Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Artist: Felipe Massafera (pgs. 7-28), Ace Continuado (pgs. 29-116)
Inker: Adelso Corona (pgs. 29-116)
Colorist: Wes Dzioba
Letters: Michael Heisler
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!
A back cover blurb calls Shaper as “A heroic coming-of-age tale in the tradition of the Arthurian legends and Star Wars!” However, Shaper is not nearly as sweeping or epic as Arthurian legend, nor is it as exciting as Star Wars, even if it has a comparable amount of imagination. The universe Shaper creates is broad and interesting, but half-hearted storytelling and flat characters hit the wrong notes. As in many promising stories, this unrealized potential is the most disappointing aspect of Shaper.
Shaper takes place in an interstellar empire called the Caliphate, led by Cal (or possibly Caliph) Victus, who can see “ten breaths into the future.” His army searches the universe for Shapers, a supposedly mythical race of shapeshifters. Victus perpetuates his crusade with help from a role-playing card game played by youths around the Caliphate, the object of which is also to hunt Shapers. When a delinquent named Spry runs afoul of Victus’ top enforcer, Spry learns he is a Shaper, born of Shaper parents. With help from characters straight out of Heroes of the Caliphate, Spry pursues Victus to rescue his mother.
Two things about Shaper did impress me: first, Felipe Massafera’s art, and second, the worldbuilding. Massafera does some really interesting environments that look alien and unfamiliar. His mechanical design goes a long way toward that. There are several pieces of technology constructed around bulbous designs that I don’t see in much other sci-fi, such as public transportation pods and jars containing dead rat-creatures. Spaceships have funky, almost patched-together looks. If the second artist, Ace Continuado, also contributed mechanical design, the two worked closely enough that there’s discernible visual continuity between their vehicles and landscapes. Continuado’s pencils are competent, but Massafera has a better grasp of anatomy and perspective, and Continuado’s action and expressions have less depth.
The world building is actually pretty astounding to me. Shapers live for thousands of years and are able to learn new forms which they pass genetically to their children, meaning a Shaper is able to shift into any form used by any of their ancestors. This is a unique approach to shapeshifters that I’ve never seen in quite the same way. Passing references to unseen races hint at a larger universe beyond what we see on the page. Victus’ motivation for Shaper extermination is surprisingly nuanced, based on his father’s much stronger future sight and a lie his father told about the future he saw for Victus. When his father tells him he will be defeated by a Shaper, Victus insists they aren’t real, and he seeks to keep them mere figments of myth. It becomes an obsession that adds a little much-needed depth to an otherwise bland villain.
Yet Shaper has no room to let its interesting universe, or its plot, breathe. Events move quickly, hurried along by the almighty power of convenience rather than tight cause-and-effect. Spry doesn’t hesitate at all to go on a suicide mission to save his mother from the terrifying interstellar army and the scary, armored general who just batted him aside like he was an insect. Kaylen, a fellow Shaper, gives up teaching Spry how to use his power after a five-minute lesson yields a disappointing result for both of them. The climax is a rushed fight between the main protagonists and Victus that takes place on bridges lifted right out of the end of Empire Strikes Back. The ending gives no good closure and suddenly introduces an idea about survival that was absent from the entire rest of the comic.
Writer Eric Heisserer has a few screenwriting credits under his belt, and as far as I can tell, Shaper is his first and so far only comic. He seems to have written Shaper as if he were writing a movie, not a comic. With that in mind, as much as I want to give him credit for working in an unfamiliar medium, his goal was to write a comic. He didn’t write a comic; he wrote a movie script that could have used a rewrite or two. I applaud the imagination of Shaper, but clunky plotting and nigh-nonexistent character development hold it back.