Like most of writer Brian Wood’s work, Rebels introduces readers to a cast of young characters who find themselves in an imposingly adult conflict – and are woefully unprepared for the consequences.
By now, Brian Wood’s narrative fascinations are no secret. There’s a common thread that runs through early work like Channel Zero and Demo, through his long-running Northlanders and DMZ, and even encompasses “superhero” work like Ultimate Comics: X-Men, each time offering a new perspective on the ever-shifting balance between liberty and control.
This universality is an effective portal into the book’s 18th-century world, but that’s not to say that Wood and his collaborator, Andrea Mutti, are retreading the familiar in Rebels, even in comparison with his other period piece, Northlanders. After all, this is modern America in the moments before its birth – a burden that the characters don’t recognize, but readers will.
Like the Second World War in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (or the First World War in his Against the Day), the specter of the American Revolutionary War hides between the characters’ on-page actions here and in the shadows of Mutti’s naturalistic renderings. It’s an effective technique that stretches the level of craft for both creators, but one that can also backfire if it steamrolls over the characters themselves.
At least in this first issue there seems little chance of that happening any time soon. After a grimly illuminating look at Seth Abbott’s childhood, Wood shifts the action to Abbott’s young adulthood in the midst of the New Hampshire land grant disputes, as he and his companions tend to their farms and fend off the intrusions of the King’s authority.
Whether intentional or not, the contrast between the redcoats’ military authority and the colonists’ first stirrings of rebellion is more timely than ever. One scene begins with a peaceful demonstration in a courthouse. “We want the law to work for us for a change!” one colonist cries, echoing modern discussions about the difficulty of effecting real societal change in a limited system. When the scene explodes into violence, there’s little to differentiate it from more recent tragedies than the clothing of its participants.
Mutti (who collaborated with Wood on both DMZ and Conan the Barbarian) is clearly at home depicting the untamed American wilderness, and there may be a few too many lingering views of the landscape for some in this first issue. But the focus on the natural element adds an interesting wrinkle to Wood’s version of this story, emphasizing how the land itself helped to build the identity of the men and women in this New World.
It’s also a nod to Wood’s own personal investment in this history. “I also grew up in an area rich in this history, walking past the landmarks on my way to school,” he told PREVIEWSworld. “[The] heroes of my childhood are the same heroes in Rebels.”
The fact that these “heroes” (an admittedly loaded term) feel as real as they do is a testament to Mutti’s exceptional character work. He incorporates just enough detail so that each character – from the hotheaded young colonists to the taciturn redcoats – moves and acts convincingly on the page.
Colorist Jordie Bellaire also makes the most of her talents here, using an earthy palette to add drama to each scene, whether in the midst of the forest or the town square. Finally, Jared K Fletcher’s choice of period lettering for the captions is a small but vital component of the book.
This first issue takes care of much of the establishing work for the opening arc, introducing an intriguing set of characters in a period before monumental change. This snappy pace means that many of the characters besides Abbott have yet to be defined, especially the fiercely determined female lead, Mercy Tucker. The strength of the series will depend on whether she and the rest of Seth’s supporting cast come into their own in later issues.
Oh, and there’s one other set of characters yet to be truly discovered: those of the King’s soldiers themselves, who play the part of villains to a tee here, but little else. Wood has never been one to shy away from the grim realities of his heroes or the virtues of those who oppose them. Doing so in succeeding issues will be essential.
With the modern world’s cries of “us versus them” and constantly redrawn battle lines, the ability to find the humanity in the other is more necessary than ever – and it could end up making Rebels this team’s defining work.
Brian Wood (W), Andrea Mutti (A), Jordie Bellaire (C) • Dark Horse Comics, $3.99, April 8, 2015.