If you missed last year's Dream Thief miniseries by Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood, you missed a lot of explanation about how the series' lead character, John Lincoln, stole an ancient aboriginal mask that causes him to be possessed by the ghosts of people who have been wronged -- who then use his body as a vessel for revenge.

Luckily, the first issue of Dark Horse's new miniseries, Dream Thief: Escape, does a pretty masterful job of setting up the out-there premise to anyone who missed the original series. With the origin part of the story out of the way, Nitz and Smallwood have a chance to dig into other aspects of the story, and here, they spend a considerable number of pages checking in with one of the mask's previous owners. It's clear the creators want this to be a legacy story -- similar to, but not quite the same, as Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker and David Aja's Immortal Iron Fist. In just a few short issues, they've made it happen.

The thing readers of the previous Dream Thief series are likely to notice right away is that this issue tells what is, for all intents and purposes, a straightforward story (technically, two straightforward stories) with none of the esoteric panel designs Smallwood used previously. The only real flourish is that the captions that give the setting -- particularly the one used in the opening flashback, set in 1985 Boca Raton, Flori da-- are integrated into the panels rather than just being caption boxes. They're so well-integrated, in fact, that I missed the very first one and had to go back to catch it.

Readers like me with caption-blindness may well be the reason that the panel layout is more standardized this time around. Not only does this issue introduce a 1985 Dream Thief with a particular Miami Vice/Scarface flavor to his story, but it also follows Lincoln through his latest possession, and on a mystery trip to meet a convict who may or may not be possessed by his dead father, who also has a history of Dream Thievery. Add to that a full explanation of the series' entire premise, and that's a lot of ground to cover. Straightforward layouts may be for the best.




And again, the ground is covered well. Much of the necessary exposition comes in the midst of action, and there's no needless preamble to anything. There's a real economy of storytelling at work here, and Nitz and Smallwood work together beautifully to accomplish it. There's only one page that I would call an out-and-out infodump -- mostly recap of the last series' plot events rather than mythology stuff--and it's accompanied by art that would make a really beautiful pin-up.

Here's an example of the storytelling economy at work in this issue: There's a connection between the 1985 flashback and the current-day story, but it would be entirely possible for a reader not to realize it, at least not on the first pass-through. That sounds like a complaint, but I, for one, greatly appreciate the nod toward my intelligence as a reader. Nobody spells out the connection in dialogue or a caption -- you just have to catch a character's name, notice a certain resemblance, and realize that there's some very familiar face paint involved. It involves the reader in the story in a way that many comics just don't, and I really am happy that Nitz and Smallwood take that approach.

The supernatural crime genre is one that's legitimately burgeoning in the world of comics in 2014, and Dream Thief is one of the best examples. If you missed the boat on the last miniseries, you won't be lost jumping into the first issue of the new one. Let's just hope for some of those cool panel designs in issue two.

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