Review time! with ‘Outer Darkness’ #1-3

The second issue of Outer Darkness is in stores tomorrow, so I figured I’d write a little about the first three issues. How did I read the first three issues? John Layman, who writes the book, was nice enough to send me issues #2 and 3 digitally, so I can tell you if it’s worth your time with more than just the first issue to go on. Layman’s a good dude! This is his first long-form comic since Chew ended, and he’s paired up with Afu Chan on art, Pat Brosseau on letters, and Jon Moisan editing. This is from Image (its Skybound imprint), and as usual, each issue costs $3.99.

Layman is excellent at writing single-issue stories that have a good pay-off by the end of the issue yet fit into the entire whole of the series, and that’s on display early in this series. The first issue is a fairly garden-variety origin story, as we meet Joshua Rigg, a tough-as-nails first officer on a salvage military spaceship. He commits a reasonable act of mutiny against a douchey captain, which of course gets him busted almost out of the service. An old admiral who obviously admires him gives him the proverbial one last chance, command of a ship he used to captain as long as he goes in the “outer darkness” to retrieve … something (neither he nor us know what it is yet). Rigg lost a woman who was important to him in the outer darkness, so of course that’s a motivator, but he takes the job because he really has nothing else to do. And we’re off!

It’s a good set-up – early on, we learn that this world uses magic as much as math, so they have oracles and witches on board as well as engineers and mathematicians. It’s a clever way to bring in all sorts of weirdness without making it too strange – in issue #2, Layman doesn’t have to explain why a star is possessed by a demon, because we’re already in a universe where the rules of nature are somewhat different than ours. It’s efficient, because it allows all the weirdness to start right away, and we’re just along for the ride. Rigg is a tough captain, obviously, but he’s also fair, as he clashes with one of his high-level crew members who doesn’t want to divulge the nature of their mission to the crew, while Rigg believes that if they’re risking their lives they ought to know why. In issue #2, he deliberately flies them toward the demon star because he doesn’t want them to drill, he wants to see how they handle themselves in an actual emergency. This doesn’t endear him to the crew, but it does make them tougher. He commutes the sentence of a person who’s about to be sacrificed to the god-engine that runs their ship because he thinks she has the qualities of a tough crew member, even though she was convicted for mutiny. Layman is quite good with dialogue, so we very quickly get the personalities of several crew members, not through long exposition but through the way they talk to each other and the way they do their jobs. In issue #3, he teams up the freed prisoner with another crew member on a survey of a distress signal that might be a trap. It is, naturally, a trap, and both people are killed, but we learn that they can bring people back to life before their souls go into the “outer darkness,” so Rigg does that. The other crew member has died several times, and while we might think he’s lucky, there’s obviously something sinister going on with him. So in three issues, Layman introduces many cast members, throws them into some hairy situations, and gives us a broad outline of the universe – there’s a war on, for instance, and the reason they investigate the distress signal is because the ship in trouble has a valuable element that will make the government happy, which will give them more leeway. Layman explains this all, but not in a heavy-handed way – it’s just the way the characters discuss what’s going on, and we pick up the information as we go. It sounds more “real” and it also leaves some things for later, when we can discover them in their own time.

In today’s more diverse comics world, it’s refreshing that Layman adds diversity without making a fuss about it. Rigg is black, his co-mutineer (whom he makes sure has a job on the new mission) is some kind of Pacific Islander, the admiral is probably Sikh, his administrator on the new ship is Indian, and there are women and men simply doing their jobs on the ship. He could have written the exact same words and had everyone be a white man, but simply by changing the gender and ethnicity of some characters, he adds a layer to the book that wouldn’t be there otherwise. The matter-of-fact way it occurs shows a universe where these so-called differences don’t matter, yet they also speak to the struggle these characters might have had to overcome to get to where they are. It’s one reason why diversity is a good touch in fiction, because even if, as I noted, you use the exact same words, as readers we automatically fill in another level of meaning to everything. It’s pretty neat.

Chan is a good artist, too, and he brings the world to life quite well. If you flip through the book, the characters look simple, as Chan doesn’t over-hatch or go into intricate details for the most part. His spaceships are sleek and his people drawn precisely, which fits in with the general aesthetic of the book – this isn’t a grungy future, but a clean one. This, of course, allows him to contrast the aesthetic with the nastier aspects of the book – the Sumerian god that runs the spaceship has a shaggy mane that makes it look rough and slightly bedraggled, the demons that attack the ship in issue #2 are all muscle and knotty bones, and the undead insectoid creatures in issue #3 have disjointed armor and wild hair. All of these things are still drawn with precision, but Chan uses more detail on them, so they become something from outside the solid universe, terrors encroaching on the sentient beings that inhabit the comic, and are therefore more terrifying for their “other-ness.” Chan’s crisp art and vibrant colors bring Layman’s well-paced scripts to vivid life, and it’s a good pairing.

It’s been a while since I’ve spoken to Layman in person, so I can’t remember how long he plans for this (at least 30 issues, I think, but don’t quote me on it). I have no idea if it will be as good or as popular as Chew, but it’s off to a solid start. Layman shows that he doesn’t have to rely on humor to write a good story, but that doesn’t mean the book is completely deadly serious. It’s an idea we’ve seen before – horror in space – but because Layman treats the supernatural as somewhat mundane, it allows him to focus more on the characters, while Chan’s bright art means that we get to see all the creepy-crawlies, which is an issue I always have with movies that go with the “horror in space” route. As I noted, issue #2 comes out tomorrow, so go find it and issue #1. I have no idea if you’ll love it, but I will say it’s a very intriguing comic with a lot of potential. There are lots of things going on in the book even only three issues in, and I’m very keen to find out what they are.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

2 Comments

  1. maxwellchris

    Very cool to see this review. I got issue 1 from Comixology the other night, and found the concepts interesting, but the characters no so much as yet. They just seemed to kind of be there fulfilling their roles in the story, but there wasn’t much in the way of personality yet, at least not any that grabbed me or stood out. Does this get better, or did no one else see it that way to begin with?

    1. Greg Burgas

      It definitely gets better. I see what you’re saying, and issue #1 is very much a set-up issue, so there’s not a lot of room for character development. We get much more of it in issues #2-3, especially of the captain, who’s obviously the dominant personality so far. But we do get more, so I’d give them a chance and see if you agree!

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