I’ve always admired Robert Kirkman’s efforts to try and deliver another successful creator-owned series after the successes of “The Walking Dead” and “Invincible.” That his efforts in that regard, with “The Astounding Wolf-Man” and “Outcast,” have generally been just “okay” hasn’t given me cause to give up hope yet. If this first volume is any indication then you can add “Oblivion Song” to that list of “okay” titles as its tale of Nathan Cole trying to find people who have disappeared from our universe plays out more or less how you’d expect it would.
Ten years ago there was an event call the Transference which saw a chunk of Philadelphia replaced with an otherworldly environment complete with plenty of angry creatures. 300,000 people disappeared in this event and while some were found, most are still missing to the present day. The reason they were found at all was because of Nathan Cole, who developed the technology that allows people to change their vibrational frequency and travel between Earth and this new place called Oblivion.
While Nathan is determined to find every last person who went missing in the Transference, the government has long given up hope of the same. Now he’s just working with a couple of dedicated friends, one of whom was rescued from Oblivion, and tech that becomes more unreliable with each passing day. Nathan hasn’t given up hope yet, as the story opens with his rescue of two more people from that savage place. While that would be reason enough for celebration, these two people also have a lead on finding someone very important to Nathan: his brother.
The setup for “Oblivion Song” is as solidly crafted as you’d expect from someone with Kirkman’s experience. It’s not hard to sympathize with Nathan’s struggle over the course of the volume given his personal commitment to finding everyone even though the odds of doing so are stacked against him. What keeps me from becoming fully invested in his story is how straightforwardly everything plays out here.
Take the fact that the government has given up supporting Nathan in his quest. Of course you’d expect the government to be unsupportive of Nathan’s efforts, it’s standard issue for the genre. It’s not surprising to learn that his girlfriend also has issues with his obsessiveness regarding finding everyone who was left behind. Even the faulty tech, which tends to fail at the most dramatically inconvenient times, feels right out of the storyteller’s handbook as well.
What I’m getting at here is that for a writer whose biggest success has come from finding ways to subvert familiar expectations within a given genre, Kirkman plays it safe and straightforward here. Nothing in “Oblivion Song” really surprised me or made me go, “Well, that was unexpected!” Even the two major plot points introduced in the final pages aren’t all that surprising. One is meant to cast Nathan’s motivations in a new and potentially unfavorable light while the other suggests the introduction of the main antagonists of the series. Yet neither come off as particularly surprising in the context of everything that’s come before them here.
Though the execution here is the definition of “solid but unspectacular” there is one part where I felt that Kirkman missed the mark. At one point Nathan encounters an enclave of human survivors and he, along with the reader, are given the impression that they’re all happy here and don’t want to come back. Apparently hunting and killing the monsters of Oblivion for food and scraping out a scavenging-based lifestyle while they hide from bigger monsters is a far more preferable way of life compared to what they had. Kirkman doesn’t spend enough time with the people of this enclave to really sell that idea and I’m left feeling that the only reason these people want to stay is so that there can be some tension between them and Nathan.
The storytelling issues I have with the first volume are at least mitigated to an extent due to the pretty great art from Lorenzo De Felici. An Italian artist making his American comics debut, De Felici really nails the otherworldly look of Oblivion. From the way the weird organicness of that world has overwhelmed the buildings that have been transported there to the many aggressive and goopy-looking creatures that inhabit it, Oblivion comes off as a convincingly alien place. It also helps a lot that De Felici is good with the human drama of the series as well. The meeting Nathan has with his former military supervisor is uncomfortably tense, while one Oblivion survivor’s nighttime PTSD episode is striking in how it depicts his fear on the page.
Kirkman has always had a knack for finding good artists to work with and even if De Felici doesn’t elevate “Oblivion Song” he at least makes this first volume go down smoother. Same goes for the fact that the writer’s storytelling retains its familiar clarity as it sets up the various storytelling and personality conflicts that we’ll be following in the series for as long as it lasts. While I’d normally hope that would be a very long time, I can’t see “Oblivion Song” having as long or memorable a run as Kirkman’s signature series have. Unless the writer starts subverting the familiar genre conventions on display here I think that a run as distinguished as, say, “Outcast’s” is about as good as we can hope for here.