COMIC REVIEW: Orbital, Vol 1 (Cinebook Reviews #28)

Orbital-scarsIt’s that time again.  Welcome back to our regular feature focusing on the phenomenal catalogue of French and Belgian comics, as translated and published by the Canterbury-based company, Cinebook.  Looking back over the last two years worth of reviews I am still stunned by just how varied in tone, genre and style these mainstream European comics are.

Although there is an undoubted resurgence of interest in the medium in the UK and America in the wake of Hollywood’s strip-mining of comic-book properties, our countries don’t come anywhere near the levels of freedom and inspiration evidenced by the Gallic comics scene.  I’ll talk more about entry-level comics in my next all-ages round-up, but the fact that there even are genuinely all-ages comics to discuss (all the way through to the graphically adult) illustrates how much their cultures are soaked in sequential art.  

With the market a secure and profitable place, the only limit to their story-telling is their imagination.  In Orbital, Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé have crafted a sci-fi spectacular that takes humanity into space (as bottom-feeders) to join an 8000 year old confederation of alien civilisations.  See what I made of it after the jump.

If I had to compare Orbital with anything I would call it a cross between Babylon 5 and the Green Lantern Corps, but that’s only give you a very generalised shape of the set-up.  We open on Earth at the last conference before voting begins on joining the Confederation.  Considering how hard it is to get a single country to agree on the benefits of joining the EU – imagine how hard it would be to convince our whole race to join the intergalactic equivalent.

A terrorist attack by an Isolationist group sets the tone for the piece and the course of the story for our human protagonist, Caleb Swany.   Years later, Caleb is the first human to be recruited into the ranks of the Inter-world Diplomatic Office (IDO), in a role that seems to blend peacemaking with arse-kicking action in equal measures.  The Confederation already perceives Humanity as a violent, uncivilised species, so Caleb’s promotion is cause enough for scandal.

The fact that he is partnered with a Sandjarr (an alien species we nearly wiped out in a recent war) raises a lot of eyebrows, but the IDO is determined to use them as an example of the healing power of diplomacy.  This is the raison d’être for the entire comic and, although it’s pretty slow-burning to begin with, it does set the scene nicely for the prejudice and wholesale intolerance our heroes will have to combat across the Confederation to preserve the balance of peace.

Pellé’s artwork is the major draw for me with this book.  Where Leo’s Antares favoured the clean lines and pristine machinery of golden-age sci-fi, Orbital takes a grimy future approach in the vein of Soldier and 2000 AD.  Every panel is full of mood and texture, and Pellé spills imaginative details across the backgrounds to make the place bustle and give a sense of extra-terrestrial design.  It’s a tough universe out there, despite the high-tech SF on display: a working universe where people struggle to make a living through the storms and upheavals and war.

The menagerie of aliens are a pleasure to pick through, and Pellé manages the job of differentiating members of the same species with a deft touch and an eye for comparative anatomy.  I hope we get to see more of them as main characters in future volumes rather than the largely background roles they play here.  Another aspect which bears particular note are his use of flat screen holographic devices for communication – really tricky to pull off in terms of perspective, the integration of colour and the passage of light ‘though’ them, but it works to great effect.

The colours are (as usual in European comics) very muted in comparison to the four colour flashiness of their US counterparts, but they really fit the tone of muddied morality and practicality that Runberg reaches for in his writing.  I look forward to seeing what he has in store for us in later volumes as we explore new worlds and their environments.

The story itself suffers a little through the sheer weight of exposition.  When it eventually comes, the mission is a real trial by fire – attempting to get an unauthorised Isolationist human colony to up stakes – but the bulk of this first volume is taken up with explaining who Caleb is, how Humanity are viewed by the Confederation, the history of the Human/Sandjarr war and showing us around the IDO on Orbital, their base of operations.  In other words it’s an awful lot of world building and not a lot of story, per say.  Neither of the main characters are particularly well-developed by the end of this first volume, but we get enough beats to understand that Caleb is noble and troubled, while Mezoke is talented but taciturn.

I was expecting a more explosive mixture, but the personal drama seems to be in their combined efforts against prejudice rather than against each other.  It makes for a decent working partnership but not a classic one, as yet.  One element I enjoyed was the fact that Mezoke looks like a female but could quite possibly be male.  Like Pratchett’s dwarves, Sandjarr sexuality is kept very private indeed.  It engenders a nice little discomfort in the hetero-male reader about eyeing up exotic ladies.  It also makes for a neat touch that many of the humans we meet are, if not reprehensible, at least a little unsavoury.  The bar-tender is a good example, spouting poisonous remarks in a poorly judged conversation with Caleb.  It’s a good mirror to hold up to ourselves, and easy to apply to how we think about foreign peoples and the wider world beyond our walls.

Over all I’m pretty pleased with Orbital.  The future feels realistic in terms of the multiplicity of people.  Of course there are still bigots and lowlifes, terrorists and scum.  Just like there are still decent people trying to make things a little better in whatever way they can.  There are grafters, ambassadors, policemen and everything between – all trying to make sense of the new world they find themselves in.  I hope that future volumes will step a little farther from the human sphere, or at least have us in a less concentrated mass, if only so we can explore what else is out there.  There is so much promise to this series, it’d be a shame for it to just focus on human colonies.

Some of Cinebook’s first volumes have been doubled up with the second – e.g. The Scorpion, Insiders, Largo Winch.  As a marketing strategy it was ultimately unsuccessful but I can’t help feeling that Orbital would really benefit from that extra story-telling space.  For one thing, when the mission finally does get going, things really kick off, with an infestation that could easily be Mike Mignola’s redesign of the Aliens franchise.  These things are skin-crawlingly hideous, fast and utterly inhuman.  The excreta hits the extractor and by the final panel you’ll be raging as to why it has to stop there.  Well it doesn’t of course, because the next three volumes are available right now, with a fifth due out on October 17th 2013.  I’ll be picking up a few of them at Thought Bubble this year.  I think should, too.

Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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