Title: World War X Book 1: Helius
Publisher: Titan Comics
Writer: Jerry Frissen
Artist: Peter Snejbjerg
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
I think World War X’s major weakness is its format.
It’s hard for me to write about World War X because it’s so different from just about any comic I’ve read before. Not because of its plot, but again, because of its format. It’s a hardcover with a cover price of $15.99 for 46 pages of story. The going rate of an annual issue for an ongoing superhero comic is $4.99 these days. The closest annual I have to hand as I write this review is Sinestro Annual #1, which has 48 interior pages. One is a credits page, six are advertisements, and three are devoted to the editorial letter and DC All Access pages, leaving 38 pages for five short stories about supporting characters surrounded by a frame narrative. I don’t want to harp on economics, because I’m sure it costs much more to produce a hardcover comic of any length than it does to produce a double-sized single issue of a monthly book. But I do think this distinction is important, and I’ll come back to it a little later.
For now, I want to say that I think the plot of World War X is interesting. In a world a little bit different from ours, in 2017, a work crew is arranging large, rectangular sarcophagi into a circular apparatus with grooves for several of them. One being lowered in breaks, releasing a tall, unfriendly looking green alien. Humanity has been studying the sarcophagi for at least a decade, and the circular apparatus is apparently a massively potent power source that draws on them. The most important character, other than protagonist Adesh Khan, is a man who calls himself Helios, who seems to know how to fight the aliens as they break out of their sarcophagi all over the world. The book shows the audience two occasions when an alien appeared before: in Portugal in 1755, and in France in 1248, where Helios appeared. So there’s an interesting hook of a secret war playing out over the history of human existence, one in which Helios has participated more than once.
Now I return to my point about superhero annuals. Most, if not all, of the superhero annuals I’ve read in the last few years provided a sense of narrative closure. I felt no closure at all from World War X Book 1. It’s an odd duck, because it isn’t a collection of single issues, and while it’s the first graphic novel in a series of graphic novels, I’m unable to compare it to a similarly released work like Scott Pilgrim. Each volume of Scott Pilgrim had its own sense of having a beginning, middle, and end. Now, the best comics are the ones that make you have to buy the next book to find out what happens, but you need to want to read the next book, and I didn’t feel that at the end of “Helius.”
It’s okay to withhold information from readers so they’ll keep reading. This can keep your story interesting and give it a compelling air of mystery. But you need to strike a balance. You need to sate enough of the reader’s curiosity that they don’t get frustrated. You’re thrown into World War X with no preamble, and the narrative is split between so many characters in so many different places at first that it’s difficult to follow. Adesh is the only character I could really latch onto because he’s the only one with personal stakes. Helios reveals he’s something more than a seemingly immortal human while confronting an alien named Kharis in the Everglades, and I was left more confused than compelled.
For all of my gripes, though, Peter Snejbjerg turned out some good work. I was a fan of his art for Starman, and while it’s not as strong as his Starman work, it’s solid. If I had to put into words what I feel it lacks, I’d say it’s dynamism. Some images can look stiff and flat, and facial expressions can be a little off-model. But the lines are clean, and the colors and shadows are rich. Plus, Snejbjerg gets to show off some rather impressive destruction, and he does a great ob of making the aliens look frightening. They’re humaniform, with two eyes, two arms and legs, and a human-like torso. But they’re stretched-out, emaciated with little stomach to speak of beneath bulging ribcages. The have fangs and claws. Some of them look almost like wild dogs, with elongated, snout-like heads and what seems to be mangy fur. It’s an archetypal evil alien design that still manages to be frightful. I think Snejbjerg’s best work in this book appears at the very beginning, a silent few pages on the Moon as the first alien breaks free. It’s atmospheric and suspenseful.
I want to be able to find merit in World War X for what it is, but as I said at the beginning, I think it’s being published in a format that isn’t conducive to the kind of story it could be. I get the feeling that if the story in this first book had been two monthly issues of 22-24 pages, collected in a trade of 4-6 issues, I would be much more interested in it. As it stands, I wouldn’t really recommend this book until further volumes come out. Even then, personally, I’ll probably pass on Book 2.