My last order of graphic novels was held up for two weeks because I didn’t realize this particular volume was on backorder when I put it into my cart. Cue two weeks of annoyed website checking as I waited for my order to finally ship. This wasn’t doing “Outer Darkness” any favors since as this went on I started to think, “Man, this volume had better be damn good to make up for this!” Which is a terrible thing for any critic to get in their head before they form an opinion about something.
Why am I telling you all this? Once my order finally arrived and I sat down to read “Outer Darkness,” all those issues faded away. It wasn’t just worth the wait, this may be the best new title I’ve read from Image this year.
The short description of “Outer Darkness” is that it’s basically “Star Trek” by way of “Ghostbusters.” And populated mostly by assholes. It’s a vision of the future where mankind has taken to the stars, and found them to be infested with all sorts of things supernatural. The characters in this series won’t win the day by raising shields or firing phasers. No, they’ll have to rely on exorcists to cast the demons out, and mathematicians to bind and track them when these evil spirits come looking for them.
That last part is matter of “when,” not “if” as the cast of this series is headed out on a mission to the Outer Darkness on a mission to retrieve someone-or-thing that has been determined to be critical to the war against the relentless Dryx. Heading up this mission is newly promoted Captain Joshua Rigg. He’s been promoted up from drinking his sorrows away after he had to commit mutiny to save the cargo ship he was on from a ghostly attack.
Rigg has been installed as the captain of the Charon, the Galactic Service’s finest deep-space retriever. His trusted buddy Agwe has also been brought on as an advisor, and he’s the only friend the captain has on the ship. That’s because in addition to being a ruthless hardass who believes in taking the ship into a system with a devil in its sun to test their combat readiness, he’s also got another motive for accepting this command. Rigg is looking for someone in the Outer Darkness and getting this person back means more to him than the lives of his crew.
“Outer Darkness” comes to us from the minds of John Layman and Afu Chan. If you’ve been reading and listening to me for an extended period of time, then the former should be familiar to you as the writer of “Chew.” Layman struck an impressive balance between the comical, the absurd, the dramatic and the awful right from the start. That kind of balance isn’t to be found here, but only because the writer isn’t trying to balance so many different tones.
Layman’s focus here is on worldbuilding. He’s giving us a universe where encountering the impossible, the horrific, and the impossibly horrific happens on a fairly regular basis. Layman showed us that he had a great imagination in “Chew” as well as the discipline to nail down the rules which governed that crazy universe. It’s very much the same here in “Outer Darkness.” After a slam-bang opening sequence which convincingly lays out the dangers awaiting Rigg and company out in space, things slow down a bit so we can see just how the members of the Galactic Service are meant to combat the forces of darkness.
So we see Rigg introducing himself to the Charon’s brand-new God engine, a former Sumerian deity which powers the ship and runs on sacrifices, to make sure it knows who the boss is around here. Then there’s his aforementioned jaunt to the Damlau system to see how his crew handles themselves in a crisis, which also works for us as well. Subsequent issues show us how the recently dead can have their souls retrieved, what a Full Guarantee gets you from the Service, and how possession works around here. We get to see something clever and new with every issue while getting some clever storytelling at the same time.
By that I mean there are more than a few bits of the plot in this volume that I didn’t see coming. It’s always nice when a series is able to surprise me and “Outer Darkness” managed that on more than one occasion. It also helps that I found most of the crew interesting because of their assholishness rather than in spite of it.
Especially the captain. It’s not hard to understand why everyone on the ship hates Rigg -- the second issue gives pretty much everyone except Agwe a good reason. The thing is that most of his actions are in service of keeping the majority of his crew alive. Even if his decisions may be mean or callous they’re usually issued in the crew’s best interests. That he dispenses them as snarkily or as condescendingly as possible just makes them more fun to observe.
Most of the supporting cast hasn’t been fleshed out as well as Rigg has, but there are some promising faces here. Like Elox, the cobra-faced alien who gets an entire issue devoted to his backstory as a God turned ship’s navigator to really good effect. Rigg’s friend Agwe is a genial counterpart whose interactions with the captain help take a bit of his edge off, in contrast to Corporal Shin whose six previous resurrections are hiding a dark secret. Then there’s First Officer Alastor who winds up hating Rigg more than anyone else on the ship, to the point that he may wind up getting everyone killed because of it.
It’s a varied, diverse cast who are alike only in the fact that most of them spend the first volume being assholes to each other. I can see how this would put some people off, but I think Layman makes their jerkish mindsets work for the series by not having anyone be dumb about their actions. It feels like everyone has actual reasons for what they want to do rather than they’re acting as the plot dictates at this point. To push the “Star Trek”/”Ghostbusters” analogy further then imagine Peter Venkman as captain of the Enterprise. That’s the kind of dynamic this series is going for and it really nails it.
For a series that’s focusing on sci-fi horror, then it helps to have an artist who knows how to give us some really creepy visuals. Afu Chan does just that from the opening scenes of bug-eyed spider ghosts crawling through space, Rigg’s first encounter with the God engine, and all the stuff that starts coming out of the walls once the Charon heads towards Damlau. It’s clear from this first volume that Chan has as big an imagination as his writer and this first volume feels like they’re working perfectly in sync.
So yeah, I really liked this first volume of “Outer Darkness” to the point where I wish all comics which held up my orders were this good. (Lookin’ in your direction “Man of Steel.) I can understand if people would be put off by reading a series where most of the main cast are a bunch of assholes, but I really think the approach taken here helps justify that. As Layman’s first ongoing creator-owned title since “Chew” it feels like another winner with Chan providing visuals that are distinct and memorable too. I’m ready for vol. 2, no matter how much additional time I have to wait!