Based on the popular table-top game of the same name, Oni Press’s new series Dead of Winter follows former Lassie-esque stunt dog, Sparky, and his band of human pals as they fend off zombies in a post-apocalyptic world of eternal winter. Though Sparky is one of the issue’s highlights (and a fan-favorite in the game), his human friends and the story around them are just as compelling.
Though the first people we meet don’t end up being our protagonists, writer Kyle Starks gives us a solid sense of what the book will be. Full disclosure, I’ve never played Dead of Winter, but I presume some of the characters we see here (or at least their types) are taken straight from it. Whatever the case, the characters we meet in the first issue are largely drawn in broad strokes. For example, Gabriel has a savior/hero complex while the appropriately-named Ruckus is so deft with a hockey stick that he can slice off a zombie’s face in the middle of a fight.
That said, Starks is making a deliberate choice in not delving too deeply into the characters so he can give the reader a better sense of their post-apocalyptic milieu. When we learn that Gabriel keeps collecting survivors to bring back to his group’s compound, we also learn that every person he finds puts further strain on their limited resources. When Gabriel tells his group’s cranky and not-so-generous leader that a horde of zombies is moving toward the compound, we’re introduced to an important new character that is reluctant to help Gabriel and Rucks search for the weapons that could save them even though she is the only one who can. Nearly every moment in the comic is equally rich, simultaneously delivering both characterization and plot.
While Starks achieves a lot with the dialogue, artist Gabriel “Gabo” Bautista–who does the illustrating and the coloring–is equally responsible for making moment count. Though his line work is somewhat sparse, it’s incredibly expressive—particularly in the way he uses colors. Take, for example, the moment when we get a flashback of Sparky’s television days. Suddenly, the colors becomes more vibrant, not only emphasizing how drab the world has become, but the glossy artificiality of Sparky’s past. Even more striking, though, is the moment after, when the panel cuts from Sparky in actor-mode trying to save someone from a well to revealing that the present day well Sparky peers into is filled with zombies. It’s a striking juxtaposition, but also a funny one and it’s not the only instance of humor in the issue.
More than any other quality, that light tone is what distinguishes Dead of Winter from the average zombie fair. However, it’s also what keeps it from sticking the landing. No spoilers here, but the issue ends with a pretty bizarre splash page and character reveal. Presumably, the moment is meant as a treat for readers who have also played the game, but for those casually jumping into the world, it borders on baffling. Still, one odd moment isn’t enough to dismiss what is otherwise a brilliant beginning to a series. I mean, come on, there’s a zombie-fighting super dog.