William of Newbury #1 Review: A Masterclass Debut

William of Newbury #1 from Michael Avon Oeming is a near-perfect first issue.

When you read as many comics as I do, you may learn to find a special joy in a perfectly paced first issue. There's a distinct pleasure in a debut that sums up the new series beyond what was already offered in the solicitations and delivers a complete, well-crafted story that's enjoyable entirely on its own. William of Newbury #1 by Michael Avon Oeming offers such joy, presenting readers with a complete tale and a relatable new hero they will surely want to follow on future adventures.

In creating William of Newbury, Oeming took inspiration from the real-life William of Newburgh, a historian-priest who lived through an English civil war called "The Anarchy." William of Newburgh put to paper historical events and local folklore around such undead creatures as revenants. Oeming chooses to anthropomorphize the inhabitants of his fictionalized England, adding a deliberate dose of unreality to separate it from the real history. Although William of Newbury, here rendered as a raccoon, is no less devoted to the Lord, Jesus Christ than his historical counterpart (which leads me to wonder what kind of animal God chose to corporealize into, but that's a divine mystery for another time).

Rather, that faith is William's defining characteristic and source of his power. William's faith is strong enough to cast out demons (which are very real in this version of medieval England) with a sense of routine. He is entirely unperturbed by their infernal appearances, even grateful to learn that it is a demon haunting the lower level of his patron's castle rather than a squatting bandit or dog. Yet, while he's unfazed by the supernatural, he still fears bandits, plague, and rickety stairs, explaining at one point that "God is on the side of my soul… but my body has to look out for itself!" Which, in a way, makes a lot of sense. If your soul is going to be spending all of eternity with God while your body rots away in the dirt, why would the Almighty be all that concerned with your physical well-being? Setting that theological meditation aside, William displays the powerful faith of a saint and the nonstop neurosis of an amateur detective on a network television dramedy, a combination that proves immediately endearing.

Getting to know him quickly, thanks to the structure Oeming has adhered to in the issue, helps readers invest. A cold-open-like mini adventure sees William banishing the demon in the basement, showing readers what he's capable of before sending him back to his monastery and the unhappy circumstances he's dealing with there. Then it's immediately off to another adventure, which also wraps up in this issue and serves to introduce us to William's newly acquired sidekick, a young ruffian named Winnie. It's a lot, but it never feels like a lot because Oeming knows how to pack personality into every panel and bit of prose. The pacing, structure, and anthropomorphized characters are likely to remind readers of Usagi Yojimbo while the occult subject matter and high-contrast, shadowy-heavy artwork share DNA with Hellboy (an elevator pitch combination I swear I formulated in my mind before I noticed Dark Horse Comics using the very same one on their in-house ads for the series).

While the focus is primarily on the adventure, Oeming doesn't let the civil unrest of the historical setting go to waste. There are themes of discontent throughout, as William's clients complain about both sides of the conflict, neither of whom seems to care much about the hardship their fighting is inflicting on the people they are competing to rule. William is more concerned with his brother, Connor, who happens to be the priest running their monastery, and who looks down on William's adventures, seeing them not as William helping those plagued by demons, but as William sullying himself by allowing himself to be put in the proximity of such devilish beings. Connor is more concerned with the financial stability of the monastery, which is not great. William is increasingly coming to believe that his brother has lost sight of his true purpose. There's also William's relationship with Winnie, which is based on the promises that William will teach Winnie literacy in exchange for her protection, a deal struck after a discussion that involves the advantages of the educated upper class. The powerful contrast between light and shadow in Oeming's art style helps underpin these emerging ideas about class stratification and the separation of institutions from those they are meant to serve.

William of Newbury #1 is a masterclass debut. It's thematically rich, gorgeous, and dripping with atmosphere and personality. It's as close to a perfect first issue as I've seen this year, and it makes me hope for many more adventures to come.

Published by Dark Horse Comics

On May 29, 2024

Written by Michael Avon Oeming

Art by Michael Avon Oeming

Colors by Michael Avon Oeming

Letters by Michael Avon Oeming

Cover by Michael Avon Oeming