By Steve Orlando, Matthew Dow Smith & Lauren Affe
Dead Kings is a comic that feels familiar, toeing the line of generic. The story is set in the Empire of Rus, now in a state of perpetual decay, after the Great Steel War. A man is in search of someone important to him, who has been imprisoned, and begins to enact a plan to infiltrate the compound, but it looks like, as one would expect, things won’t go quite according to plan…
This is a comic is full of tropes and is a sci-fi sub-genre mash-up. Now, inherently, these aren’t problematic or bad, but they do become such when the execution is flawed and the tropes become clichés because the narrative fails to come to life. What’s sad is that the comic provides a behind-the-scenes look, in the back matter, of the creative process and shows that Steve Orlando wrote a very detailed script to establish the world-building of this story. He clearly understood the inner workings of this setting and had a strong, deliberate vision, but somewhere along the lines or pages rather it lost its way. The first five pages are phenomenal with a deeply personal scene on page one and then two double splash pages after. Then, the book just devolves through convoluted exposition that never quite flows or makes sense to truly establish the backdrop. It wasn’t until reading the back matter that one can really understand the geography of Dead Kings.
Also, there was never really anything to attach readers to the main character, Sasha. Sure, his motivations are relatable, but, it feels surface level and contrived. The emotional connection wasn’t established and that’s problematic. A first issue is understood, generally speaking, to basically be expositional, but, in this case, that information is muddled and presented in a visually confusing fashion.
Matthew Dow Smith, along with colorist Lauren Affe, set a great tone and imagery for the first five pages of the comic. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, the rest of the material doesn’t live up to the prologue. Now, some of the issues may derive from the settings of scenes being relatively similar, but the color palette feels drab and doesn’t capture the reader’s attention. The palette is almost assuredly meant to service the post-apocalyptic setting and that’s understood, but audiences have seen this muted, rustic palette used time and again for similar stories. Another element that stuck out is the military suit, of a character that Sasha is looking for, that is a clear rip-off of the mech enhancement suit used in Edge of Tomorrow. That’s a key problem in post-apocalyptic material: there’s so much of it that it’s dangerously easy to be consciously or subconsciously influenced by them.
The art is also inconsistent with its use of ben-day dots. There are a few panels where it’s used, but there seems to be no real rational for it. It’s not used in all close-ups; not when there is a sharp contrast of light and dark; nor is it used at every pivotal moment in the book. It just seems like a “cool” effect to put in the book. Not sure whose choice it was to implement it, but it was amatuer use of the technique. Perhaps that sums up the majority of this issue: amateur.
Overall, Dead Kings had absolute promise; it’s clearly shown in the script page given and the stunning prologue. Hopefully, the comic will find its true groove as the narrative progresses, but the inconsistencies writing and art-wise are troubling. Those are components the creators didn’t seem to understand had problems with in this issue, so it’s dangerous to assume that corrections or alterations will be made going forward, but readers can hope…