3 out of 5
Very promising stuff, but it’s restrained – it feels like we’re just getting started.
Time Before Time is, fittingly, a time travel tale, but the science and theory of that takes a backseat to what feels more akin to a crime caper, recalling another recent project co-writer McConville worked on with same artist Joe Palmer – Write It In Blood. In Blood, two brothers are caught between two gangs, trying to make their exit from the criminal scene; in Time Before Time, Tatsuo and Oscar are plotting to escape from “The Syndicate,” an organization which, vaguely, does various types of brokering vie time machine across eras, stretching from as far forward as the 3000s, and as far back as the 1900s, starting in our initial setting of 2140.
The ‘vaguely’ is not a bad thing: McConville and Shalvey rather skillfully hint at / build up the world of the Syndicate through Tatsuo’s and Oscar’s clipped conversations, and this lends the organization a bit of ominousness – an implicit threat – that info-dumping on us (or forefronting their violent displays) wouldn’t accomplish as well. However, this approach seems to have informed a general approach to the sci-fi elements – to keep them rather pared down to a straightforward “rule” concerning the time travel: there are no paradoxes; all that can happen has already happened. While this is a smart bit of preemptive housecleaning, it has the opposite effect of the limited info applied to the Syndicate: it makes the time travel feel rather simple, and almost unnecessary in a way, especially when we start to get into more complex dealings with other, competing agencies. What I mean by this is that the story puts a very early focus on a mix-up with Tatsuo and an FBI agent, and all of that distracts from Tatsuo’s escape plans, and the relevance of the era-hopping.
In the backmatter, letter-writers and our writers discuss how the idea is to use sci-fi as an avenue to explore characters and stories, and I’m very much for that, but I guess what I’m feeling is that this first arc tried to jump right to the latter exploration before giving us a clearer ground on which to build. At the same time, the world-building does not feel like it hasn’t been done – it’s between the panels, waiting to be explored. The story arrives with confidence, and Palmer’s fish-eye lens and streamlined character designs gives the read a seamless flow and distinct, unified look. I do think colorist Chris O’Halloran could’ve played up colors a bit more to help define the different times, but the overall sickly hues used do play in to the way the high-concept time travel shtick is juxtaposed against falling-apart tech that allows for it, and the slowly decaying nature of the 2140-and-beyond world. Letterer Hassan Otsamne-Elhaou finds a really fantastic balance between loose, rough bubbles and clean lettering that also supports this.
Which is to say: while I think this initial storyline is moderately underwhelming, the promise of the story is palpable as all heck, with writers, artist, letterer, and designed Sasha E. Head all on the same page to convince us that this team knows what it’s doing, and where it’s going. So I’m definitely locked in for more issues, feeling assured that great things are to come, which will probably make rereading this opening more rewarding once all is said and done.