Before I was brave enough to invest my money in single issues, I used to visit my local comic book store once a week. I spent about an hour, every Tuesday, pouring over the shelves trying to find the perfect jumping on point, but I never bought anything. Owing to this tradition, I know that I pined over the cover of Carbon Grey Volume 1, Issue #3 for exactly 7 weeks before I finally decided to buy the damn thing, my first single issue comic purchased with my very own money.
Like many people, I was drawn to Carbon Grey by the exquisite cover art. I leafed through the pages without reading much dialogue; at the time, I maintained a vague notion that reading the entire issue in the store would be comparable to shop lifting. I was astonished to find that the interior art surpassed the cover art. There were many exceptional panels, positively dripping with detail, like freckles lightly dappled with sweat. Many images were delightfully indulgent, with blood and entrails encircling the heroine cinematically.
I was especially pleased to find a cohesive aesthetic in this imaginary world. Artists Hoang Nguyen, Khari Evans and, Kinsun Loh drew heavily on nineteenth century Russian and German military styling, with industrial accents, and an indescribable combination of Eastern and Western artistic elements. Somehow all of these pieces work together seamlessly; lending gravity to the story, as though MiddleEuropa were a real place the artists had visited.
The overall tone, a combination of dark fantasy and science fiction, possibly set in a dystopian future or maybe a revisionist history, matched my genre preferences perfectly. Above all, Carbon Grey featured attractive women prominently kicking ass. “So… steampunk Sailor Moon? I totally need to read this,” I thought to myself.
Carbon Grey is more than magical pretty girls fighting evil. Perhaps… too much more.
Volume 1 begins with war waging in MiddleEuropa. Traditionally protected by female bodyguards called the Greys, the Kaiser has apparently been assassinated. One of the Grey sisters has been implicated in his murder while the other Greys attempt to manage the political fallout. There is also a significant subplot following a thief and a spy as they attempt to navigate the battle front. Then there’s Howard, a soldier who can’t stop running into the Grey sisters no matter where he goes. There’s also something about a Wolf General who can read dead people’s minds, and the widowed Queen who is perhaps too eager to assume leadership in the wake of her husband’s death.
Meanwhile, lore about the Greys is subtly disseminated. It is implied that the Greys are much older than they appear, heal more quickly than average women, are inexplicably lucky, and allegedly the descendents of a mythical hero, Gottfaust. There is a prophecy connecting Gottfaust, a mysterious stone, and the number of Grey sisters. Volume 1 concludes with the revelation that the myth and prophecy, typically taken as a metaphor for colonization and unification of the empire, is literally true.
This is barely 50% of what happens in Volume 1. I’m exhausted just thinking about the density of lore and incident in the first volume. Very important details are addressed fleetingly, sometimes in single pages or panels. The dialogue is quite tight and intentionally cryptic. This is not a story to read with your brain in entertainment mode.
Fortunately, the creative team, including scripter Paul Gardner, has provided a detailed recap page between each issue. I think that this shows great self-awareness, but I wonder if it isn’t a Band-Aid for a more systemic story-telling problem. Really, the plot density seems indicative of a story which was originally intended to span more than 3 Volumes total. Maybe it's not fair, but I suspect that most readers don’t want to think so hard just to keep the secondary characters straight. Even the primary characters are not granted many opportunities for complete characterization; I mostly distinguish characters by hair color and clothing style. To be clear, the clothing is incredibly awesome so this should register as only a small complaint.
By the end of Volume 2, plot threads have been trimmed back to a more reasonable scale. The story continues to be a mental exercise, but a plausible conclusion is in sight. The sisters are closing in on pieces of the mysterious Gottfaust stone and the potential of its continuity altering powers have been quite strongly suggested. The younger Grey sisters, a newly introduced Marshall, the Queen, and the Wolf General benefit from additional development. Considering that I was attracted to the title by the female characters, the Wolf General has emerged as a surprise favorite now that I have seen him in action.
The art in Volume 2 and the “Origins” one-shots continues to impress. As the title evolves, the artwork is more consistent overall, but also less exceptional. All of my favorite detail-heavy visuals are still from early in the series. However, the action sequences in Volume 1 suffered from a heavy, static feel. Throughout Volume 2, movement is conveyed much more effectively. As this volume concludes, it’s difficult to tell if the artwork and narrative are more supportive of each other, or if perhaps I have just learned how to read in Carbon Grey language.
The “Origins” one-shots also showcased some different visual styles. Of particular note, the short story, “Marshall & Marshall”, included a style shift executed by Khari Evans, Joffrey Suarez, Bryan Johnston, and Paul Gardner, which complemented the climax perfectly.
Perhaps it's only just that it's not possible for me to write a concise review of Carbon Grey. It’s a testament to the story creators: Hoang Nguyen, with Khari Evans, Mike Kennedy, and scripter Paul Gardner, that they have created something significant enough that it defies encapsulation in an online review. The upcoming trade paperback will combine Volume 2 and some of the “Origins” one-shots developing the characters and back-story in more detail. Consolidating the issues will make Carbon Grey a more enjoyable read. I would highly recommend finding a copy in this format.