Review: The Few #1

few01WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD

The dystopian genre has experienced a spike in recent years. It’s the source of long-running television, blockbuster movies, and multiple comics. With this spike come naysayers bemoaning that there is too much of it. However, it is important to keep in mind that when a genre becomes a trend, there are important social/political reasons for it. Yes, even the Twilight phenomenon counts, and I would love to read (not the books, hell no) articles about its cultural implications beyond just “teenage girls like sparkly vampires.”

Dystopian fiction is most notable during times of unrest and uncertainty for the world. Just take a look at 2016, a year of great turmoil (then again, what year of the 21st-century hasn’t been great turmoil?) If you have been living in the U.S. or next door in Canada and Mexico, it might seem like an episode of Twilight Zone you keep hoping ends, but it evolves constantly into a scarier, crazier version of Transmetropolitan. The point is that all this turmoil and uncertainty is probably the reason for the current spike, and instead of bemoaning it, I intend to read what comes my way and find worthwhile material.

Which brings us to The Few, a maxiseries from Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman, an apocalyptic tale that is as gorgeous as it is vague:

“In a dystopian future, two survivalist brothers stumble across an unlikely sight: a woman asleep in the woods holding nothing but a gun and a baby wearing a gas mask. As these boys begin to embark on helping this woman, betrayals, secrets, and revolutions abound in the fight for what’s left of America.” – From the Image Comics website.

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The cover for issue #1 has some interesting aspects. Just like with Sean Lewis’ previous series Saints, the artist draws, inks, colors, and letters the whole book. Which brings me to my first criticism: Good on Sherman for doing a significant amount of work, but what about art cred? In Saints, Benjamin Mackey got first billing. For The Few, it’s Sean Lewis. To be clear, this is not saying Lewis didn’t work hard. Writing is an arduous task. However, comic art tends to be much more time consuming than scripting. If you have an artist do all the art, I’m thinking they are more than deserving of first billing. It’s not a matter of the artist is more important than the writer, just an acknowledgment of who had the heaviest workload. Then again, I don’t know the dealings between Lewis and Sherman, so maybe the billing was fine by them.

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Moving on to the actual cover art, Sherman’s design reminds me of Nick Dragotta’s covers for East to West, another Image series in the apocalyptic genre (more so the days before the event).

The design invokes a sense of action and mystery. I can see how this would be a pleasing cover for certain readers, but I don’t know if I’m impressed by it. While I was briefly reading East to West, I can’t recall if it was the cover design or a recommendation that inspired me to read the series. In The Few’s case, my interest was in Lewis’ writing. I don’t think I would have picked up the series based on the cover alone. I prefer covers like that of Benjamin Mackey’s which are colorful and brimming with symbolism.

Despite a lackluster cover, the interior art of The Few is a haunting spectacle. The comic opens to a snow-covered backwoods, trees drawn as thin black lines against a white background.

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Sherman shows mastery in strategic layout and contrasting black and white imagery to create moody art. It reminds me of Frank Miller’s best work but with the scratchy punk-zine aesthetics of Sean Gordon Murphy; however, illustrations are simplified for a less cumbersome reading experience.

Sherman’s greatest strength is using minimalism to invoke a moody, bleak atmosphere in each scene. From the winter wasteland of the outside, the comic transitions to the interiors of a wooden cabin. Brown and green contrast to black spaces. This gives the scene an earthly tone that is claustrophobic. It feels like being inside a coffin. Death is as present in this cabin as it is outside in the snow.

Death and violence are inescapable in The Few, and the same minimalist aesthetic is applied to fight scenes. Instead of over-the-top gore, splashes of pastel red are used to represent blood. This color choice against the moody, mute colors doesn’t make the violence striking, but bleak. Violence isn’t enjoyable. Reading the comic myself, I felt like my soul was draining out. It doesn’t have to do with any image being particularly violent, just the staggeringly bleak atmosphere. This might not be an enjoyable reading experience for many, but I appreciate how Sherman creates such a visceral emotion out of so little.

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Character designs are where Sherman’s art becomes mixed. The design for character anatomy is long legs with shorter, squarish torsos. Given the setting, clothes are mostly jackets, baggy pants, and other types of winter clothing. The designs are sadly bland compared to the atmosphere, very few characters sticking out. One exception are the militants called Ragers. Most of them wear the stereotypical para-military gear of army jackets and cargo pants. What stands out is the gauze wrapping. Aside from looking like biker mummies, I can’t help think there is another angle to these designs. Judging by the headgear of their leader, I think it’s a royalty vibe to assert an amount of authority to the Ragers. They make mentions of the Palace. What that place is has yet to be revealed, but a good theory is that it’s an organization in control of areas of the country. That makes the Ragers are an elite military force. This means that their horrible actions are decreed by a higher power with significant political weight. This adds a new layer of menace to them, invoking concerns of authoritarian brutality that is relevant to this day.

