I'll begin with a warning. Even the title of "The Strain: The Night Eternal" is something of a spoiler, so if you're watching the show or reading one of the earlier volumes, you might not want to read this review until you're done.
As the issue opens, The Master has succeeded in remaking the world to best serve vampires, with nuclear winter, a huge strigoi population and a police state to control the humans. Lapham spends most of the issue catching up with familiar characters -- Vasily, Ephraim and Nora -- and establishing the new status quo, but it doesn't feel like a slow recap. With lived-in dialogue, smart pacing, and commentaries on everything from mass media to fascism, "The Strain: The Night Eternal" #1 is one heck of a kickoff.
Lapham and Huddleston grab the reader at the get-go, opening with an almost dialogue-less vampire origin story for The Master. It's a clever way to keep the pace up; the post-Fall universe of "The Strain" is pretty dreary, and a violent, attention-grabbing first scene like this gives the book more energy. Huddleston crams quite a lot into a few pages, drawing hard on the emotion in each panel. It's easy to feel the character's panic, pain and fear, even when his face isn't present.
In general, Huddleston and Jackson have created a cohesive, stylish look and feel for this book. The world under The Master is depressing and dismal, and Jackson fittingly keeps the colors muted, brown and gray. It's a surprisingly understated palette for a horror comic this graphic, but it provides a phenomenal complement to Ephraim's dejected diary entries. Huddleston also knows how to create an atmosphere, shifting from sketchy, brutal line work in the violent scenes to a moodier, smoother approach during conversations.
Speaking of the conversations, Lapham's script feels readable and real. Most of the issue is narrated through Ephraim's diary entries, and a device like that could have easily grown stale. However, Lapham layers the self-pity with world-building and outside action. Though the words come from Ephraim, the panel doesn't always stay with him. Instead, it shifts to the things or events he's describing. This helps the reader to feel less trapped in Ephraim's head, and it provides some much-appreciated establishing shots of life under The Master.
Lapham's dialogue also reads well because he isn't afraid of the unspeakable. He lets his characters trail off, stutter and euphemize their tragedies, trusting the art to carry some of that emotion. The things they do allow themselves to say are more mundane and practical, and he injects those sentences with a lot of character. Even when talking logistics, no one sounds like anyone else.
Perhaps unique among the first issues I've liked, I would not necessarily recommend "The Strain: The Night Eternal" to new readers. This is more a question of character development than confusion. Plot-wise, Lapham provides a pretty thorough explanation of the world, and the average reader should be able to fill in the gaps and figure out the story quite easily. However, so much has happened to these characters that the mood of "The Strain" might not come through as strongly if you don't know that.
"The Strain: The Night Eternal" #1 is simply a great first issue. It should have readers excited for the rest of the series.