Review: The Dream Merchant #1 and The Wake #1

Review by Derek Royal

Earlier this year, Andy and I included a review of Nathan Edmondson and Tonci Zonjic’s Where Is Jake Ellis? (at least the first couple of issues) in one of our shows on recent noir and crime comics. We liked the title, and at the time we were eagerly wondering how things would play out. In addition to wrapping up Jake Ellis’s story, begun in 2011 with Who Is Jake Ellis?, Edmondson has also been busy with many other projects, including The Activity as well as his work for Marvel. And now we have the beginning of yet another series, issue #1 of The Dream Merchant (Image Comics). Given the intriguing and substantive kick-off Edmondson has given us with this first installment of the title, one can only wonder what other compelling narratives we can expect from this creator.

The Dream Merchant is the story of Winslow, a young man consumed by dreams. And I don’t use the word “consumed” lightly here, because we find out early in this first issue that Winslow has a problem distinguishing his waking life from his sleep state.  His dreams — especially a recurring one where he is flying — feel so real that, in his words, “Waking up sometimes felt like falling asleep. Waking was like sleeping.” After the issue’s five-page set up, an exposition that is neither gratuitous nor awkwardly obvious, we are briefly thrown back into Winslow’s youth, where his encounter with a DreamMerchantdream merchant will later come to the fore, and then into his current context, a patient committed to a psychiatric hospital because of his inability to demarcate reality. One night several dark and shadowy figures, apparently linked to his dream life in some way, threaten him and his friends, one of which is a hospital cafeteria worker named Anne, herself a troubled youth who loans him books on dreams and eventually becomes his traveling companion. They flee the dream phantoms — we soon come to discover they are called “regulators” — and eventually come upon the older dream merchant from Winslow’s younger days who assists them in their escape. There is a lot packed into this double-sized issue (Image does this a lot with their #1s…another reason to love the publisher), and this first installment has all of the markings of an adventure in the making, almost like a road trip, including train-hopping and all. The Image website refers to this as “a new sci-fi series,” but I’m not convinced that the marketing folk there have really read this title. From what we get in this first issue, it would be a remarkable stretch to call The Dream Merchant a sci-fi comic. It’s actually more akin to horror and fantasy. Yet regardless of how we mark this title’s genre identity, there’s no denying that Edmondson successfully sets the stage for what promises to be an exciting read with the issues to come. And Konstantin Novosadov’s art, with a predominance of dark and subdued colors, wonderfully complements the fantastic tone of Edmondson’s narrative, one that straddles two not-so-disconnected psychological states of mind.

Another notable first issue is Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy’s The Wake. This title is exciting for several reasons. First, it brings together two incredible talents at DC whose previous work has never failed to impress (at least never failed to impress me). Also, this is another way for Snyder to flex his impressive non-superhero muscles. Given the sheer volume of material he has written for Batman and Swamp Thing, it’s easy to forget his work on American Vampire (and that title’s hiatus hasn’t helped in this regard). Finally, The Wake is significant in that it reminds us how powerful and important the Vertigo imprint actually is, especially coming relatively soon after Karen Berger’s much-publicized departure.

Much like The Dream Merchant, Snyder and Murphy’s The Wake begins with an initial multi-page setup before we’re given the title page and then are plunged into the story proper. In the case of The Wake, though, this introductory section, titled “The Quest,” is set 200 years in the future. Its narrative companion piece is the issue’s final one-page segment, “The Storyteller,” set 100,000 years before the main action. Both chapters raise a number of questions that are never addressed or really alluded to in the main body of this first issue. That section, set in what appears to be our current times, is centered around Dr. Lee Archer, a noted cetologist who has had a rocky past with NOAA and apparently a similar kind of relationship with her family. She’s visited early in the story by Agent Astor Cruz from Wakethe Department of Homeland Security, who asks for her assistance in deciphering a strange aquatic sound that some take for a whale song. As you might expect whenever government agencies are involved, this first issue of The Wake contains its share of mysterious, and possibly nefarious, bureaucratic activities and the employment of specialists who are unsure or ignorant of their true significance within the agency. We see scientists and academics from various backgrounds brought together to solve some sort of puzzle, and over the next nine installments — this is a 10-issue miniseries — we should see how this disparate and isolated community performs. And the puzzle we, as readers, should expect to put together will have to include those intriguing time pieces that bracket Dr. Archer’s story in issue #1. Snyder does a great job at setting up this story, and Sean Murphy, yet again, proves that both his rendering of the main action as well as his structuring of the visual narrative are an integral part of the title. On the subject of Murphy, I finished Punk Rock Jesus not too long ago, so I’m excited to see him back with a compelling new project. I’m glad that he’s working with Snyder on this, like two tastes that go great together, but I’d love to see him do more of his own writing. But as we’ve seen with Joe the Barbarian, even when he’s illustrating with a major writing talent, the form of the narrative is largely determined through his pen. And for this reason alone, The Wake #1 is well worth picking up.

Other books from Nathan Edmondson, Sean Murphy, and Scott Snyder:

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The Comics Alternative is a podcast and blog focused on the world of alternative, independent, and primarily non-superhero comics.

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