Title: Faster Than Light Volume 1: First Steps
Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Brian Haberlin
Artist: Brian Haberlin
Colorist: Dan Kemp, Dave Kemp, and Geirrod Vandyke
Letterer: Francis Takenaga
Covers: Brian Haberlin and Geirrod Vandyke
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. Read at your own risk!
Science fiction and fantasy can be difficult to write because they both come with two-mile-long lists of been-there-done-that ideas and tropes. Even when a sci-fi or fantasy yarn offers a fresher take or new spin on certain of these elements, other aspects pulled from the same tropes can hold it back, or what’s new isn’t quite new enough. There’s a lot to appreciate in Faster Than Light, but it needs to build steam to get to the meat of a good premise, and its character work lacks polish.
An unspecified distance into the future, humanity has just cracked faster-than-light travel. Using the “Aurelian database,” an alien information repository, they know alien life exists. Some is hostile, but some might be able to help Earth against a vague extraterrestrial threat. With their brand-new FTL capability, humans can go out and meet these other races. The book follows the first two manned FTL missions, one public, which is the main thread, and a sub-plot about a much more secret mission. The very dawn of FTL is a good hook, as is the mission to find alien allies. Too many first-contact stories are more in the vein of horror (Alien) or war (Ender’s Game, War of the Worlds, Halo, Transformers…), and stories of alien/human harmony usually take place years, even centuries, after Earth’s children reached for the stars (Mass Effect). Unfortunately, it takes some time to get to the interesting alien diplomacy bits, because just before departure from the Solar System, the crew of the FTL ship Discovery finds a mystery planet in an erratic orbit around the Sun.
The book spends three issues on this planet, which they name Ouroboros. It’s visually interesting, with vivid midnight-purple skies against pointed, curving, pitch-black formations reaching out from the ground. The colors set it apart, but ultimately, it’s just a set-up for yet another parasitic alien life-form that can reproduce inside the human body. We’ve seen it so many times, and it’s hard to not be a bit exhausted by it. Now, the book does differentiate it a little by making the whole planet constructed from these slimy, black worms that can adapt, evolve, and regenerate, and the world itself can reach out with gigantic tentacles to ensnare the Discovery, but the detour to this planet is a disappointing sidetrack from the Discovery’s primary mission. Once past this, though, in issue 4, the crew meets insectoid creatures and sentient dog/bears to open cultural exchange and political relations. They’re a treat to look at, the insects with gray chitin and multiple sets of eyes in addition to giant, red compound eyes, and the dogs with goggles, jumpsuits, and facial tattoos. With the insects, the Discovery later learns that humans’ appearances disturb them as much as their appearances disturb humans, with the tidbit that human remind them of a species that preyed on them in their early stages of evolution, a subtle, funny, fascinating nod to the idea that apes existed on their planet, too. The dogs meet the Discovery with curiosity, never having heard of Earth or humans before, and it makes sense that most spacefaring races would be curious rather than immediately hostile.
Yet when it comes to the characters, I was disinterested. I’m not entirely sure what the roles of two of the men are, and I had a hard time distinguishing them from each other. Most of the characters’ names and roles are mysteries until issue 3 or 4. One of the characters I couldn’t distinguish, first named “Hippie,” holds the position of “philogistician,” which is never adequately described. He appears to be an expert on the Aurelian database, but even that is poorly defined. Context is enough to hint that the Aurelians were a highly developed alien civilization, but there’s no indication of how humans found the database, how long they’ve had it, or how they knew what it is. Infodump of exposition is rarely good writing, but I felt there could have been something, anything, to explain a little bit more about a main plot device. The reader needs at least a little more if this is to be the main conceit.
There’s interesting work with the art. Brian Haberlin has a really good handle on framing and perspective, and overall I liked the photorealistic swing. The colors give everything a bit of a unique sense of depth that makes it look almost like CG animation. Their expressions are realistic, even if sometimes they veer a bit into the uncanny. Lights from holograms and control panels radiate dynamically. I found the aesthetics of the spaceships to be neat because nothing is uniform, nor are any of the human ships particularly sleek. The fuel sources are visible, for example, and because there’s no real need to be concerned about aerodynamics in space, the designs reflect that. The characters mention that new technology was just stacked onto the old with Discovery, and while it doesn’t look slapdash and sloppy, it does have a vague sense of that.
While some of the execution of Faster Than Light disappointed me, the core elements are intriguing. There’s room for improvement, but based on issues 4 and 5, I think the story can go to interesting places. If the characters become a little more distinct and the ideas become more fleshed out, there’s potential for Faster Than Light to become very good.