Reviewed by Samm Jinks
We’ve all been there. Rock bottom, that is. When you have no lower to sink, you have to hold onto the hope that you’ll, just this once, rise to the occasion and make something of yourself. This is a driving force, the knowledge that when you’re backed into a corner, it’s never too late to turn things around.
And the latest release from Image Comics, Radiant Black, is ready to back into that corner full throttle. The title combines the weight of sky-shaking superhero extravaganzas with the mundanity of facing down the barrel of a rock bottom life in the heart of Illinois. We open on some disappointment and heartbreak, written out to the name of one Nathan Burnett, a struggling novelist faced with an empty bank account and no way to escape his debts. I’d say he’s at the end of his rope, but there’s just enough left for him to postpone bankruptcy for a few more short weeks by moving back home.
Once back, Nathan is reunited with a loving mother, a stern but caring father, and a high school bestie that would have a heart of gold if anyone could see past the chip on his shoulder. Things heat up quickly, however, when Nathan acquires a bizarre black sphere that allows him to change into a bright, beaming beacon of strength and ability. He has the world at his fingertips, powers that defy imagination, and perhaps even a nemesis brewing on the other side of the state. The stage is set. The call is ready to be answered.
And then he goes back to struggling with his novel. And I love that.
In the classic tradition of the Peter Parkers and Kamala Khans of the storytelling world, the drama of Radiant Black forms from the characters’ daily personal struggles. This is reflected in the incredible artwork that Marcelo Costa provides, with the color work and paneling keeping everything familiar and rigid during the day to day of the protagonists. But when the titular heroes of the narrative come to life, the sheer sense of form and energy behind them is apparent immediately.
Simple silhouettes are given so much dimension and force, with light curving around every edge and reflecting everywhere at once. And the way the characters leap through the pages, giving you an incredible visceral sensation you couldn’t build without careful artistic construction… it makes you turn back and read the bombastic sequences all over again, just to be sure you didn’t miss any of the little details.
Not only that, but what struck me upon looking over Radiant Black cover to cover once again was just how damn smart the whole thing was. It takes a good writer to solve problems, but the story design from master wordsmith Kyle Higgins is interconnected between chapters in a way that demonstrates creating problems as a means of narrative cohesion. Innocuous everyday struggles become the backbone of entirely separate character arcs, and it leaves you in awe as you realize just how much more it could potentially bring back together as the story continues.
At the heart of any heroic character is a desire to make amends. To right what once went wrong, and transform yourself in the process. And if you’re in debt, friendless, or burdened by toxic relationships, transformation is all the more alluring. Especially when it comes with super strength and levitation.
But underneath all the mighty morphing power or the glowing spandex, you are still just you. And you’ll have to find a way to live with that.
What drew me back into the narrative presented in Radiant Black every time I tried to take a break from turning the pages was a desire to see more of that transformation among these characters. The epic first part has left me hungry for more, and excited beyond belief to see what Higgins and Costa can cook up next.
It’s intriguing, it’s visceral, it’s radiant. Pick it up. You will not be disappointed.