Another new release from Vault Comics, Spiritus continues a trend of Vault comics exploring the fringes of mainstream speculative graphic fiction. Perhaps even more so than any of Vault’s other books, Spiritus feels like an indie comic, a personal project told just the way its creators wanted.
Accused of the murder of her beloved husband, champion fighter Kinju Dayal has been found guilty and awaits her punishment, to be transferred into a pre-programmed government labor robot. But the mob has other plans for her. In exchange for her cooperation, they’re willing to intervene, to put her into a blank drone.
It’s a fantastic premise, with classic sci-fi appeal and smart critiques of our modern prison system. After all, the Work Release video makes a powerful argument and a scathing critique of the prison state. The trick, of course, is that the new system is possibly even closer to slavery and the old one was pretty darn close.
There’s some fantastic tension in the issue as readers are thrown into the dark along with Kinju, forced to watch propaganda and exposed to the dehumanizing claustrophobia of the Work Release program.
But that claustrophobic feeling comes at a price. Spiritus is confusing. There’s no other way to put it. The gorgeously stylized art and colors frequently obscure the reader’s ability to understand the scene and the limited information given to the reader frequently seems insufficient. I always appreciate when comics try to ease readers in naturally, without patronizing exposition or heavy-handed infodumps, but this one falls too far over the line, perhaps far enough to even call it willfully obtuse.
I think the most crucial piece of missing information is what the purpose of the enteched prisoners are. The Work Release propaganda makes alluring claims about the efficiency of the process and the beauty of a return to faith in the human spirit, but, if the bots have “restrictive state labor program protocols”, how conscious and how necessary are the prisoners? Do they simply power the machines? Do they have the capacity to think during their work or before their recharge cycle? How much of this is simply a way to feel better about the human drive for retribution?
In fairness, those are incredibly interesting questions and I suspect that writer Tim Daniel raised them with some intentionality. However, the utter lack of clues leave the reader following along aimlessly, and there’s no guarantee that there will necessarily be satisfying answers on the way.
The art, especially the colors, are undeniably breathtaking. It sounds a little silly, but the boldness of the yellow and navy on the cover’s background and logo were enough to pique my interest and what’s inside will not disappoint in that regard.
Michael Kennedy’s characters are stark in the interplay between their simple, recognizable reality and the inhuman angularity of the shapes that make them up. Lines and color work together in a way that remind you just how powerful it can be to have a single artist executing a comic.
The tech is pretty astonishing in its own way too. The body that Kinju finds herself in is a fantastic design, abstract and yet particular. It feels like if it were animated its lines would shift and morph, but it still communicates a function and a purpose. It presents a new way to enjoy Kennedy’s colors. Even something as simple as the first-person views from the Kinju-bot’s perspective prove incredibly effective at communicating the disorienting, alien experience of her new body.
The particular aesthetic of the technologies utilized in the issue is also fun. It helps give the book the feeling of being its own sci-fi universe, rather than a by the numbers speculative piece. The snaking bundles of wires that make up the sarcophagus are a strong image and the addition of lights to the ends of certain wires make for an oddly unsettling visual.
But, like the writing, the art is frequently unclear. There are plentiful panels where it is absolutely a challenge to discern what is happening. Obvious as it seems now, it easily took three or four reads before I was able to notice that there was more than one animal on the first page, much less what was actually being depicted. A first read of Spiritus is likely to either be slow or confusing and subsequent attempts have no guarantee of alleviating that. It’s definitely not one for the colorblind.
I also have to say that the ending is rather abrupt and hardly the most satisfying. Though the lack of ads is a blessed relief after stumbling through the double-page invaders of recent DC offerings, it also leaves Spiritus #1 feeling rather unsubstantial. The story doesn’t really feel complete, almost as though this debut issue needed a larger page count and didn’t receive one, or did and was then split into multiple issues.
That point also leads me to a trend in comics, of which Spiritus is hardly the first or worst offender: its relationship to its solicitation text. Vault is very kind to include solicits on the back of each issue, offering nicer covers and a good way to gauge your interest in a book. Unfortunately, Spiritus #1 doesn’t really hold anything in reserve, narratively speaking. Though the artistic expression of the ideas is forceful and new, you might gain a stronger understanding of the story from reading the back cover than reading everything else. As such, there’s a lack of a hook for readers that aren’t completely bowled over by the art.
Spiritus is another strange, confusing, wonderful premier from Vault comics. Full of smothering atmosphere and clever ideas, Tim Daniel and Michael Kennedy craft the kind of bombastic indie sci-fi that we rarely see in America and they bring it to life in a breathtaking fashion.
Issue #1 feels merely like a start, ending too quickly and with too many unanswered questions, but it’s a fascinating start to be sure. This is a story that truly takes advantage of the comic form to tell its tale. Spiritus will be a mind-blowing experience for some and a frustrating one for others, but I doubt that any will disagree that it is a gorgeous bit of graphic storytelling with a tempting premise.
It’s too early to say if Spiritus will live up to its potential, but issue #1 begins to fill a niche that has been unoccupied in mainstream comics for far too long. Consider trade-waiting if you like, but don’t let this one slip past you without giving it active consideration.