By Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman
The tumultuous madness that enshrouds our daily existence often feels inescapable. Rife with what seems like overwhelming hatred, fear, and solipsism, the world often refuses to let so many of us simply breathe. Among the swirls of toxic thoughts and actions, there’s rarely any clean air to gasp and a metaphorical gas mask needs to be adorned as a symbol of hope. Of goodness. Of forgiveness. The Few is a story of this forgiveness, not just of pleading for it from the innocents we trapped in the mess of world, but for letting us know when it’s okay to forgive ourselves as a means of survival. Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman have crafted something special here, a stunning and raw work that reads as tragic poetry and a siren song of hope as revolution. With artwork as brutal as it is hauntingly tranquil, The Few refuses to yield to spilt blood or grimacing greed and instead forces the question: what are you willing to fight for?
The opening eleven pages lay it all out beautifully, the result of writer and artist working in forceful synchronicity; desolation, beauty, ghosts, wildness, and survival. The Few takes place in a future that’s terrifyingly believable, a United States throwing unity aside where the coasts, with their wealth and concentrated urban centers, have cut off the middle of the country from the union and take their resources by force. The flyover states have become the Remainder States, a dystopian free for all filled with mad kings and the desperate, all looking to survive. At the center of Lewis and Sherman’s tale is a woman, Edan Hale, and a baby bequeathed to her as a last-ditch act in an unfolding massacre. Edan is a soldier of the Palaces on the Coasts sent undercover to destroy the rebellious and rumored faction of the Remainder States, The Few.
What unfolds is far richer than any Mad Max-styled Dances with Wolves scenario, though, and Lewis and Sherman deliver a striking and harrowing introspective quest of morality. Through 300-plus pages the reasons behind why the myriad of characters from all perspectives, and in turn the people of our own modern world, are driven to fight. Why do bad things happen? Do our beliefs match our actions and vice versa? Can we find out these answers about ourselves and change, or do we give in and continue on the paths we forged for ourselves? It’s questions like these that reverberate in the epic gallery halls that are Sherman’s pages and echo on far past that final turn.
Lewis’ script is an ambitious blend of influences, spanning the gamut of science-fiction sub-genres and morality plays. The controlled ebb and flow of its themes are rhythmically controlled and interwoven as the serenity of philosophical conundrums give way to operatic destruction. Lewis has Hale question, hate, and direct herself via narrative captions and in the form of a ghost from her past in a literary manner that’s never overwrought and contrasts nicely with the terser spoken dialogue. Exposition is kept to a minimum and yet this vast, complex world is developed naturally through the way the characters operate within it. But far more than simply getting lost in the worldbuilding, Lewis and Sherman inject a thematic search for forgiveness and hell, empathy, throughout that’s as gripping as any futuristic nomad motorcycle war. Yes, really.
The Few has a perspective and a goal, for sure, but along the way it offers more food for thought than it does definitive answers. It’s a world of greys fills with those who see only in black and white, an idea brilliantly conveyed with the book’s palette. There are clear “bad guys” in The Few, but the more interesting questions is whether there are any true “good guys” to be found in the nebulous middle. Combine this with the not quite a hero’s journey that is Hale’s development and there is a rich, demanding read as the book’s driving force. Hale’s quest is a cyclical affair which takes her role from an arbiter of order to one of disruption and back again; she’s at the end of one life, finds another’s, and then is reborn. We open with the baby wearing the gas mask and eventually find Hale in the gas mask, an innocent new life awakening in a baptism of blood and, most importantly, forgiveness, that was her bridge to a new world. This transformative trip borne from guilt is the satisfying core and the sacrifices required to not just cleanse the guilt, but learn how to see both the world and yourself anew, is the tragic and beautiful reward of The Few.
There are moments that things work out a little conveniently on our protagonist’s journey, where damage is miraculous minimalized or the stars align to mitigate the myriad of variables, but those are matters of plot and The Few’s greatest strengths are found in its ideas and presentation. At times, it almost feels as though its ideas are at war with itself, arriving at no firm conclusion on the role and necessity of violence to deliver us from violence, but that feels as intentionally ambiguous as the other complex philosophical reckonings the characters must endure. It raises questions and answers only some, oversimplifying others and letting many appropriately lead the way to more questions still.
More than merely bolstering these ideas, the art of Hayden Sherman molds, curates, and champions them. The unbridled savagery of inks that is Sherman’s art is mesmerizing and breathtaking, a controlled fervor of ukiyo-e serenity and Frank Miller deceptive recklessness. Stylistically, Sherman is one of a kind with a wildness tethered together with sharp, sketch-heavy lines that suggest forms as opposed to being beholden to them. It’s furiously loose, but exponentially affecting with its ability to concentrate tone in a flurry of stokes. Sherman makes the world and all of its inhabitants feel like actual tactile and tangible entities filled with anger and remorse and determination; in short, thanks to Sherman, The Few transforms into a sort of living, breathing quantity all its own. The pages themselves, and not merely what is depicted happening on them, seem to emote and evolve with each turn. The limited color palette is beyond inspired, mirroring both the bleakness of the world and the viewpoints found therein, but establishes a language of intensity and mood. A pallor of greys is roused with angered rouges and contemplative straws, all the while incorporating a bevy of screentones for depth.
If one wants to truly understand just how good Sherman is and just how well he understands the heft of the story being told, look no further than a sequence of four double-page spreads near the conclusion of the fifth chapter. It is a testament to the creators’, and the publisher’s, dedication to arresting storytelling. The way Sherman lets the moment hang and then fall is both graceful and devastating. It is but one example of the attuned layout structure Sherman experiments with on nearly every page. To label it “cinematic” would be a disservice; it is quintessentially comics. It’s just a level of comic book storytelling we’re not treated to very often and one that pays close attention to the almost musical sustain of the emotions at play. Vast establishing shots lay bare the chaotic order of city and wilderness alike. Transitions between panels play with time like a temporal harp, with strings that vibrate in violence and explosions, and a refrain that hums over it all reminding you of the scope of what’s at stake. Spattered inks, both black and white (best exemplified in the snow-filled forests of the Midwest), mingle with huge hand drawn sound effects that resemble bony witch-like fingers. The culmination of all the method and the madness is a visual feast rife with innovative design and an unflinching dedication to thematic tone. Hayden Sherman is more than just the reason you’ll buy The Few, he’s the reason you’ll fall in love with it.
This is an intimidating work to review as a collected trade paperback. Every issue of this series is so brimming with bitingly smart, thematically rich, and heartbreakingly affective ideas, it’s nearly impossible to do them justice when forced to look solely at the whole. When Edan goes on her final mission, wearing a uniform comprised of bits of everything she’s worn in the series up to that point and thus completes her Kafka-like transformation by both wearing and shedding her metaphoric skin? Awesome. The labyrinth formed by the circled wagons of Winnebagos? *chef kiss* The deliberate, controlled blacked out panels and pages that force us to see by taking our sight? Brilliant. The designs, the bookending scenes, the nuances of modern political thought taken to their utmost extremes, the …. okay, enough, you get it. The point is, The Few is as dense as it is dactylic. It is also one of the best comics you can experience this year or any other; and make no mistake, you don’t simply read this book, you experience it. When our world feels as morally asunder as it does these days, works like The Few become more than mere commentary, they feel like necessary explorations and challenges. When the air feels unbreathable, do not forget. Fight. Feel. Forgive.
The Few trade paperback is out this Wednesday, August 23rd, from Image Comics.