This is significant for the design of the protagonist, Edan Hale. At one level, it’s interesting because of her butch appearance. When first introduced, I thought Hale was a man and surprised to find out otherwise. In relation to the Ragers, there are several scenes positioning them in authoritative stances over her. Hale is the only confirmed woman of the group, and given the salacious language some use toward her, I have to assume the majority are men. There is the possibility of a fascinating commentary on gender here and opens the door to Hale developing as a queer character. I doubt these are themes that will play out, but I still hope because that would add so much to the character.

As I’ve said before, my main interest in The Few is Sean Lewis. His writing style is not minimalist so much as vague. There isn’t a lot of exposition, more of an emphasis on character and dialogue, and even then dialogue is sparse. It is clear who are the players and what is happening action wise, but world-building and themes require the reader to pay close attention in order to understand. This vagueness is present in The Few. Clues are various: a map of the U.S., an Ursula K. Gein quote, mention of someone named Herrod, and rumors of a rebellion. It’s an interesting puzzle and pays off in the end with an inkling of what is going. Unfortunately, the action scenes in-between stretch the story thin.

The opening chase scene takes up many pages and creates a significant length from one dramatic scene to the other. It is the dramatic scenes that carry the most important story clues and, unfortunately, are easily forgotten after the chase. I had to go back and reread the first scene just to remember what was said. The only time rereading should be required is if a subsequent scene reveals something mentioned in a previous scene. Furthermore, the extensiveness of the chase scene lost its excitement after a few pages. The best action, like the best scares, is usually short and sweet. Action that goes on for too long can become boring because whatever initial excitement it had beforehand wears off as the reader gets used to it. At 56 pages, The Few seems to go on longer than necessary.

Another aspect of the writing the chase scene negatively impacts are the characters. In Saints, the reader was comfortable with the vagueness of the plot because of the fully realized, unique characters. In The Few, character personalities are vague to the point of making it difficult to understand them. This further pushes the boredom to the point of breaking patience. Characterization is nearly obliterated except for the saving grace of the cabin scene which gives characters time to interact and inform the reader of the kind of people they are. Again, if the chase scene had been shorter, this issue might have been absent.

One last comment for the writing is probably the most important: How does The Few separate itself from the ubiquitous stories in the dystopian genre? It’s too early to tell, but from what little is to be gathered, the comic is exploring the current state of America. With the election of Trump as president, it’s difficult to not see how preexisting tensions between the Left, Right, and the ever-creeping influence of the Far Right have deepened. For left-leaning folk such as myself, it seems like the beginning of totalitarian madness under a self-serving, egotistical demagogue, an opinion we feel solidified by the bigoted, fascist reactionaries online that are the most fervent of his supporters and now feel emboldened to act out. This has put us on the defensive, taking harder lines than ever to stand against Republicans and the Right, now to the point we are infighting with each other. Like it or not, civil conflict will be heated for the next four years, and whether or not the worst predictions come true, one fact is certain:

America will never be the same again.

In The Few, civil conflict has erupted into civil war, with the Palace being the totalitarian regime that the left fears will come out of Trump. The resemblances are vague, yet one can easily read them into being similar: violent, militaristic men that slaughter and pillage in the name of someone called Herrod with the fanaticism of a religious cult. The Few are the resistance, the remaining states that have not fallen under Palace control. What do they represent? Not the American left as defined now with its varied groups. They’re more of an ideal. Now, most Americans will disagree on what they define as freedom, but ideally America is a free land (unless you think pish posh otherwise). Currently, America is just that, an ideal and not a reality. However, the point of an ideal is to inspire hope. The Few represent hope of something opposite of the Palace’s brutality and totalitarianism, of America as it used to be. It might not even be freedom like I theorize. The hope, the want, for America to reclaim itself from corruption and to be not necessarily the reality, but the ideal that always inspired its citizens.

The Few #1 suffers from issues of pacing and vagueness, but the moody art and social relevancy of the story offers a promising start to an exciting new entry in the dystopian genre. I highly recommend it for those that want more relevant, unique fiction in their weekly buy piles.

Story: Sean Lewis Art: Hayden Sherman
Story: 8 Art: 9 Overall: 8.5 Recommendation: Buy