It is the year 3241 and things kind of suck. There was a Great Disaster, see, maybe you’ve heard about it, it’s called the Anthropocene. Some other stuff happened too, between then and now, though the story doesn’t appear to be in a great hurry to reveal what precisely. Turns out it doesn’t matter so much as you might think.
Humanity has been pulled back to something resembling the Bronze Age, complete with warring tribes and shamans and slavers, albeit the occasional rifle. It is strongly implied, in text and via backmatter, that the planet has been conquered by mysterious aliens known only as the Devas, creatures in the process of rehabilitating the Earth’s biosphere after centuries of devastation. They also don’t seem to mind being worshipped as gods by the remaining humans, even as they are in no hurry to pull humanity out of its post-industrial cultural stupor. The planet under their supervision resembles nothing so much as a nature preserve, and we’re the exhibits.
First Knife is the story of this world and these people. Originally serialized by Image as Protector, there’s a great deal of enthusiasm on these pages, enthusiasm brimming over into the copious and aforementioned backmatter. There’s a lot of lore but it doesn’t get in the way of the story - rather, the story is itself concerned with learning as much about this world as possible. You don’t learn as much as you could stand to, always a positive sign. The book is written by Simon Roy and Daniel Bensen, but not overwritten. It’s a brisk read with lots of detail to pick up along the way.
The art comes courtesy of Artyom Trakhanov, a Russian artist who’s been working in American comics for the better part of a decade. It’s very good, I won’t beat around the bush. It’s loose, energetic, full of interesting designs and novel compositions. It doesn’t look like the kind of thing you would have ever seen in American comics, nope, seems in temperament and aesthetic closer kin to something that would have been published in France on glossy paper in the 1970s. It’s violent, with no shortage of people being torn apart and thrown into the maw of a giant toothy robot. Trakhanov is a kinetic artist. Even when his figures are sitting they seem to be moving. Jason Wordie’s colors shift from the dry desert hues of sand and stone to the intense pastels of future war with aplomb. The palette is often jarring and surprisingly bright. Not a friendly or welcoming environment by any means. Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou provides the letters, a perfect complement to Trakhanov’s European sensibility.
If I had one critique of a comic book I otherwise enjoyed it would be that the art occasionally veers in the direction of busy, perhaps a venal sin but one which can nevertheless obstruct the effectiveness of even the most accomplished illustration. Trakhanov’s a good artist, his designs are imaginative and his framing dynamic, and the combination of all the above can be that sometimes it’s difficult to parse what’s going on. A number of battles occur in the dark, replete with shadows playing off wild colors and chaotic movement. You can see what’s happening, generally, but sometimes the details of what the figures are doing and who they are seems obscure. The titular First Knife, an older hunter loaded down with all manner of weaponry and kit, disappears beneath detail - shading, folds of clothing, and limbs. Perhaps a small complaint.
Trakhanov uses a number of different lines, and the result can often seem like illustrations from different kinds of comics coming into conflict. There’s sci-fi monsters and space gods, post-apocalyptic hunter-gatherers, and crusty old dudes with vintage army surplus knives. There’s a great deal of energy on display. This book is clearly a labor of love, with all the good and bad that implies. I can’t imagine anyone picking it up to look at the art will be in a hurry to put it back down, even if it ain’t fully their cup. It’s still a very full cup.