by Patrick Ehlers and Mark Mitchell
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Patrick: I love the moment in every episode of X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer where whatever otherworldly threat our heroes are facing reveals itself to be alarmingly similar to some current societal ill. Sometimes it comes late to the story, and it’s not until two episodes into a three-episode arc that you realize these demons are riffing on toxic masculinity. I suppose that’s been the M.O. for science- and genre-fiction forever: lure the reader in with the hook and then gradually reel them in to the message. Writer Saladin Ahmed and illustrator Sami Kivelä work that formula in reverse in Abbott 1. The setting, a racially divided Detroit in 1972, and the supernatural mystery are slowly collapsed into one cohesive experience.
Part of that cohesion is due to the extremely steady hand with which Kivelä and Ahmed have imbued their main character. Abbott is a self-described creature of habit, visiting the same diner for lunch every day, and ending each day with a visit to the same bar for brandy one-of-two for the night. Even her reporting, which is called “agitation” by some is viewed as something of an inevitability — when she comes back from the mutilated-horse crime scene, her editor already knows she’s going to have a different narrative than the police. Hell, even the Detroit Daily board members see her entrance coming:
She is orderly, predictable, and thus reliable. Ahmed and Kivelä do such a great job in establishing this that they’re able to leverage the character’s authority against the readers here in the very first issue. My favorite example has to be as Abbott brushes past the more posh newspapers to get to the modest offices of the Detroit Daily.
There’s the obvious juxtaposition of the extravagant signs for the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News buildings and the modest placard outside Abbott’s office, but there’s the slightly more insidious abandoned building in the first of these panels. The FOR SALE signs are particularly foreboding, as they hint at both the small tragedy of the previous tenant going out of business and the uneasy dance of urban development and stagnation. These little insert panels tell a different micro story, that of Abbott lighting her cigarette and taking a drag. It is rhythmic and regular, and we’ll watch her start and end a couple cigarettes throughout the issue, sometimes even with these repeated insert panels.
This lends an air of authority to everything she does, both to the characters in the book and the readers. That last panel of Abbott walking into front door of the Detroit Daily feels like its free from editorial interference, like Abbott is somehow reporting the reality of the situation even past Ahmed and Kivelä. That’s also reflected in her writing, which plays by her editor’s rules, i.e., go with the cops’ version of the events, while still revealing what is incomplete or incorrect about that story. I also think it helps that Abbott is reporting on things we, the readers, know to be true.
We’re able to look back on 1972 Detroit and recognize what the city is going through at this particular juncture in history. Further, we’re able to see how incidents of police brutality echo across the country in the 46 years since. It’s all part of a hyper-convincing premise is coupled with a lovingly recreated sense of place. Ahmed, a Detroit native himself, names his restaurants, making them specific places rather than generic hang-outs for Abbott. He also takes her out to the autumnal countryside and to bustling downtown, illustrating the breadth of setting eastern Michigan.
All of which is just to say that when she starts to experience supernatural phenomenon, we have little choice but to believe it. Mark, I may just leave it to you to discuss the Umbra, and Elena’s relationship with Samir. She’s currently wearing his orange scarf, which features heavily in the page that dream-recaps their relationship. The page immediately following the dream is careful to highlight this:
So what is this “Umbra?” Is it a non-specific malevolent force? Or something more explicitly tied into the racism that’s eating away at the heart of this city? The language from Abbott’s article, which both starts and ends the issue, claims that Detroit is a city on the edge of a knife, and the final image is a cloaked man standing over Abbott with a knife, poised to strike. It’s metaphor and ghost story collapsing on each other, we’re just coming to it in an order I wasn’t expecting.
Mark: I don’t know that there’s enough information at this point to begin to speculate where the “Umbra” of Abbott fits into the whole puzzle. By definition, the umbra of a shadow is its darkest part, but the racism and misogyny that permeates the story doesn’t require a supernatural explanation — people can be evil on their own. So while I definitely anticipate that by the end of Abbott all of the elements of the story will dovetail, it feels very purposeful to me that the Umbra and the racial violence that blankets Detroit in 1972 are very distinct.
Specifically, note that the police brutality story that Abbott is (in)famous for doesn’t involve the Umbra at all. In fact, in Abbott’s dream it seems like the Umbra was stalking Samir almost exclusively; he carves symbols into a wood beam to protect Abbott when he’s gone. It’s like her connection to Samir is what is causing the Umbra to attack. And there definitely seems to be more to Samir than what Ahmed reveals in this first issue — he’s elusive when Abbott casually brings up his past, telling her he’s from “Paris. Senegal. Before that… other places.” It’s the “other places” that intrigue me. Learning more about Samir seems linked to learning about the purpose of the Umbra.
Which is why I think Ahmed and Kivelä choose to flip the standard order of genre fiction and focus on the more (sadly) realistic and grounded portions of the story as a way to anchor Abbott as a character. Like you mentioned, Patrick, Abbott is a creature of rules and order, and Kivelä highlights this aspect of her world in his art: panels are organized into boxes, everything in order, everything in its place. Everything, that is, except for the page where Abbott dreams of Samir. On this one page, instead of boxes, Samir’s scarf creates a thin separation between moments in her mind, and the memories bleed together in a way Abbott would never allow in her waking life.
Notice also how on this page Samir’s flowing scarf seems to echo the flailing tendrils of the Umbra…
…or is it the other way around?
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?