Dead Kings is Tonally Confusing but Somehow Has a Great Ending

Dead Kings Cover A by Michael Dow Smith. Written by Steve Orlando and drawn by Michael Dow Smith. Published by Aftershock Comics. July 30, 2019.

Dead Kings Vol. 1

Lauren Affe (Colours), Thomas Mauer (Letters), Steve Orlando (Writer), Matthew Dow Smith (Artist)
Aftershock Comics
July 30, 2019

Thrice-Nine, an apocalyptic wasteland, is all that is left of the once-glorious Rus. The denizens of the city, called Niners, are despised by all. But that doesn’t stop Sasha Vasnetsov from marching into dangerous territory in search of the legendary Stone Mary, the only person who can help Sasha save his brother Gena from the Reconstruction Barracks. How can he convince Stone Mary to join his crusade? And can he trust her?

Dead Kings Cover A by Michael Dow Smith. Written by Steve Orlando and drawn by Michael Dow Smith. Published by Aftershock Comics. July 30, 2019.

My first thought when I read Dead Kings was that I was glad I read it as a volume and not single issues. The opening issue is so confusing and disjointed, that I was close to giving up on it. I didn’t, and the story got much better and I felt partially rewarded for persevering. But that opening salvo really doesn’t work.

I generally enjoy stories where I’m plonked into the middle of a world and have to learn about it as the story progresses. But Dead Kings’ first issue was needlessly confusing—worse, it wasted time elucidating a history that has little bearing on the story. There were far more interesting aspects of the world that should have been fleshed out but weren’t.

For instance, we learn much later that Gena is in the barracks because he is gay. Very little in the narrative implies that this world is deeply homophobic. There is one instance of a man talking about Gena not being a “real man,” but until the end of the book, I assumed it was just that man who held that opinion, not all of Thrice-Nine.

What confused me further was that Sasha almost gets hauled off to the barracks, as well, for being on the road after curfew. How do the rules in this place even work? Were these plot points being inserted just to progress the story? Because it didn’t always feel like elements of the narrative had been thought through. I was hoping for more from writer Steve Orlando, who gave us the touching LGBTQ+ superhero series Midnighter and Apollo. This book is weirdly safe in its perspective despite the background of the writer, which I found disappointing.

Having said that, there was one aspect of the story that I found incredibly gripping—Stone Mary. A fearsome warrior in the old wars, Stone Mary has the skills and contacts to help Sasha complete his mission. There are flashbacks to her time as a fighter, when she expertly piloted a war-habit—a kind of massive metal machine—until she learned she was fighting for the wrong values and went against her commanders. Her years in the war-habit have wrecked her body, leaving her in near-constant pain that is only held back by nanotech that she’s had inserted in her blood.

As if the backstory of the world-weary and injured anti-hero wasn’t enough to get me excited, I love the fact that every time Stone Mary bleeds, she loses some of the nanotech in her system, which decreases her pain threshold. So, whenever she gets injured in Dead Kings, Stone Mary has to readjust to the new and everlasting pain. I found this scenario fascinating. It’s an excellent bit of world-building that gripped me far more than anything else I came across in this book.

Everything about Stone Mary was amazing to me. Her fighting skills, none of which she has lost despite being on the run for so many years, are beautifully depicted throughout the story. I love how she is so well-honed in to her abilities that she doesn’t even have to hit anybody. She simply moves out of the way until her antagonists knock each other out. Brilliant stuff.

All of which makes me wonder why Stone Mary wasn’t the protagonist of Dead Kings. Sasha isn’t nearly as interesting as her. He’s a bit of a whinge and quite annoying. Sasha’s drive to save his brother seems to have more to do with assuaging his own guilt for leaving his family rather than brotherly love. Oh, and there’s the matter of him having a bomb in a very sensitive part of his body that’s driving him.

I really don’t understand the reasoning behind that plot point. It is reiterated over and over again that Sasha has a bomb in his testicles, and instead of coming across as a serious threat, this plot comes across as pastiche. It’s so ridiculous and is treated as such by the text, which makes little sense considering that it plays an important role in the denouement. This storyline needed more justification for its existence, but all we got were cheap laughs.

Matthew Dow Smith’s art is good, but the combination of heavy background detail and lighter facial expressions took some getting used to. There was also an overabundance of shadow work, which often felt like it was obscuring the art rather than enriching it. I have found that shadows are quite difficult to depict in comics, and in Dead Kings, Smith’s attempts aren’t always successful. I’m also curious as to why Stone Mary, who is supposed to be 50, looks so young. She had to keep telling readers her age, because the art didn’t do her age justice. A very strange stylistic choice, considering we do meet older men. Other than this, Smith creates a fairly believable world and executes the action scenes well.

Despite the many aspects of Dead Kings that had me underwhelmed, I loved the ending, and it more than made up for everything that came before. Everything comes to a head in the final few pages and the story knits together perfectly to resolve plot points and relationships that had been brewing throughout the story. The ending may not be to everyone’s liking, but it definitely worked for me. If only it wasn’t such a slog to get there!

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir