The Atonement Bell (#1) – Jim Ousley

3 out of 5

Very humanistic art from Tyler Ruff helps to bring the nuance to light in Jim Ousley’s dialogue; much of The Atonement Bell’s first issue is talking heads that are talking around subjects – two sisters with different types of dedication to religion; the loss of one sister’s husband and her son’s father – but this never has the reader suffering through forced profundity or exposition dumps. It’s engaging because the conversations feels real, and you’re further immersed in the mood thanks to Ruff’s art. 

While I have my personal “rules” for how I feel comics should read, and one being that each issue should be capable of standing alone, that doesn’t have to mean we have a strict ‘here’s the plot’ beat, so it’s not solely that I can’t quite tell what The Atonement Bell is about yet – beyond ghostly happenings surrounding the setting (St. Louis, Missouri) and the book’s featured family – that holds it back, but it is about how what’s here is presented. 

The cold open, set in the 1800s, has some violent, floaty, spiritual creatures punishing some escaping locals, offering up ominous “you shouldn’t have crossed us” type warnings before we jump to present day, and Kayla and her son Jake driving to visit Kayla’s sister. The bulk of the book is the aforementioned conversations, and then there’s a concluding hook in which some spiritual elements are reintroduced. 

Individually, these scenes work. But I’m not sure they stack very well.  

Part of my “rules” would be to not leave too many things open-ended without grounding your reader. Yes, at the start of a story, you may be introducing X number of plotlines, but there should be some type of storytelling pattern, or link between those plots, to guide the reader. Otherwise, it just feels like you’re restarting the story with each new thread. This is something that works in a movie, where the flow (how quick to read; when to turn the page) is not dictated by the reader, but in book / comic form, it can be a roadblock. 

So: The Atonement Bell is just a bit too cinematic – in terms of structure – in its first steps. It assumes a momentum between scenes that isn’t naturally there, and furthermore doesn’t have strong enough story throughlines to smooth that out. 

…Yet. Because while I can’t say this issue necessarily ramps up enough to make issue 2 a required read, if the second book was a click away, or available on the stand the next time I went back, it’d be an easy purchase: there’s undeniable confidence in the story that never lets you doubt Ousley knows where it’s going overall, and with Ruff on art, there’s instant familiarity with the characters.