John Arcudi’s Rumble returns with a new artist, David Rubin, a new #1 on the cover, and a new direction for the series. Arcudi uses this new #1 to fill in latecomers like me on the labyrinthine history of the series’ main character, Rathraq, as well as what his supporting cast has been up to since his apparent disappearance, presumably around the end of the last volume. It's largely a recap, but it's also presented in the way myths of this scale are handed down from generation to generation-- a story to be told around the fire or over drinks, in celebration or mourning, always in awe.
The story starts at the beginning, or at least somewhere near it, in a cave with an old man and his boy, sitting by a fire and paintings on the wall that tell the story of when the world was overrun with savage monsters. The old man explains that Rathraq was sent by the gods to end the violence with more violence, thus clearing a path for the early humans like them. We're treated to a few pages of brutality, where Rubin does his best Geof Darrow impression, but ends up giving us something that looks more like John K. making Conan comics. Which… isn't bad? Limbs are getting hacked off, monsters are getting stabbed dynamically, there are some fun texture patterns to evoke bloodstains-- it’s all very macho and stylized, and you get all the consequence-free saturday morning cartoon gore you need.
Then we jump to the present day, where the oral tradition continues when a longtime enemy of our guy Rathraq fills in his buddy about what the big guy has been up to lately. Rubin dusts off the 1970s superhero comics style guide to give us exposition by way of a montage that further reinforces the idea that the main man Rathraq is an unstoppable force. Is there anything this guy can’t do, any enemy he can’t defeat? Things like losing your body and having your soul put in a sack of dirty rags may make lesser men like you throw in the towel, but to guys like my new best friend Rathraq and me, it goes down like a nice tall glass of cool lemonade. You’d think at some point in this comic we’d actually get to meet this guy!
The ages of backstory make the world of Rumble seem big and ambitious, but for being a saga spanning what I am guessing is hundreds of thousands of years, we don't really come off knowing a whole lot about Rathraq. Sure, we’ve got enough to see that he’s one tough son of a bitch, but there's no sense of who Rathraq is nor why he’s doing any of the things he’s doing or why I should even care aside from the fact that he's the only thing the other characters ever talk about. I suppose that's a problem with these legendary warrior types, all you need are the broad strokes. I like the idea of Conan as much as the next guy, but do you have a favorite Conan story? Don't even respond to that, you liar, you don't.
Arcudi attempts to give a relatable entry point with a look into Rathraq's supporting cast of present day humans in the last third of the issue. It's also an opportunity to show where things stand in the neighborhood that the big R is calling home. It’s rundown and gritty, the kind of place where people are just stuck because it never feels to them that there could be anything more than this out there. You get the sense from the human characters we meet that Rathraq is their brutal window into a world much larger than the blocks of their neighborhood.
Rathraq and the monsters are still, however, largely a secret but some concerned neighborhood watch-types are starting to catch on about these monsters in their streets and they've decided to start a small militia to protect what's theirs. Unfortunate timing considering that the monsters these days don’t really have much fight in them and are, like the denizens of this poor neighborhood, just scraping by. We're meant to look at this militia as woefully underprepared, small-minded xenophobes, and perhaps Arcudi is making an appeal for relevance in these times where woefully underprepared, small-minded xenophobes seem to be free to be as ignorant as they want to be in the streets, but this approach ends up falling flat since they share the same goal as the larger than life warrior that everyone’s been talking about for the last fifteen pages. We don’t even get a bit where Rathraq busts up these unqualified militia men and reminds them that he’s different because he’s not wearing hockey pads. Instead, we get two Rathraq sympathizers bemoaning the possibility of Rathraq teaming up with these guys to create a real disaster for the neighborhood. It’s looking more and more like having a near-immortal, unstoppable warrior stalking your streets and murdering whoever he deems an enemy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
However, considering the menacing image we get when we finally do meet Rathraq in the present day, perhaps this mixed message plays into the as yet unclear new direction Arcudi has in mind for this series. After all this prelude and backstory, we finally meet Rathraq in some abandoned warehouse, sitting on a blood stained couch, his new throne, surrounded by blood and body parts, the latest of which is the head of his monster nemesis, Queen Xotlaha (seen earlier in flashbacks and montages as the prime force behind Rathraq’s suffering). It’s a tableau that would be equally at home on a nordic metal band’s album art as it is as a splash page reveal that our much-praised Rathraq has gone off the deep end. Or maybe he hasn’t, maybe he’s always been this ruthless and we’ve all been blinded by his legend?
From what I can gather, since the last issue of the first volume, Rathraq disappeared from the neighborhood, so of course people/monsters (see also: haters) have got to talking recklessly in the absence of Rathraq being around to threaten them with a giant sword. It fits thematically with the campfire tales structure of this issue because what are rumors and gossip if not the flipside to praise and myth-building? Perhaps the series could explore a tension between Rathraq’s millenia-spanning heroic legend and the present-day Rathraq, stewing in the indiscriminate violence and single-minded havok he causes in the lives of those around him. It’s tough to say since it’s only a first issue, but it would be interesting if the new direction for the series were to invert the building oral tradition surrounding the myth of the warrior, taking him from celebrated monster slayer to a murderer mentioned only in whispers.