Swan Songs #1 Review: A Haunting Vision of the Biggest Ending of All

Swan Songs, the new Image Comics anthology series written by W. Maxwell Prince, focuses on endings. Each issue promises to depict a different sort of ending for readers with Prince's characteristic dark wit and a wide array of comics' best artistic talents starting with The Department of Truth's Martin Simmonds. Swan Songs #1 showcases Prince and Simmonds' perspective on an ending that has loomed large in our consciousness since the origins of human religion and civilization… the end of the world.

Rather than speaking to the epic scale of an event like the apocalypse, Swan Songs #1 opts to instead focus on a singular perspective as the world ends – depicting Brian as he cares for his mother in hospice while the "Atomic Clock" ticks down to zero. This approach emphasizes Prince's greatest strengths as a comics writer, distilling grand ideas into a single concept and handful of characters who can explore it in the very limited space of a single issue. However, unlike their work in Ice Cream Man, this story opts for sincerity over cynicism without losing Prince's sense of humor.

Brian is dispatched from the hospital to obtain the last issue of his mother's favorite gardening magazine and provides readers a tour of his city as the clock moves ahead with each turned page. His quest for the magazines showcases a number of eccentric characters and dangers, but his internal monologue emphasizing his approach to doomsday based upon work with his therapist frames all of the external threats with greater significance. A dogged focus on caring for one person combined with an inability to confront the massive problems surrounding them both makes Brian a deeply sympathetic figure for readers standing amidst rising tides of literal climate change and metaphorical fascism. 

Simmonds is well acquainted with this territory, wedding personally painful forces with civilizationally destructive ones in The Department of Truth. Splash panels, including a very impressive first and final page, provide readers with a sense of enormity. Towers loom, fires rage, and entropy consumes all as layers of Simmonds' various technical effects morph appearances within each page. There's a sense of dread emanating from his city on the brink that makes Brian's 24-page journey much easier to access. 

Contrasting the dark and smoking backgrounds and harsh linear frames of panels, walls, and various other frames remain the human beings stumbling through their final moments. Simmonds' faces are consistently soft, preferring to use watercolors and inks to create form and depth rather than clean lines. There's a sense of resilient humanity present in the people occupying this harsh environment that affirms Brian's perspective across the pages. Without ever offering readers a reprieve or quaint lesson, this humanistic presentation still offers some hope at the end of the world.

Swan Songs #1 invites readers to explore finality in a medium that seemingly never ends. Yet Prince's career is a testament to "less is more" and what is achieved in this first issue affirms that few can write a single issue story better in 2023. Combined with the consistently stunning work and perfectly suited style of Simmonds, it makes for an outstanding debut that seriously addresses the anxiety of feeling like one is living in the end times. While Prince's black humor and idiosyncratic notions are evident, they are applied for different effects than in Ice Cream Man to reveal a sense of tragic optimism where beauty can still be found in even the worst circumstances.

Published by Image Comics

On July 5, 2023

Written by W. Maxwell Prince

Art by Martin Simmonds

Colors by Martin Simmonds

Letters by Good Old Neon

Cover by Martin Simmonds