Finding truly refreshing post-apocalyptic works these days is difficult, given how much more frequently they’re popping up. But Jenn Lee and Ty Dunitz’s sprawling webcomic Rising Sand is an innovative and engaging spin on the genre, taking current anxieties about global warming and impending doom and filtering them through fantasy tropes. The result is a gorgeous, well-developed work that splits the difference between Dune and the Dragon Age series, carving out a rich world complete with a well thought out ecosystem featuring its own economy and conflicting religious beliefs.
Chiefly following the travails of Dal, a young snarky thief, and Qeb, a glass-obsessed monk of sorts, Rising Sand is one in a long line of odd couple adventure classics. Qeb is a soft spoken giant who belongs to the Luminous Body, “a monastic order whose agents zealously hoard material wealth in the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment,” and Dal has forged a symbiotic relationship with him, seeking out trinkets on his behalf in exchange for protection from the various merchants she angers during her thievery. Though Qeb isn’t given to long answers about his past, he is more forthcoming than the otherwise talkative Dal, and much of the series’ tension so far has come from the looming threat of Dal’s more brutish and coarse sister Ro, a member of a fanatical templar sect decked out in what’s essentially a fantasy mech suit.
Though Dunitz does excellent work revealing the complexities of these relationships and the cast’s motivations and fears, what truly makes Rising Sand stand out is Lee’s loving character designs. When we first encounter Qeb and thus don’t know of his gentleness, he is presented as a terrifying hulk, clad in wrist shackles that look like they contain the glass souls of the damned. But as we spend more time with Qeb, his stoicism also gives way to profound depth, revealing more about his order and its commitment to displaying splendor in the hopes of catching the eye of the god they believe abandoned them.
This is also where Qeb and Dal seem to connect, even though Dal herself is seemingly atheist. Lee does a masterful job balancing Dal’s more obviously obnoxious attributes with her natural curiosity at the mechanisms that really make the world turn. Dal is young and unsurprisingly confident in her beliefs, but she’s also eager to explore and push at those beliefs, seeking useful answers rather than resigning herself to the religious acceptance characters like Qeb and Ro have. The contrast between Qeb’s subtle shifts in expression and Dal’s rubbery reactions nicely amplify this, indicating that despite the airs he puts on, Qeb is clearly entertained by Dal’s personality and more importantly, enjoys the way her curiosity allows him to expand and flex his beliefs.
By contrast, in the few scenes illustrating Dal’s past with Ro and her father, it’s clear that Ro pushed Dal further away from faith by lacking the patience to indulge in her curiosity and give her answers rather than attacks. Ro comes at life with a brutal aggression– indeed, the first time we meet her she is viciously destroying the body of a fallen foe– and there is a bitterness to her brand of faith. She is angry at the world for expecting her to fall in line, and bitter at the nonpresence of the divine, and she expresses that with volatility and cruelty, lacking the discipline of Qeb while also wielding power to rival his.
So far, Rising Sand is focused on juxtaposing these three characters, but it never feels bare or monotonous. Every panel of the series packs untold depth, bringing beauty and majesty even to a desolate world that believes its god is pushing the sun closer and closer to them out of punishment for unknown sins. Lee and Dunitz deserve acclaim for making such a complex and expansive work nonetheless immediately engaging and easy to follow. The limited main cast helps with that, avoiding the wheel spinning that comes with fantasy’s fondness for massive ensembles a la Game of Thrones. Comics has seen a wave of fantasy and post-apocalyptic works over the past decade, but even in that crowded sphere Rising Sand is a marvel, deserving of its own devoted cult.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover