REVIEW: Shrapnel – Aristeia Rising #1

Creators: Mark Long & Nick Sagan

Writer: M. Zachary Sherman

Artist: Bagus Hutomo

Colours: Leos ‘Okita’ Ng

Publisher: Radical Comics

Creating and launching a new futuristic universe in comic-book format is often a difficult and delicate process. In prose, the author has almost an unlimited page count available to construct the nuances of new worlds and cultures, while a film-maker has a broader mix of images and dialogue to use in order to bring this new existence to life. But it is a real balancing act for the sequential creator, trying to hook new readers early with a compelling drama within a short page count, while fleshing out the characters and their motivations that will drive the narrative forward.

It sometimes helps when the premise at least has the look and feel of something familiar, and the first issue of the new mini-series from Radical Comics, Shrapnel, is no exception: the first pages appear like something straight out of a futuristic video game, somewhere between Robotech and Metal Gear Solid. And Radical has another trick up its sleeve to circumvent these difficulties, by providing a first issue with a vastly increased page count (and all for a budget cover price of $1.99).

Of course, the best way to build a new universe while fostering reader interest is through tight, clear, but interesting and innovative storytelling, and the success of Aristeia Rising will hinge on the ability of the creative team to achieve just this.

The Shrapnel premise is a reasonably familiar one, set in a multi-planetary system where two classes of people exist – the elite, genetically modified ‘genotypes’ and the inferior, naturally-born ‘helots’. In brief, the governing Solar Alliance of Planets is executing a military takeover of the currently independent at least superficially class-free planet of Venus. The Venusians fight back, but without a professional fighting force of their own, the Government has to call on the general population to join the fight for freedom.

The book’s central protagonists, Stap, Jammer, and Samantha, are a team of miners and close friends drawn into the conflict. However, while Stap and Jammer sign up for combat duty, Sam has a hidden past (in addition to a psychiatrist hologram!) that compels her want to flee from the coming conflict as fast as possible. As I say, hardly the height of originality, and it seems fairly obvious that Sam is going to return as hero while revealing her past connections with the Alliance, but as a driving concept there are some interesting themes emerging which have the potential to develop an intriguing story.

Given writer Sherman’s army background, it is not surprising that there is a heavy military influence to this first instalment, although having said that the issue is actually very well balanced between these scenes and those focussed on building the central characters and developing the wider plot. Sherman’s dialogue is generally well-handled, bringing a strong but subtle sense of each character to the fore without labouring the point.

Where the scripting does fall down, however, is in enlightening the transitions between multiple scenes. The structure is sound and well thought through, introducing different elements and converging storylines at a nice pace, but with no captions to denote settings and timeframes, it is easy to get lost as the book jumps from one event to the next.

None of this is helped by the artwork. Superficially the detailed, painted style of Hutomo looks impressive, and there are some truly excellent set pieces throughout this book, but the sequential storytelling falls down in a number of places, and this, combined with the very murky colouring and heavy shadow employed throughout, all aversely affect the flow of the book. It is particularly difficult to make out different characters, which is especially confusing when these are just being introduced to the reader, and while in the battle sequences this chaos rather nicely depicts the realities of war, it all hinders the cohesion of the reading experience.

Despite the above, there is a lot of potential here, and once the characters become more familiar as the story progresses, I think this mini has the makings of something quite interesting, although I do hope there are a few more original plot twists along the way, as this could so easily fall into some rather generic genre tropes. For the fan of sci-fi comics and video games, this is definitely worth a look, and at $1.99 for nearly 50 pages of story, Shrapnel certainly represents good value for money, so even if this is not usually your thing, you could do worse than give this a try.

Rating: 7/10

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