In Ed Brisson and Johnnie Christmas' "Sheltered" #9, the body count rises as the balance of power in Safehaven shifts yet again.
The issue opens with a scene of Victoria comforting Nancy, the girl who volunteered as a medic last issue but failed to save Robin's life. The most sympathetic Lucas supporter so far, Nancy opens up to Victoria about her old dreams, speaking for all of the kids who supported Lucas, but her self-awareness strains belief. It's realistic that the shock of failing to save Robin might jolt Nancy into new realizations, however, if she can openly contemplate the idea that she and the others may have been wrong, then it feels odd that she would consciously choose to go only halfway down that path. This is not exclusive to Nancy, as Brisson's characters have sometimes too much clarity and function as mouthpieces for the author to spell things out like a Greek chorus. Previously, Victoria served this function almost exclusively, but here, it's Nancy who explains why even bad shepherds like Lucas will keep their followers. In short, leaving Safehaven is psychologically hazardous to all the preppers who helped kill their parents.
"Sheltered" #9 would be better served with more subtlety and more moral ambiguity. As it is, through her fatalism and resignation to sunk costs, which are too close to moral cowardice, Nancy loses some of the sympathy that Brisson builds on the first few pages.
At this point in the series, "Sheltered" still lacks a character that will step down the a third and most difficult path, someone who supported Lucas but has the moral courage to accept the blood on their hands and join Victoria. The problem is, none of the children are very well developed at this point, except as followers. This includes Mitch and Tab, who are swing voters without a strong position of their own yet except to wait and see. It is due to this lack of depth in characterization that the human deaths in "Sheltered" don't hit home as much as the death of Chris' dogs.
There's tantalizing ambiguity in whether Lucas even believes that the end is nigh, but his earlier disposal of Chris cements the reader's knowledge of his evil. Lucas' big speech at the end might be more convincing and had more dramatic weight without this knowledge. As it is, his seeming reasonableness just signals another inflection point in strategy and the balance of power, with Lucas gaining the upper hand yet again.
The most pathos in "Sheltered" #9 belongs to Cliff, who must kill or be killed. Christmas does great work with his facial expressions; it's painful to look at Cliff's face in any panel he's in, Christmas' art broadcasting his terrible physical and mental pain. Through facial expressions, body language and pacing, Christmas also does a great job of maintaining narrative tension throughout. Shari Chankhamma keeps the color palette mostly grim, but some of the quiet nighttime scenes have beautiful rich greens and blues. "Sheltered" #9 will read better when collected into trade; as a single issue, it's filled out with movements that feel like adjustments to a game board. Many moving parts come together from events set up in earlier issues, but there is no resting place, resolution or a game-changer at the end of the chapter, just a recombination-- though the cliffhanger on the final page indicates that fresh stakes are on the verge of being introduced.