Comic Review: 'Assassin's Creed: The Chain' Nearly Connects

The future Abstergo/conspiracy elements of the Assassin's Creed series have never really been all that interesting to me: when you have a rich, well-realized version of Venice or Jerusalem, or Revolutionary War-era America, exploring a stark white lab in some ill-defined future fails to generate any kind of curiosity or sense of mystery. With the recent release of Assassin's Creed: The Chain, co-writers Cameron Stewart and Karl Kerschl (who also provides art) nearly succeed where a a parade of games has failed: in making Abstergo interesting.

The Chain is a original graphic novel followup to Assassin's Creed: The Fall, which introduced readers to early 20th century Assassin Nikolai Orelov and his descendant, the directionless, drug addled Daniel Cross. Life with the Assassins hasn't been kind to either man, their experiences with the organization leading both to retreat from the world: Daniel into an Abstergo Animus device and Nikolai into the North American wilderness with his young son, Kenya. For both men, their retreats are tinged with guilt as well as a need to find new purpose in the world--Daniel's spirit, in particular, is weighed down by his part in the dramatic disintegration of the Assassins and a murder he didn't know he was meant to commit.

Stewart and Kerschl successfully weave Nikolai's story in and out of Russian and American history, giving that part of the story a concrete sense of place and time. There's a tricky balance with this kind of historical fiction where you want to avoid your hero coming across like an action-oriented Forrest Gump or Zelig, stumbling through history and encountering nearly every important person in their era. Their narrow focus here has recently immigrant Nikolai convincingly caught up in the anti-Communist raids with tragic results for his small family.

His story starts to play out a bit like Joe Wright's Hanna or The Professional, and might have had greater impact if the story had more room to grow. Similarly, the broken (but mending) Daniel's plot presents a version of Abstergo that's one part corporation, shadow government in which the failed Assassin finally discovers his purpose and drive. But again, we get to spend so little time with him in his story (the volume can't be any more than 96 pages), that some of his actions and reactions near the end of the book are hard to read--is he satisfied with his discovery in the catacombs? Does he care about the dead character he stumbles across? His earlier desperation is easier to understand (if not empathize with), but the rapid jumps to Nikolai's time leaves gaps in Daniel's emotional development.

Kerschel's art--aided by Tyson Hesse's colors--is effective, rendering Nikolai as a craggy, sinewy old man while giving many of the other faces their own unique details. The action is clear, easy to read, and sometimes very graphic, but Kerschl's characters never look distractingly like action heroes.

How this book links itself to Assassin's Creed III, I don't know (the copy on the back of the book boasts a connection), but as a standalone story, it presents a pair of compelling characters who deserve more of a story in which to develop.

Assassin's Creed: The Chain is available now.

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