"Dream Thief" is a long gestating project envisioned by Jai Nitz and Greg Smalwood. After three years of development, the two Kansas based creators have finally come to an agreement with Dark Horse to publish the initial five issues. Despite some work for DC's Zuda line of webcomics, Smallwood has remained a little known creator, while Nitz has spent a dozen years patiently building his career in the unforgiving Direct Market. Aided by an Alex Ross sketch that has eventually became the cover of their debut issue, the "Dream Thief" finally saw print last year.
The story opens with a recurring motif of the protagonist bewilderly waking up in an unexpected location, with no immediate memory of how he got there. The density of the creators' approach is clear from the very first page, featuring dual narration and a cascade of small panels. Visually, the layout and the heavily atmospheric minimalist stylings call to mind the work of Sean Phillips, particularly his time on "Wildcats".
Both Nitz and Smallwood are keenly aware of the space limitations of a 22 page comic, but seem determined not to let it impede their complex plots. Thus, the well acted and keenly observed look of "Dream Thief" is employed in service of storytelling, with the first issue acting as a complete story. The three suceeding issues are standalone, even while they feed into the wider plot begun in the inaugural episode.
In practice, they turn the title into a procedural with a supernatural twist, setting out a capable formula strong enough to support a bevy of successive stories. The creators call out this ready for TV series approach by having one of the characters be a fan of the "CSI" styled cop show. The high concept of "the Mask" meeting "Quantum Leap" is suprisingly easy to get a grasp on, making the reader care about the multitude of victims' perspectives.
Namely, while he sleeps, John Lincoln is possessed by the spirits of the newly murdered, leaving him to try to make for more righteous resolutions once he awakes to the aftermath of nighttime brutality. He is presented with the memories and abilities of the recently deceased, which go a long way towards resolving the situation that made them a victim in the first place.
The creators fully utilize the genre roots and the strengths of the medium they are telling their stories in, making for gripping cliffhangers and plot twists that maintain the paranoia. The reader is thus never sure what will happen once the perpetually sleep deprived protagonist awakes after finally succumbing to sleep.
Smallwood's clean pages intuitively respond to plot twists by becoming animated whether through innovative layouts or different color schemes when pertaining to flashbacks. For his part, by utilizing dualling narration, Nitz is able to string together the pertinent information about each of the vengeful spirits' previous lives. The writer is careful to make each experience different, while enabling the titular Dream Thief to retain all of their thoughts and abilities.
Such a scenario could risk turning the protagonist into a cypher, but instead the creators use the experience to help the character grow and mature.
John Lincoln is introduced to the reader as a down on his luck slacker, quickly losing control of his life. Yet, the information regarding his past and the quickly set up group of friends and loved ones hint at the complex, multi-faceted person.
In many ways, the mystery surrounding John is more compelling than the murders he spends the central part of the story investigating. After introducing the story with a personal tragedy that gives him his powers, the mini-series ends with his return to Atlanta, forcing him to deal with his own situation, while in the process setting up the new status quo.
John's sister and his best friend are there to address his transformation and seem poised to remain by his side as he masters his new abilities and deals with the newfound knowledge regarding his predicament. The creators end the first volume of "Dream Thief" by promising that its follow-up will consist of a single story, more centered on John trying to discover the truth about his father. Hopefully, "Escape", starting June 25th, will be the first of many mini-series that continue Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood's strong debut on "Dream Thief".