I was impressed with Dream Thief from the get-go, but after interviewing writer Jai Nitz and learning that this is artist Greg Smallwood’s first ever comic book experience, I’m even moreso. Smallwood is the real deal, folks. His fantastic layout work, his imaginative choices, his perfectly moody inks and his unassailably cool style all add up to a stunning debut, and we can only hope there’s a hell of a lot more comic work in his future.
Nitz’s story is also compelling in its mystery. John Lincoln was a go-nowhere douche who stole a mask from an Aboriginal art exhibit, and ever since then, every time he goes to sleep, he wakes up to a fresh bunch of murder and intrigue. It seems ghosts in need of vengeance are possessing him through the mask and making him kill the hell out of the people what killed them in the first place. “A supernatural-crime reverse Quantum Leap,” as Nitz told me was the original pitch, and it works.
In Dream Thief #4, the penultimate issue in this first five-part story, Lincoln wakes up in the back seat of a car with a dead guy in the driver’s seat and an unconscious priest in the passenger seat. Oh, and the car is sinking deep into a lake. So he only has time to piece a few things together, and he grabs the priest – reluctantly, after getting a vague sense that he doesn’t like the guy – and saves his life with CPR learned from one of his previous ghost inhabitants. Turns out the new ghost is Frank Best, a card shark who got aced by a crime boss named D’Augustino to steal his winnings. The dead driver was his hitman. It also turns out the priest, Father Tommy Logan, ain’t a man of the cloth so much as he is a man of the paper – greenbacks, that is. Dinero. Cashish. Cabbage. Bread. Dough. Big bucks. Dolla Dolla bills, y’all. Okay, I’ll stop now.
So Lincoln, with Best in his head, saddles up to a poker table to try and win some phat bank from D’Augustino and associates, at the behest of Logan, who claims to know secrets about the mask that’s causing him all these problems. The five-card draw festival plays in his favor, because not only does he have a true card shark in his head, but he’s also got three other ghosts rattling around in there, which makes his face unreadable. No one can tell when he’s bluffing. That’s cool. After some table talk, it turns out that Logan is an even bigger shit than we realized, and the tables get turned. The book ends with a sudden swerve when Lincoln finally heads back home to see how things are going since he’s been out doing ghost dirty work – and things are goin’ bad.
Nitz started out pitching Lincoln as a slacker dingus loser, but in four issues’ time, he’s become a fascinatingly slick operator. There’s no panic every time he wakes up – he calmly collects his thoughts and the ghosts’ thoughts and pieces together what’s going on and what he has to do, keeping his emotions on a relatively even keel most of the time. Even his first kill, his own girlfriend, was something he postponed registering on an emotional level until a long while later, when he had a moment to breathe. He is one cool customer, despite being sucked into this metaphysical madness. He calls priests “padre.” He knows all there is to know about poker and uses terms like “boat” and “short stacked” and his full beard looks cool with the black mask and everything.
It’s just… cool. That’s the word I keep coming back to, and it’s hard to really nail that on your first try like Nitz and Smallwood have. There’s a fine line there – if you try too hard, you just come off as lame and stupid like Gambit. But if you manage to ride that line and keep it from becoming obnoxious and cloying, you make fans of your readers. Dream Thief has done that for me.