Warning: The following review contains spoilers from 451’s newest comic book release, Stained.
David Baron’s follow-up issue to the premiere of Stained from 451 retains the tight, fluid action and adds plot guaranteed to tickle and unnerve. The series follows recovery artist and bounty hunter for hire Emma London, described as “strong, possibly indomitable, and did we mention… part machine.” Following in the tradition of other cyberpunk works like Masamune Shiro’s Ghost in the Shell, Stained examines the human condition through a gritty sci-fi lens.
But where Ghost in the Shell floats in the ether asking what it means to be human, Stained kicks those questions in the teeth. The cybernetic enhancements in Baron’s world aren’t dissected with each new reveal nor compared in the heat of a fight—most of the time they’re barely mentioned aloud at all. Emma’s face is called “messed up” and “stained” in the opening sequence of Issue #1, something I want to touch back on in a bit; when Bezzle tells Ajani he’s “looking stronger than ever,” one would guess he’s merely referring to newly enhanced robotic arms.
This “less is more” approach lends itself to conjuring so many delightful questions through Baron’s show-don’t-tell narrative style. Clearly it’s the -near- future, and yet for as many technological advances as we’re given much of the landscape could be now. Cybernetic enhancements aren’t as widespread as found in the likes of Ghost in the Shell, which suggests a stigma in its own way that’s the basis for the title. From what it seems, the only human part of Emma is the upper-half of her skull minus the jaw, hence why it’s the sole flesh-toned section of her body. In that sense, the only part of her still human is her mind.
Yet, unlike Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, Emma still has attachments to her former fleshy life, and that’s what makes her uniquely interesting. What happens when the brain is still feeling but the body has gone numb? This is Baron giving us a fresh take on a noir flatfoot trope, and he’s teasing us with not even hints thus far about why she ended up that way. That’s one clever way to make you invested.
Emma herself both fits and breaks the mold in her own right. The inner-monologue ventures into theatrical-cut Blade Runner territory at times and yet she displays a fully human array of emotions with the ensemble cast. While others have called Stained an homage to the cyberpunk and female action-hero genres, its exploring entirely new territory with Emma alone. I still find myself going back to the moment at the end of Issue #1 when she made eggs for herself only to throw them in the garbage. Never would’ve imagined how powerful breakfast could be visually until now. Plot be damned I’d keep reading just for her.
Worldbuilding and characterization aside, heaps of praise need to be laid at first-time writer David Baron’s feet for this plot turn that grips you and refuses to let go. While the first issue felt a bit standard cyberpunk-lite, issue two goes from your run-of-the-mill private eye stolen painting case (yes, that’s a thing) to some nightmarish cross between Eyes Wide Shut and Animal Farm. Our literal faceless villains, including the mysterious boar-masked Mr. Berkshire, are up to something far more nefarious than an illegal art auction. I have an idea from the final twist what that is, but it’s best left for you to come to yourself.
The nonstop intrigue is only accented by newcomer Yusuf Idris’ illustrations. Idris creates a perfect balance between focus and flow, framing each individual panel flawlessly. There’s something to be said for comic book artists who understand just the right place to pour detail, creating the illusion of cinematic motion. Give the eye just enough to drool over and the imagination does the rest. Add to that Baron’s years of experience as a colorist and you get something so visually enamoring it’d be the envy of every other comic book publisher. He pairs Idris’ line-work with a muted, cool color scheme that draws the eye in instead of leaping off the page. The result is a story that lives beyond the confines of its rectangles.
Just as the goal of every film is to make you forget you’re watching a movie, so too goes comic books. Stained blends a familiar yet fresh heroine with a raw, dark narrative and gritty eye candy for pages. It’s everything great about 90s cinema that Hollywood abandoned in paper-format. You’ll read through it faster than you thought possible for the story and go back for seconds on the visuals alone. Fingers will flip the pages unconsciously while you soak it all in.
Needless to say, Baron is onto something quite brilliant in this passion project of his, and every comic book fan should snag a copy of Stained Issue #1 and #2 when it hits shelves June 7th. The cliffhanger will leave you wishing it was already July.
For more information on Stained and the other great titles from 451, check out their site.
Stained Issue #2
- - Kick-ass heroine with actual depth and heart.
- - Gripping story from first-time writer David Baron.
- - Cinematically framed illustrations from newcomer Yusuf Idris that feel alive.
- - Well worth a second read-through just to admire how the color scheme blends with the artwork.
- - Fresh take on the cyberpunk genre.
- - A cliffhanger that'll make you wish it was already July.