The first complete story to emerge from the 8House science fiction/fantasy universe – a quirky and queer tale about knights, magic, bodies, and identity by Brandon Graham and Marian Churchland – arrives in trade paperback.
Arclight Vol. 1 (Image Comics)
Brandon Graham is clearly a man who has thought a lot about collaboration. What precise chemistry makes two or more people create a work of art greater than what either could have done alone? Why do some pairings that seem perfect for one another ultimately crash and burn? In comics, these kinds of questions are often less a matter for academic reflection than a pressing demand as the next deadline approaches.
Graham both wrote and drew early work like King City, but since he came to wider attention with Prophet many of his comics have foregrounded his interplay with other creators. His epic re-imagining of the Rob Liefeld muscleman featured pencils from several artists in addition to Graham himself, tasked with depicting various clones of the title character in vastly different settings. With 8House, Graham set an even more ambitious agenda, establishing a fantastic universe for himself and other creators to explore along with a staggered schedule that would allow the artists to take more time and care than usually feasible on a monthly book from a major publisher.
That concept didn’t quite work out as planned. In fall 2015, the first two chapters of 8House: Arclight appeared, followed by the opening parts of two other stories. Then, the series fell by the wayside for a year before two more installments were finally released under the simplified banner of Arclight #3 and 4.
Fortunately, despite the awkwardness in the larger venture, the partnership behind this particular story is a solid one. Artist Marian Churchland and Graham create a beautiful, deliberate meditation on what defines a person and the bonds that tie us together. There are also generous helpings of magic, action, body horror, and sci-fi to keep things entertaining.
As befits the grand nature of the intended 8House project, a great deal of world-building goes into these pages, albeit in an often understated manner. The thought the creators put into design is clear on every page, expressed in the fashions, architecture, and interiors as well as the exotic creatures. The linguistic side is fascinating as well, with Graham both producing an alphabet of magical runes and throwing in a smattering of Polish.
Churchland’s unique visual style is a huge part of what makes the story so effective. She combines colored pencils, markers, and digital tools for results akin to watercolor. The soft hues she chooses convey the alien nature of the landscape, and there’s a gentleness and humanity to even the most grotesque moments that makes it easy to relate to the characters’ otherworldly struggles. The abstract paintings at the conclusion of each chapter are also a welcome touch, encouraging the reader to take a probing, thoughtful tack in experiencing the comic.
You can also see Churchland’s signature in the androgynous look of the knights. The characters subvert the deeply gender-normative concepts of chivalry as the comic constantly plays with ideas of intergender identity. Meanwhile, the narrative flouts many of the expectations for a romantic military epic bred by countless fantasy tales even when the protagonists do face their foes. The people of the Blood House exert their strength by slicing into themselves rather than their enemies, and the story remains firmly focused on individual struggles rather than the larger scope of the unexplained animosity between worlds.
Amid these intriguing elements, Arclight’s story considers how our bodies affect our ways of understanding ourselves and relating to each other in the connections between lovers, friends, and comrades. These are not the most novel themes for a fantasy or science fiction tale, but they are presented in an intriguing way that invites the reader to engage rather than offering a pat moral.
That said, a little more hand-holding might have been useful in the final chapter. The shuffling of time and character perspectives gets rather disconcerting in a way that’s especially jarring after the gentle forward movement through most of the story. It’s probably a bit easier to follow what’s happening in the collected version, so I imagine reading the conclusion in the monthly format felt quite anticlimactic.