First issues are hard. I’d argue even more so when building a mystery. You don’t want to give too much away, but there needs to be enough there to get readers to return for issue #2. A strong start is important, and so Nature’s Labyrinth begins with a now all too familiar temperature check and accompanying target on the forehead of a character named Mrs. Grann. From the first page, I’m intrigued by the visual clues; panels of Mrs. Grann’s arrival play out while narrative captions let us know the characters we are about to meet will have to “earn their freedom.”
Nature’s Labyrinth is the newest series from Mad Cave Studios. It is written by Zac Thompson (I Breathed a Body, Lonely Receiver), illustrated by Bayleigh Underwood (It Took Luke), colored by Warnia Sahadewa (Dry Foot, Sh*tshow), and lettered by Rus Wooton (there are too many comics to name!). The eight main characters, or candidates as they are referred to in the narration, are quickly introduced as though this were a reality TV competition show, and maybe it is, as a large banner states, “Welcome to the Flourishing Cruise!”. The reader is told their names, ages, pronouns, countries of origin, and each is given a code name. Alexi Babin is “The Flame,” Nasir Sarafin is “The Terror”. Mrs. Grann is “The Shield,” It’s a diverse cast.
At this point, I’m curious, but it’s the next panel after the introductions that truly hooks me. A wide shot of the cruise ship with the name of the ship: “BORGES.” I stop reading and turn to Google to confirm my suspicions. A literary reference. There are few things I love more than when something I’m reading or watching makes literary references (be they overt or subtle). The comparisons to LOST may be inevitable, but I loved LOST, and it’s why I read Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge. I’m now scouring each panel for more clues.
As I read on it’s easy to see that Zac Thompson makes the most of every bit of dialogue. He has to with a large cast of characters and only a few pages to make the reader care about them before he (inevitably) does terrible things to them. He also has to establish the rules of this world, and he’s able to do so without the first issue being too exposition heavy. As the story unfolds, I do find myself asking more questions, though, which is a good thing. Why did these eight people answer this call? Are they all who they appear to be? Why are they being put through this? Who is behind this? The mystery deepens. Luckily, Thompson is working with Bayleigh Underwood, who does a tremendous job here. Their art style is playful while also being able to convey the sinister. They capture movement so well that the comic itself feels in motion, like the cruise ship setting. With bright and vibrant colors, Sahadewa helps to create a false sense of what is actually taking place and what (probably) lies ahead. The lettering is skillful, with Wooton using certain flourishes in the balloons at times to convey a character’s mental or emotional state. It’s the SFX, though, that is a standout. Big and brightly colored, reminiscent of a game show, but I don’t think anyone was ever in danger of dying on Wheel of Fortune.
It’s a strong start to an interesting premise that works as well as it does due to the characters Thompson and Underwood have created. The anchor of the cast, the above-mentioned Mrs. Grann, is endlessly fascinating, and I’d be happy if the entire series focused on them, but I’ve a feeling each issue may spotlight the others. The further I went in Nature’s Labyrinth, the more I wanted to read on to issue #2, especially after the cliffhanger of an ending and a few other surprises along the way, which I won’t spoil here. It’s a series that feels like the creative team is trying for it to be more than just one thing. I will definitely be sticking around in the hopes we all make it through.