Space. The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of Starship Charon. Its continuing mission: To rescue those beyond the reaches of ordinary space, to go where most men would not dare: into the Outer Darkness.There’s something truly appealing about science fiction set on an exploratory vessel in space. The crew of heroes travel the cosmos, encountering various worlds, vastly different life forms, confront curious and challenging philosophies and even get into some thrilling space battles amongst all of that. There’s a wonder at the heart of all this, a sort of fundamental optimism about it all. That we could do this, travel the universe or even beyond it, accomplish and confront any problem it may throw at us and keep on trekking. But then there’s the other truth of space: it’s scary. It’s horrifying. You enter space and you mess up? You not only burn up, but also freeze, boil and suffocate all at once. It’s particularly painful. It’s a place of the unknown and fear comes easy to us when it concerns the unknown. So what happens when you take these two extremities, cosmic wonder and its opposite, cosmic horror and mash them together? Why you get this book, of course. You find yourself with Outer Darkness.
With a healthy mix of Star Trek, Alien and even a tinge of manga (courtesy of Chan’s artwork), the book is set for fun paths — it’s a solid mix of ingredients to mix together for something unexpected. And unexpected it certainly is. Captain Briggs is no Captain Kirk or Captain Picard, who the crew cares for, admires, is inspired by and would lay down their lives for. But other people’s perceptions aside, he’s a selfish prick and a man that can be quite callous and cold, concerning himself with only his motives above all things. He’s a man very much out for himself and thus his crew responds in kind, with venomous hatred and bile. Convention demands that narratives like these, which tend to be procedural, with a core serial purpose giving it spine, have the crew get closer, form bonds of sorts, as each adventure makes them more a tighter unit. But Outer Darkness rejects convention. The key characters all pretty much despise one another and form mini-factions, constantly scheming others’ downfalls and the attainment of their motives. And with every passing page, they grow ever more distant, more ready to stab one another in the back to serve their own purposes and interests. And that’s part of the fun of it, as conflict builds like a volcano about to blow. And the fun part is, it blows up almost every issue, though bigger and most devastatingly so in the latter issues, as is to be expected.
Now, on top of all of that, throw in a good dose of the strange to really season things. And voila, you have a perfect catalyst of flavor. This is a book and world where spaceships run off ancient Gods as their engines. It’s a series full of math-magicians who create quantum wards, exorcists who cast spells like they were Doctor Strange, hellish spirits and monsters and a whole lot more. Oh, and a good load of people cussing.
John Layman, Afu Chan and Pat Brosseau really come together here to sort of take the space voyage story and really twist it up in their styles to see what comes out of the process. Chan’s artwork, which feels very classical, has hints of manga influence and evokes a sense that this is a book about some strange animated series that once was or may have been and is now returning or being reinterpreted. Chan’s vision feels so confident on the page, with bold widescreen imagery that leaps outward, establishing this wide cosmic tapestry the story operates in. Even the character designs evoke a sense of cool confidence that really sell the book. Soreena Prakash’s design in particular, which stands out amongst all Galactic Agency operative outfits, is really neat. Chan finds a way to keep his designs simple enough that they’re easily recognizable but also packs in the appropriate amount of detail some of the characters, especially the aliens, require. The colors also leap off the page, setting the perfect tone for the story. The big, cosmic sequences and moments, such as a ship warping, looks astonishingly wild and bright, whereas members on a ship, no matter how bright and colorful they or their outfit maybe, are in general under the darker hues and shadows of the ship’s interior, establishing the horror sensibility and tone the book requires.
Layman’s voice is fairly strong here, capturing everything from the cruel, excessive glee of carnage to the frailty and fallibility of people. This isn’t necessarily a kind book for the characters, as death knocks on the door, ready at any moment and despite the wondrous world and potential of people in this world, we’re shown how some horrors are born of human stupidity, greed or selfishness, amongst others. In the face of danger, the characters are more divided then ever and the pattern continues, as nothing and no one is to be really trusted, as things can shift and change at the drop of a hat. There’s a real unpredictability to the book on an issue-by-issue basis, where anything might just happen in the next installment, totally shifting the gears of the book into a whole other place.
But the above is also part of where the book’s chief flaw is. Every character is, usually, for the most part, a gigantic jerk. Those who are not, we barely get much of, as they serve as background players and whether they do that or have more prominence, we still aren’t given much on them. This is a story where people hold their secrets close and tight to the vest. Thus it becomes hard to care, as our leading man and most characters, the ones we do know the relative most about, are massive assh*les, to the point that we see the damages of their idiocy even a century later in a certain sequence. So while the dynamics of conflict may be intriguing and the book does build tension will, it’s kind of hard to latch onto anyone or really invest and care about them. There’s a real lack of that grounding character to really hold us down, though that is purposeful, given characters can drop like flies in the series.
Letterer Pat Brosseau really has the task at hand of bridging together the works of Chan and Layman together, helping weave the final product. And as is to be expected from the veteran letterer, he does an excellent job. With a big cast of characters, set in a cosmic setting, he gets to play with various options and try some very fun things. That being said, the biggest highlight is his choice of lettering to showcase the big, momentous beats of action in the story, where it be a great punch or an exorcism. The SFX shifts to this almost graffiti-style, looking like someone spray painted this over the image, which is a really neat effect. It always and immediately lets you know when big stuff’s happening and it distinguishes, on a visual level, the moments from all the other potential big moments that a space crew in a universe of cosmic gods and devils is likely to face. It’s just delightfully well done letterwork.
Outer Darkness reads very like a deconstruction of all the classical space voyage narratives of the past, in the way only Layman, Chan and Brosseau could pull off. If such a thing interests you, where crazy oracles are needed to keep ships going right, cosmic satans must be avoided and devil-suns are to be fought, if necessary, then you should absolutely check out Outer Darkness. It’s the mashed mixture of the weird, the horrific and somehow, somewhere, the wondrous.