Nathan Edmondson and Konstantin Novosadov's "The Dream Merchant" #4 may hit the series' stride. The logic of the world is as nebulous and ill-defined as ever, but in this issue, Edmondson makes the stakes personal for Winslow. In shifting the focus to his character’s limitations and fears, rather than the prevention of a generic world takeover, he gives his readers an emotional reason to root for Winslow -- if not an idea of what they should root for him to do.
When I say I have a problem with the logic in "The Dream Merchant," I don’t mean that it’s unclear who the villain is. The Merchant’s pronouncements make it clear that the Regulators want to annihilate humanity, and Novosadov’s lovely, freaky artwork gives them palpable menace. However, I don’t understand where power comes from or how it’s wielded. What in Winslow’s lone memory would allow humanity to fight back? He just keeps dreaming that he’s falling, or using his dreams to move from one remote location to the next. Edmondson has yet to show us the tools that Winslow is meant to use, and so it hasn’t been engaging to watch him train to use them. It’s like watching someone learn how to grip a hammer, without knowing what a hammer does or how a house is built.
Perhaps some of that is thematic. Dreams don’t come with an instruction manual, so a series about dreams shouldn’t have an easy logic to it. However, in order to make that work on a story level, the reader needs an emotional foothold to compensate. In issue #4, the story works harder to show Winslow’s distress and self-doubt -- the human elements that keep him from exercising his power, rather than the rules-of-dreams-related elements.
Anne also has some phenomenal character moments in this issue, from firing fearlessly at their attackers to stopping Winslow’s advances with, "The world is about to end, you’re the only one who can stop it and you’re thinking about making out? Pathetic, dude!" She’s refreshingly convinced of her own agency in a story where so much of the plot centers on struggling blindly against a powerful, unexplainable enemy.
Aesthetically, "The Dream Merchant" is as beautiful as ever. Novosadov’s creature designs and use of color are affecting and atmospheric. Despite their billowy robes and supernatural origin, the Regulators are also full of motion, from the tendon-stretching way they stretch their claws to how they scuttle on their pincer legs like praying mantis Dementors. What’s more, I can’t get enough of the colors. It’s a fascinating effect to have the bad guys invade on sunset-colored pink clouds, while gray and black signify safety and comfort.
Jeff Powell’s lettering also adds wonderfully to the atmosphere. The font is like a hastily scratched note, fitting for a story that’s always on the run, but the effect doesn’t interfere with readability. The words are neatly boxed and bordered, in contrast to the constantly shifting landscape, so it’s a bit easier to follow what’s going on. Plus, like Novosadov, Powell embraces pink as a sinister, otherworldly color, and I love that unexpected design touch.
I’m looking forward to issue #5. Winslow and Anne’s arcs are coming into focus, and without the Merchant to help them, I’m curious to see how they’ll handle themselves.