Pullbox Early Review of Nature’s Labyrinth- new action from Mad Cave Studios

In the middle of the ocean lies a remote island complex lined with traps and an ever-changing landscape. Created by a mysterious man known only as “Ahab”, the island was designed to test the wills of the world’s most notorious criminals. In a battle royale style game, eight violent felons will fight for survival and to the death over the course of three days of relentless action. The winner receives a wealth of riches and complete anonymity, but at the cost of keeping their silence about the island’s existence. What Ahab doesn’t know is that someone is on to him. Someone has infiltrated his island with the intention of revealing the truth about this twisted game.

Nature’s Labyrinth is an all-new six-issue mini-series from writer Zac Thompson (Yondu, The Brother of All Men, Undone by Blood) and Bayleigh Underwood (It Took Luke, The Sixth Borough).

I don’t know how anyone could have a problem or feel the slightest bit iffy about a getaway called the “Flourishing Cruise”, that seems determined to pander to every whim its passengers could have. These very lucky few have been selected for an all-expenses-paid vacation, and their participation will grant them all the luxury they can handle. But one of these eight non-descript and wholly humdrum people isn’t quite who they say they are. But who could it be? Fidgety Italian, Sofia Ricci? Soccer mom, Jane Roe from the United States? Or maybe the hard-drinking Canadian dude-bro, Chet Fisher?

Only time- and the end of the first issue of Nature’s Labyrinth– will tell. And lest we get too complacent, too quick to hand out judgment for the keeping of secrets, I feel like we wouldn’t be taking care of our due diligence if we didn’t point out that the Flourishing Cruise itself may not be entirely on the up and up.

Going back to the 1924 short story, The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, there has been a fascination with tales of humans being hunted for sport, prestige, or just for the fun of it. In November, the heroes at Mad Cave Studios turn the hunt over to Zac Thompson. The result, from what we have on the page in the opening issue, is maybe a more satisfying lean into Hunger Games territory. What isn’t given away in the issue but is kinda spoiled in the description available both above and at the Mad Cave website, is that the cruise is a front to lure hardened criminals into a no holds barred arena on a deserted island. Thompson starts the reader out with a solid introduction to the major players, letting them act & interact with fellow players on the ship, instead of trying to tell us who the true hard cases are. I’m generally in favor of the “show, don’t tell” approach when it comes to introducing characters, as it gives readers the time to settle into the characters & their stories, and Zac Thompson does it very well here. While every member of the bizarre ensemble cast may not make it through to the end of the first issue, we still have plenty of survivors to cheer and jeer for going into issue two.

Another part of the charm of Nature’s Labyrinth is in the work done by the artistic team. Illustrator Bayleigh Underwood lays down the groundwork with a slick manga style. In the early part of the issue, there isn’t much chance to play, but by the end she gets to settle into some very well-done dynamic action. The layouts were great, only one series of panels that were a little unclear to me, and that resolved itself once I slowed down and took another look at what had happened. Underwood’s character designs work great with the premise of hidden identities and secret agendas, as no one wholly fits into a ready role, and everyone stands out from the crowd.

Warnia Sahadewa picks up the artistic reigns, filling the world with color and giving it depth.  Sahadewa’s work jives very well with Underwood’s linework and highlights the style like it was meant to be. Finally, letterer Russ Wooton rounds out the visual appeal by giving the script some life. Parts of the dialogue are meant to be obscured, and Wooton works the undecipherable into the understood to the point that the reader can almost but not quite make out the context.

As the opening salvo for a promising series, something reminiscent of the shock & awe action movies I’m still in love with but don’t get to see often enough, Nature’s Labyrinth continues the Mad Cave tradition of avoiding tradition. They don’t stick to any single genre, and don’t seem inclined to release two similar series in succession. It’s a very good thing, and only one of the reasons I’ve grown to be a fan of the growing publisher.

Final Score: 11/13

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