The first five pages of CHIN MUSIC #1 don't have any words (SFX excepting), and that's ok. We know everything we need to know, thanks to Tony Harris' gorgeous vignettes and Bill Tortolini's letters. The muted purple palette flashes with gold and orange, the hatching and textures add some old-timey grit, and all I can think of is "Words? Where we're going, we don't need words."
Even after the dialogue kicks in, the visuals are completely stealing the show in this book. Before we even meet Eliot Ness, there's no doubt about the setting, and, keeping with Niles' minimal-word motif, there's no need for a caption box telling us that it's 1920s Chicago (or Egypt). It just is. The deco panel borders make it feel like a silent movie, and Harris uses them deftly; the panel layouts are clever and move the story along, and the borders are as much guideposts as they are decorative elements (look for the subtle downward points).
The stylized twenties elements aren't the only highlights. The colors are spectacular (especially when reds and oranges come into play), and make the supernatural scenes extra eerie. The subtle details -- like the band-aid on the chin (a nice nod to the title) or the Lexington matchbook near the ritualistic carving -- show extraordinary care for the story, and make me want to examine each panel more closely.
That's not to say that Steve Niles is just coasting through this book. I think he knows when to let the art tell the story, and he's giving Harris a solid script to work from. It's a bold way to start a series, and we'll have to wait for the next issue to see if things kick up on the verbal front.
I like first issues. I especially like first issues of creator-owned books. They're fascinatingly open-ended, and, stripped of familiar characters, we're left at the mercy of the creative team when it comes to story immersion. They're also a gamble; first issues need to have enough story or action or je ne sais quoi to make a reader really want that second issue. I'm in for issue #2 because I want to know what's going on, but I was hoping to get a little bit more of a reveal in this book.
I'm sold on the mystery, but it's a hell of a mystery, in that I'm not really sure where the story is going. Is Ness our hero? Who will he fight with after such a clean disposal of the most obvious villain in the first issue? Is that burning skeleton (Shaw?) coming back?
Depending on how you'd like to interpret it, "chin music" can have a softer meaning (idle chit-chat to delay action) or a more brutal one (like the sock to the jaw our boy Ness takes). Both are appropriate here; Niles and Harris deliver slow, deliberate storytelling punctuated by high-action moments. It's a little slower than I'd like (especially for a first issue), but I'm willing to stay on for at least two more issues to see where things are headed. Supernatural crime dramas with top talent and an Image seal are pretty hot right now, and this period take on the concept has some definite promise.