On the strength of its first issue alone, it’s entirely possible that Carbon Grey will be Image’s next big breakout. The book is simply breathtaking, a relentless tour de force that maximizes its style without necessarily sacrificing the substance, and the gorgeous art that’s on display is phenomenal in its confidence and swagger.
Hoang Nguyen’s notes in the back of the issue make it clear that the book has been an immense labor of love for the artist for nearly a decade. What Nguyen states began as “a sketch and two sentences” has morphed into one of the most stunning debuts I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Carbon Grey defies easy description but Nguyen and his team do a fine job of making their influences known without using them as a crutch.
Every panel of Carbon Grey is flush with vivid mixtures of steampunk, RPG-derived video game design and the kind of noir-saturated hyper detail you see in the films of someone like Wong Kar-Wai. Telling the story of an empire in the midst of steep decline, Carbon Grey keeps its eye mainly on the titular Grey sisters, who act as a sort of elite guard for the Kaiser. The first issue doesn’t make it immediately clear what’s going on in the rest of the world of Carbon Grey since the details of the Greys’ plight have to be managed but it would seem that this particular reality finds the German Empire to be one of the dominant super powers in the world.
The German Empire of this world has either come out on top after World War I or avoided that conflict altogether or, as some pages might indicate, is embroiled in a similar ongoing war. Airships roam about and a mixture of steampunk technology and something a little more advanced rules the day. At the beginning of the issue we’re immediately thrown into the assassination of the Kaiser, the ruler of the empire. The Kaiser here bears a striking similarity to Wilhelm II, who was notably the last emperor of the German Empire, and one of the early victims is a chancellor, though it’s not clear yet if the chancellors here have as much power as their counterparts in our history.
What Nguyen and his writing team, of which Paul Gardner has handled scripting duties, seem to be preparing is a good old fashioned evil empire overthrow. The Grey sisters appear to have been set up because of what their lineage symbolizes to the German people. Gardner’s script interweaves the stakes of the revolt and the stakes of the Greys’ specific situations extremely well, giving the story a nice tension and chaos that mobilizes the story. There are some clunky dialogue points, particularly in a seduction scene, but that’s not really much of an issue since so much of the story is told through the incredible art and diary-like captions and quotes.
The art in this book cannot be complimented enough. Nguyen states in the back that he was hoping to “combine Western art with an Eastern sensibility” for something “new and different” and goddamn did he succeed on that front. Khari Evans and Nguyen did the pencils for the first issue though it’s unclear how much is one or the other, since Nguyen gives Evans most of the credit. Regardless, the character creation on the series is vibrant and dynamic; the grunts who walk into the messy scene of the Kaisers’ assassination look like something from a Gilliam film, while the Big Baddies could have come from a Final Fantasy entry if it were set in early 20th century Europe.
Despite having an epic scope and a pretty huge roster of characters, Carbon Grey remains a ridiculously fun outing that deftly combines the sexy uber-violence of latter day Tarantino with a fantasy setting that promises plenty of high-minded adventure. As long as Nguyen and his team can keep up the pace, this might just be an early entry for best limited series of the year.