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Monday, December 29, 2014

Comic Review: Drifter (Issue #1) by Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein

As I've read more and more comics, I've come to the realization that one of the things I am sorely missing is a good sense of the non-Marvel/non-DC comics worldview.  Thus, I have turned to Image Comics to find those gems that I would otherwise miss.  This is, of course, hardly a challenge for me, since I've enjoyed Saga as much as Wake and Wytches.  Still, the more I look at what I read, the more it becomes apparent to me that I'm not diversifying as much as I should -- and that I'm not reading enough science fiction that doesn't involve superheroes.  And so I have turned to Drifter #1, the first in a new series by Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein from Image Comics, where one of my comics-reading friends buys 99% of his comics because he likes the weird stuff they publish (so do I, it turns out).

I have some mixed feelings about Drifter #1.  Though the overarching narrative is compelling, its subplots are somewhat mixed, leaving an introductory issue that, while intriguing, also misses something crucial in the narrative space.  The narrative follows Abram Pollux, a pilot whose spacecraft is severely damaged, presumably by the man chasing him.  Pollux is forced to crashland on Ouro, an alien backwater world; upon extracting himself from the wreckage, he is shot by the assailant and left to die.  But he doesn't.  Instead, Pollux awakens in Ghost Town, a settlement populated by equally unfortunate rough-and-tumble humans.  In an attempt to track down his ship, and the man who tried to kill him, Pollux reveals that things on Ouro may not be what they seemed and that his notion of reality could be just a little bit false... (this is me being vague so as to avoid ruining the ending of the first issue, which is pretty awesome)

As a comics reader, I am mostly picky about two things:  the depth and pace of the narrative and the art.  Though it is difficult to judge the former in a single issue, the latter is largely why I picked up the first issue in the first place.  Nic Klein's artwork is simply gorgeous.  Though I wouldn't call Klein's art original, it is functional.  Klein conveys action with a deft hand and indulges in gorgeous wide shots when necessary for a sense of scale (one such shot is provided below).  At times, the level of detail is stunning, while at others, the details fall away as if the washout of text within an action sequence is also washing out the definition of the visual landscape.  I love this sort of variation when it comes to comics, especially when the artist puts more attention into the details than on a some kind of stylistic signature.  In this case, Klein is certainly focused on the details, not the style.
From a narrative perspective, Drifter is hard to judge.  Perhaps the strongest aspect of the narrative are its characters, however briefly explored.  Though Pollux will likely remain the focal point for every issue, Sheriff Carter, a medic-turned-law-woman, bears the brunt of the narrative's backstory, with Arkady, the priest, serving as the text's punching bag.  Given the discussions of representations of women in sf/f, and in comics in general, I suspect Carter will be a focus for many.  From my perspective, her character, though undeveloped as of yet, provides the sort of "product of circumstance" nuance that will make for interesting conflicts in future volumes.  Carter is not quite the idealist, but she is the one who seems most practical when it comes to her role in Ghost Town, and she is likely the one who Pollux will most rely on because of his disruptive presence as an outsider and her authority as Sheriff and as "one who has already been here for a long while."  Carter also benefits from having her gender largely ignored, except as a visual cue.  Brandon doesn't essentialize her as any particular kind of "woman;" rather, Carter is allowed to "be," even in a secondary role.  My hope is that future volumes will give her more of an arc so we can understand why she views Ghost Town the way she does.

The narrative proper also shows promise.  I can see where Brandon intends to develop a thematic "man vs. nature" subplot and even where the brief interactions of the main character with the townspeople will produce some nuanced relationships for later parts of the narrative.  There is potential here for the narrative to escape its Western trappings to become something more than "outlaws doing outlaw things."  This is my hope, as the familiarity of the setting and some of the subplots can act as a trap for the narrative.

That said, there are flaws in the plot, particularly since it answers too few of its most basic questions.  Who is the man who shot Pollux?  Who is Pollux, and why does he have an inconsistent attitude with regards to violence?  The more complicated answers would be revealed over time, obviously, but the snippets are needed here not only to give Drifter's narrative arc depth, but also to avoid an attempt to alienate the reader without something to also ground them.  That level of estrangement disrupts in a way that draws too much attention to itself, which Drifter certainly doesn't need.

Part of this problem stems from the occasional poor transitions between dialogue sequences and from the occasional clunky dialogue.  Brandon attempts to convey a vernacular of sorts here, but one which is more rooted in a gritty Western aesthetic than something along the lines of Burgess' Nadsat.  Often, this feels unnatural.  Phrases like "What kind of place, I guess we're working at" occasionally grace the pages of Drifter #1 along with the use of various contractions (ain't, why'm, etc.).  The strategy is the same:  contracting the language into something more rugged than direct; these contracted sentence structures draw attention not to the ideas under discussion, but to the words themselves.

This is coupled with panels which seem to leap forward without a clear transition.  In one instance, Pollux retrieves his gun and a flask of alcohol; the sequence shifts from Pollux swiping the items to the priest speaking with a bearded man who has a clear history with the priest, and then back to Pollux, who asks whether the bearded man asked the priest a question.  It's never made clear why Pollux asks, since he is standing there while the priest is berated by the bearded man, and there's nothing in the sequence to suggest that this is the thing to wonder in the first place.  Another disruption occurs when the priest is randomly attacked by another patron in the bar, who asks whether he is still damned to hell (this seems like an instance in which the moral question of religion is meant to be challenged to convey the desperate "no shits given" lifestyle in the city, but it is never explored with the necessary depth to fully convey what is going on).  These instances always gave the impression that a panel had been left out, which may have been intentional.

Though these problem did not completely disrupt my reading of the first issue (hell, I bought the second issue before I started writing this), I do intend to keep an eye on them for succeeding volumes.  As I've already noted, reviewing a 1st issue is incredibly difficult, as it's impossible to know how anything found in its pages will relate to later volumes.  What might seem like flaws here may end up making more sense two or three issues down the road.

That said, I do think that the overarching narrative and the art are enough to put this in the "keep an eye on it" category.  If you're not already reading it, grab the first and second issues and give them a shot.

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