Divinity III: Escape from Gulag 396 (#1) – Eliot Rahal

4 out of 5

A one-shot featuring characters I don’t follow (Archer and Armstrong) in a comic universe I don’t care about (Valiant) as part of a crossover / event I’m not reading (Stalinverse); to make such a book interesting to me should be a tall order, and that it manages that order supports my continued interest in writer Eliot Rahal.

I’ve given A&A a shot before, so I can’t claim to be completely in the dark, but regardless, Rahal boils their relationship down to a pretty outstanding example of effective, compact storytelling that’s unique to the comic world’s art + words approach: Minimal images and words let us see how faith has shaped the altruistic Archer’s upbringing, tweaked into an outspoken for-the-people revolutionary in the totalitarian Stalinverse; how immortality and loss has led to the somber, unmoving Armstrong, also jailed for – we can assume – not going with the flow, but moreso from an excess of apathy.  And the normally comedic buddy duo – Gulag 396 showing their first meeting whilst both are incarcerated – is re-presented as something of a shoring up of of beliefs, giving Archer another way of fulfilling his father’s imparted moral lessons and Archer a way to rediscover some hope.  None of this is the directly spoken context: It is wrapped up in the smartly chosen selection of images and snippets of conversation we get to see.

Stalinverse, as it likely sounds, is a version of the world that’s been something something Stalin-ized, I assume, which gives us a lack of freedoms and gulags.  In ‘escape,’ prisoner Archer is taunted about his faith by the warden, challenged to see if he can apply said faith to rouse impossible prisoner Armstrong.  The letdown with the issue is that it’s likely a setup for putting A&A into position for whatever else is going on in other Stalinverse issues, and so there’s not much ‘escape’ or even much momentum: It’s really just an exceedingly well distilled reimagining of two characters’ first meeting.  The warden – boastful laughter and table-fist-pounding outbursts – is also a bit of an evil warden cliche, but I think you’re allowed at least one cliche in any prison tale.

The art team is amazingly solid.  Francis Portella has the somewhat big and bold character models of Jacen Burrows, but the inks are more delicate, which really hukanizes the look.  Colorist Andrew Dalhouse has a fitting cold color scheme for the Stalinverse, but doesn’t spare on keeping a realistic color range, and makes much use of the red / blue Archer / Armstrong duality.  Letterer David Sharpe goes with a large, clean font, but Rahal smartly doesn’t clutter up the pages with exposition, giving Sharpe a lot of room to properly select word flow.  Subtle spacing tweaks – shifting narrative boxes slightly – show how this can be an affecting component of a panel.

Also included is a short by Matt Kindt and Juan Jose Ryp about a character I guess called the Pioneer, but this slots much more in the ‘only matters to Valiant readers kinda bit.  But god bless Ryp.