|Cover by James Stokoe|
Written and Lettered by Ed Brisson
Illustrated by Damian Couceiro
Colored by Michael Garland
Let's say you're convicted of committing a crime (I mean, you seem delightful, I'm thinking more of the readers of some other comics sites) and are sentenced to life in prison. Tough day. But, let's say they give you an alternative; rather than spend the rest of your life in prison, you can just spend the next 15 years fighting on behalf of your country's government in one or more wars. There's a decent likelihood you'll die, but you might make it back and still be able to salvage something of your life, that is if you can get over whatever trauma you experience in 15 years of warfare.
That extremely challenging situation is the basis for Cluster, a new series from comics creator Ed Brisson (Comeback, Sheltered), with art from Damian Couceiro and Michael Garland (on colors). Brisson and team deliver a compelling, eventful first issue that sets up the premise of the story and quickly ratchets up the tension by the end of the issue. There are a number of social, and political implications in the story, and my sense is that the book will explore those points but primarily aim to provide a tense, action packed science fiction adventure series.
In the future humanity has conquered, or is in the process of conquering, the stars. But we're not alone out there and in order to successfully terraform new worlds we need soldiers (i.e., bodies) to protect those worlds. So what do you do if there aren't enough soldiers? Enter the criminals, who are given the military service alternative (by working for a Halliburton-like company). This first issue introduces a few characters who've gotten to this situation in a few different ways. It's demonstrated from the storytelling that military service is a tough option; even when you're in combat, you're still treated like a prisoner. In fact, noncompliance equals death. So, the stakes could not be any higher. One also gets the sense that if the government isn't getting enough volunteers, that they'll be more than happy to trump up the charges against people in order to hit their quotas; so, petty offenses all of a sudden become life sentences, and military service starts to look like a better alternative. The first issue makes the stakes of the story clear, and shows the unjust nature of the world(s) in which these characters live.
But this doesn't feel like an overtly political book like Bitch Planet; all of the world building is important (and the unjust nature of the society is clear and nicely defined), but also feels like background to what should be an engaging action series. At the end of the first issue there's a mission that goes sideways (they always do, don't they?), and the characters are in a real life or death situation in a very hostile environment. This part of the issue felt like classic science fiction stories like Enemy Mine or other tales of people stranded on an alien world ready to kill them at every turn of the page.
The art in the story is engaging and vivid. Couceiro has a slightly exaggerated, very expressive style that works well for the alien setting in which most of the issue takes place. His action and fight sequences are clear and well-paced, and the action near the end of the issue has some real tension. Couceiro provides clear and effective acting and facial expressions for the characters in the story; in a science fiction setting where the characters are spending a lot of time acting and reacting to unusual or difficult circumstances, the expressiveness of the characters works well to show the impact of what's happening to them. The alien landscapes are weird, barren, craggy places.
The art is given great depth and sense of place thanks to Garland's work on colors. For the alien setting (both inside the prison and on the alien world), Garland uses a slightly exaggerated, vivid color palate which works well in the setting (a space prison/military base on an alien world). The sky and the land are truly alien colors, and the aliens themselves are rendered in unusual colors that single them out. Inside the prison, there are color shifts illustrating a ratcheting up of action or emotion (the colors here are an interesting contrast to Garland's work with Jonathan Hickman where he uses a more monochromatic style, such as in The Dying & The Dead). Brisson also ably handles lettering duties here, providing fun lettering for action and explosions, and other nice touches like an unusual font when one alien prisoner is speaking. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the terrific cover from James Stokoe.
This is an engaging first issue which ends on a dramatic note that sets the stakes for the series going forward. For a fun science fiction read with some political overtones, Cluster #1 is worth a look.