It doesn’t take a great deal of exposition to build a completely original and engrossing science fiction/fantasy world, especially in comics. That principle is exemplified by the 8House series, the first story arc of which begins this week with 8House: Arclight #1. The brainchild of writer Brandon Graham, this series will consist of several short mini-series, all set in a fantasy world ruled by eight noble houses (hence the title). Art and colours for Arclight are by Marian Churchland, and letters are handled by Ariana Maher.
Arclight, the first mini-series which starts here, has a wonderful tone, and it suits the beautiful neo-Elizabethan style of the art and character dress. But it’s the tone of this book that enthralled me. Too many science fiction and fantasy texts fall prey to over-explaining or super-seriousness, equating “dark” imagery with story substance. Here, the setting is very barren and monumental, and there is a recurring theme of mystic runes and other hallmarks of the genre, but even despite the self-serious tone of the first narrative boxes (“Krev-Ropa. The Border-Edge of the Blood House Lands.”), there’s real heart and humanity here. The spare expository boxes certainly help, so minimalist as to be almost parody at times, such as when the two main characters, Sir Arclight and her Lady, are introduced with boxes that are essentially name tags.
As the issue develops, the gentle banter between Sir Arclight, a servant and protector, and her Lady, a powerful member of the ruling house and clearly skilled in the mystic arts, feels lived-in and real. These two characters know each other, know their duties and don’t waste time explaining things. The “Lady” herself is a tentacled monstrous visage wrapped in a cloak, and we learn that she was once human, and a practitioner of a form of magic that allows life forces to be exchanged between individual living things. She, through some magical misadventure, was trapped in the body of a monster. This must have happened long ago, because Lady seems quite at peace with her situation. The notion of a woman trapped in the body of a monster is a powerful poetic image under any circumstances, and Churchland draws the character with a great deal of dignity.
The world itself is also quite remarkable, a golden-brown world of rolling hills and bare trees, along which a stone wall runs, called the “Home Bridge”, and like the Great Wall of China, it serves as a thoroughfare for travel and trade. But there’s little trade to be seen, as the Blood Lands are threatened by some sort of malevolent monstrous force. That’s the occasion of this issue’s first sequence, involving Arclight and her Lady venturing into the dangerous wilderness to investigate the nature of the threat. Lady’s powerful magical skills are no doubt considered a suitable protection from whatever threatens the population. But Arclight, as we learn, is also a child of the city, who enjoys drinking and partying and all the luxuries of an urban environment. Her Lady takes pity on her, and they return to the city later in this issue, where we see yet another sort of fantasy environment.
One very interesting choice here is that all the main characters, or at least the ones we’ve been shown, are female. This isn’t some sort of ODY-C gender inversion, however: there are men in this world, such as the small-time farmer from which Arclight buys a goose. (That goose features prominently in the story, becoming essentially Lady’s “pet”.) But the ruling class, and the warrior class, do seem to be predominantly women, at least in Arclight’s social circle.
This is a great first issue by any comics standard. It sets up the world, establishes the mood and the tone, gives us some great characters, a great small-scale story about a Lady monster and her red goose (it’s less cute than it sounds) and ends on an important story point that leaves you wanting to read the next issue immediately. I was very impressed by how much this creative team was able to accomplish in one issue, up to and including introducing a novel runic alphabet. To re-iterate, most of the time I avoid fantasy stories involving complex worlds because of their opaque intensity, but 8House: Arclight is different, spare and moves with a graceful dignity. For fans of fantasy science fiction, it’s certainly worth a look.