Hector Umbra – the coolest sci-fi noir thriller horror you’ll read this year.
By Uli Oesterle
Munich, present day. Master DJ Osaka Best has disappeared, mysteriously vanishing in a flash of blinding light during the climax of his set at Robot Mitchum nightclub. Enter, Hector Umbra—Osaka’s best friend and artist-turned-detective—to solve the mystery of a lifetime.
61 hours, seven packs of cigarettes and countless phone calls later, Hector springs into action, turning over every dirty stone in Munich on the hunt for the displaced DJ. It soon transpires that all is not as it seems, and our hard-boiled painterly protagonist finds himself embroiled in a plot involving religious freaks, villainous Elvis impersonators, aliens and even the dead themselves.
That’s the plot summary from over at the Blank Slate website, but frankly I was sold when I read this on the backcover:
“Hellboy and John Constantine, meet Hector Umbra. He’s got a cooler record collection than either of you”
That’s Mark Kardwell’s absolute-fucking-lutely spot on summary (damn him), and really gets right to the heart of everything that is so supercool about Umbra. I read that and knew this was something to read. And Kardwell was so right, so very right.
This is one of those books that entraces from before you open the cover, something rthat gets you with the very idea. Or at least it did it for me. Umbra has a lot of Hellboy, a dash of Hellblazer, and ooodles of Umbrella Academy style sci-fi weirdness – but all mixed together in such a way as to make this something else, something different, brilliant and dripping in modern class. Absolute sheer class.
Okay, that’s maybe not so classy. But trust me, Hector Umbra’s just having a seriously weird time right now.
Anyway, Oesterle manages to mash up so many different genres in Hector Umbra to tell a superb tale; noir detective story, 50s style epic sci-fi weirdness, bang up to date DJ culture, but in the end, Hector Umbra just works because it’s a bloody satisfying story, expertly brought to the page by Oesterle with heaps of cool and masses of storytelling style.
This is one of those books where so much is going on that it really gets tough to give you a plot without fearing you’re giving something original, clever and essential away.
So lets start with this little scene of four men out on the piss:
Within very few pages, one of these men is dead, the other disappears to resurface as the human host for a genuinely bizarre set of monsterous thoughtforms, and poor old Hector Umbra finds himself destined to have to sort the whole damnably fun mess out.
Okay. Those four men:
That’s Joseph. Hector’s drinking pal, and that’s the last time you’ll see him alive.
That, as the man himself says, is Hector Umbra, down and out in the aftermath of Joseph’s demise, but still doing the right thing by his friends.
And that’s Osaka Best; “the king of the decks, the best of your kind” according to Hector, and a description borne out by the assembled throng of ecstatic clubbers. He’s about to drop a track that changes everything, spirits him away from his friends and sets the world up for a very big fall.
And then there’s Frantisek. Flat cap, goatee, utterly cool. In the story something of a minor character perhaps. But visually at least, he’s also Uli Oesterle, who I had the pleasure of meeting at Thought Bubble last year. Cool? Cool’s got nothing on Uli. And it’s got nothing on his book either.
Here’s a little of the plot. But only a very little – this is one to really explore yourselves… Like I said, Hector’s just lost Joseph. And it’s hit him hard. Days and nights spent drinking and drunk, maudlin, morose and inexplicably driven to paint. Producing strange ridiculous tableau that then strangely, ridiculously seem to be coming true. Hector’s life may be strange, but it’s going to get a whole lot stranger.
And triggering off the strangeness, there’s best mate Osaka’s vanishing act halfway through a turn on the decks at Munich’s finest club. Drawn into an investigation, poor Hector’s got no idea where it’s all going to end up. It seems that Osaka’s genius with the tunes is going to be the key to a new world, giving flesh to monster ideas infecting the nervous systems of these blissed out, dance crazed teens flocking to throw shapes in response to Osaka’s beats, and after the little monsters are given flesh, it’s going to be world domination time.
Noir crime thriller morphs into some bizarre retro 50s sci-fi thing to a back-beat of cutting edge dangerous tunes. And poor Hector? He’s somehow found himself in the unenviable position of being mankind’s only hope stood right in the path of an oncoming sonic apocalypse.
(Tuuuunnnee. Osaka Best drops a track to change his life, and seriously screw with Hector Umbra, all thanks to that little purple thingy. Hector Umbra by Uli Oesterle, published by Blank Slate)
Along the way you’ll meet Watchtower toting religious zealots, madwomen obsessing over all the shades of black that exist (and there are LOTS), imaginary (or maybe not) little purple monsters, and Hector ends up going far deeper into the human psyche than anyone should go.
The plot gets ever more complex, ever more fantastic, ever more excellently ridiculous and over the top. This is black humour over horror and it’s beautifully done, with Oesterle never, ever losing sight of the storyline. It may rush along maniacally, but behind it all, the artist is absolutely in control; manipulating, guiding, keeping everything working so well.
At it’s core, Hector Umbra works because despite its beautifully done insanity and continually weird stylings, Oesterle’s tale is a pretty linear one. It’s the stylised weirdness around the central story that makes it work so beautifully well. Mainstream? Oh yes, absolutely. This could, should, must find it’s audience outside the shallow confines of the comic crowd.
Artistically it’s beautiful as well as readable. Oesterle’s style has so many influences, but they all fuse and flow, shifting and shifted to something else. And the colours…. oh, the colours. Beautiful. Breathtaking. Wow.
(Black? Anthing but – beautiful, beautiful colours from Hector Umbra by Uli Oesterle, published by Blank Slate Books)
Finally, a little on the translation. Or translations. The obvious being the literal; switching the words to an English that flows simply and easily, no awkwardness here, none at all. But more than that is the visual translation – the extra stuff, all the visual references that have been altered and shifted about, just to make it UK-English relevant. Impressive indeed.
The sad fact of it is that Hector Umbra rather disappeared on its release, smothered in the outpouring of praise (quite justified praise) for Blank Slate’s Nelson anthology. That it’s not been talked about more is a terrible, terrible shame. This is simply an excellent piece of work, and one that could, should find a ready audience amongst those of you who love Mignola’s Hellboy, or Gerard Way’s Umbrella Academy.
But personally, I think it’s actually better than both, a perfect mainstream story (in the real-world, non-comics sense), overblown, over the top, featuring a super-cool hero who just doesn’t fit the mould in any way.
It’s also a story that demands and deserves repeated readings. Because once you do know the story, you start looking for the clues and tricks Oesterle throws in every step of the way. Masterful storytelling leading to something of a masterpiece of the comic form.
Oesterle is a major talent and no mistake. Do yourselves a favour and go see why Mignola calls Oesterle “…. a genius and a fountain of inspiration”. You’re not going to regret it.