar creative team of Mark Russell and Benjamin Tiesma, has a lot on its mind. Fans of Russell’s previous writing won’t be surprised to learn that woven into the new series’ expected genre trappings are concerns with big ideas and the questions that follow them. The series does what the best comics do: pose these questions to us, and let us explore our own feelings rather than provide a ready-made and simple answer.
Despite the headiness of the above quote (which serves as the opening caption text, being read in a book by our main character), the premise is remarkably familiar and straightforward. Set in the fictional small American Town of Lost Turkey, Penny works at the local convenience store to support her severely sick father. A prominent feature of the store is a Redbox DVD machine. The only problem? None of the movies available seem to exist — and they are almost surely haunted.
This debut issue manages to cram a lot of story into the standard single issue 20 page count, and part of that is thanks to the clever structure Russell utilizes of a story within the story. Early in the issue, Penny borrows a DVD called The Lonely Planet, and we watch the movie unfold in miniature through select scenes and caption boxes, a testament to Russell and Tiesma’s wonderful synergy and pacing.
The tale of Lonely Planet is captivating enough to be its own comic, and this is due no small part to Tiesma’s exceptional art. The plot focuses on an alternate future where Earth has made contact with another alien planet and must choose a volunteer to make the fifty-year journey through outer space to serve as a facilitator of the meeting between worlds. It’s a tremendous honor, but also a steep sacrifice.
The typical cardinal sins of comics writing — vastly heterogeneous alien races, numerous crowd scenes — are no problem for Benjamin Tiesma, and the pages here are brimming with life. If you blink, you’d swear the people are really moving around in those panels. Credit also has to go to colorist Vladimir Popov, whose pastel palettes give a tremendous sense of wonder to the science fiction scenes, especially when contrasted with the flatter rendering of Lost Turkey in the “real” world.
The story within the story is also interesting here in how it plays into the thematic ambitions this series has clearly laid out for itself. Questions about individuality, community, and commonly held American ideas about freedom are clearly present in both Lonely Planet and the glimpse of the town of Lost Turkey (and its residents) that we get here. The issue is also suffused throughout with biting images, such as a billboard featuring a motorcycle rider sharing the road with an oversized bald eagle, declaring “No Speed Limit, Helmet or Seatbelts.” The line between freedom and recklessness can sometimes be a thin one.
Russell does his genre due diligence here by leaving us with a cliffhanger that left me somewhat confused, but ultimately willing to go on the journey thanks to the strength of the preceding 20 pages. Serving up a great balance of topical ideas and satisfying genre story beats, Deadbox is an exceptional number one in which both the artists and the writer are operating at the absolute top of their game.
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