Michael Moreci (writer), Andrea Olimpieri (artist)
27 September 2017
Titan Comics’ new Dishonored comic is a loving tribute to the Dishonored games that has no love for comics themselves.
The first issue of Dishonored follows Corvo Attano and Emily Kaldwin, Lord Regent and Empress of the Isles, as they investigate a brutal killing that hints at a much larger conspiracy to overthrow the crown. The whole issue reads like a mission from the original game (with a few extra panels of torture porn) which would be a compliment, were it not a comic.
This is strange to me because Andrea Olimpieri’s art is gorgeous and atmospheric. Something about it reminds me of the work Dave McKean did on the covers of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s a little sketchy, a little raw, and incredibly striking. However, it’s not a style that well conveys the stealth and fight scenes central to the issue. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few gorgeous panels in the midst of the action, but the comic doesn’t want to give them space. Instead it plays out like the film reel storytelling in the original Bayonetta.
The story is trying to say something about imperialism—to call into question the player’s point of view throughout the franchise as a fighter for a just monarchy. It starts a conversation about violent and nonviolent forms of protest that it doesn’t want to finish. Just thinking of the directions this story can take gets me excited, but it ends up looking like another “Kaldwin fights off the usurper to the throne” story.
When the comics call into question the relationship between class and morality in the monarchy of the Empire, they’re pushing against everything the player has fought to defend in every one of the games. There’s power in that.
But this comic seems interested in a different kind of power.
Full disclosure, I’ve loved Arkane’s hit franchise from the very beginning, and I’ve long thought about what I would want from a comics property in the IP. What’s funny is that it already exists in-game. “The Lonely Rat Boy and Other Tales” is a book containing a couple pages of optional lore found in Death of the Outsider. It tells the story of an unnamed street kid living in Dunwall. He is beaten by the city watch and left for dead. While hiding he meets the Outsider and is given his mark. He then goes on a revenge streak by summoning rats to kill those who hurt him, eventually suffering the same fate.
It’s a tragic tale (a little too tragic, but that’s Dishonored for you) that reflects the narrative arc of Billie Lurk, Death of the Outsider’s protagonist. It allows the player to take a look at the world outside the high stakes political intrigue much of the game takes place in.
This comic doesn’t have that.
There’s no exploration of the lives of the Empire’s citizens. There’s no perspectives outside of what you would find in the game. There’s not even an earnest exploration into the power dynamics brought up by the comic’s very premise. It’s just Emily, and Corvo, and yet another threat to the crown. It seems to me that the Dishonored IP is afraid to let those that interact with its world do so outside of a power fantasy. Maybe this makes sense for a AAA action title, but a comic is the perfect place to let someone see what it’s like to experience political upheaval, not shape it.
It’s the perfect place to ask a player of the games—even on their lowest chaos playthroughs—were they doing the right thing?
It’s surprising to me that this isn’t the route the comic decided to take. Dishonored as series of games recently moved away from mechanics that hard-code moral feedback. In Death of the Outsider it’s up to the player to decide whether their actions are sending the Empire into chaos or not, unlike previous games that used a sliding scale to rate the player’s moral performance.
Calling into question the positions of power the main characters of the franchise occupy is a great step towards complicating the perspective Dishonored has always taken for granted. That kind of complication came only from my position as a voyeur in the first issue of Dishonored. Witnessing the carnage surrounding Emily and Corvo gave me a distance that was hard to find when I was the one participating in it.
In this issue a group of workmen was brutally murdered—their bodies posed in a macabre diorama as a message for the queen and her lord protector. The one surviving workman is so shaken by the trauma of what he witnessed he is unable to speak about what he saw. These were ordinary men, with no ties to the crown, being slaughtered to prove a point. Even when Corvo shows surprising tenderness in interrogating the tortured man, he is offered no help after the two main characters get the information they want.
It’s was a dark and graphic scene that did well to convey the hopeless and royally exploitative tone of the comic. It was also one of the most striking visual moments of the issue. The macabre diorama I referenced earlier, despite coming across as an edgy shock image, was beautifully drawn. This is one of the few moments where there was enough space for Olimpieri’s art to subvert the high action tempo of the plot and not coincidentally where I found myself the most engaged with the franchise as a whole.
I hope further issues are able to take note of this moment, shake themselves from the formula of a Dishonored game, and stand out for what they really are: a comic.