Orbital Volume 1: Scars – Sci-Fi Interruptus.
Written by Sylvain Runberg, Art by Serge Pelle
It’s the 23rd Century and humankind has finally been admitted to an 8000 year old intergalactic multi-species alliance and even then only grudgingly – we’re somewhere between annoying simpleton cousin and nasty virus in their eyes. Of course, this is mostly our own fault, since one of our first acts upon getting hold of interplanetary craft a while ago was to slaughter, almost to extinction, the pacifist Sandjarr people once we’d realised their planet could be mined for good, old fashioned cash.
Part of this grudging acceptance of humankind is the graduation of the first ever human to join the Interworld Diplomatic Office (IDO); essential the universe’s peace-keeping force. The human in question is Caleb Swany. His partner in the IDO is another first for the alliance; Mezoke Izzua of the Sandjarr. It’s a controversial and important pairing designed to foster harmony between the two races but there’s many in the IDO who would dearly love to see it fail.
(Interworld Diplomatic Office graduation ceremony; does this human take this Sandjarr to be thy law enforcement representative? etc etc.)
Graduation over, Caleb and Mezoke are dispatched for their first mission; to keep war from breaking out between another one of those bloody troublesome human colonies and the indigenous Javlod race. The IDO wants the humans out, safely dispatched to alternative planets but the humans aren’t budging. So the alliance wanders in, destined to fail from the outset, since both humans and Javlod seem to have deeper motivations for their actions.
Orbital is very much classic European sci-fi comics. Huge ideas, huge artwork, that sort of thing. And as with a lot of huge sci-fi it lends itself rather well to lazy comparisons to sci-fi movies. Unfortunately this one has rather too much Star Wars Episode 1 for comfort, with too much emphasis on the set-up that essentially takes most of the book. There’s even one point when our pair of intergalactic ambassadors are venturing across the world they’ve come to in the hopes of negotiating a peace that I suddenly realised I’d seen it all before in the Phantom Menace when Obi Wan McGregor and Qui Gon Neeson wander through shot all diplomatic for about 10 seconds before they find the need to pull lightsabers and start decapitating stuff:
(When everyone’s pulling out guns, it’s safe to say your diplomatic mission may be failing somewhat. From Orbital 1: Scars.)
But the main problem I have with Orbital is that it really doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. After 41 pages of slow burn sci-fi political thriller that I was actually rather enjoying it all goes a little bit Aliens on us with the sudden appearance of some particularly nasty big pests called Stilvulls.
It’s a strange switch to pull and it doesn’t really work. Not least because we have just 5 pages to get used to the Stilvull threat before the book just stops dead. Volume 1 of Orbital is a mere 46 pages long and just as the interesting diplomatic introductory sections are over and done with and we’re about to have the loud, dramatic sci-fi battle it’s all over; to be continued in the concluding second book. Very frustrating. Sci-Fi interruptus is never nice.
(The Stilvulls attack the human colony, acting like Ridley Scott’s Aliens and looking remarkably like the squidy things from the Matrix. From Orbital 1: Scars.)
However, all of these criticisms can’t take away the fact that Orbital is actually rather an entertaining Sci-Fi thriller with a lot of good stuff on it’s pages. The initial terrorist attack witnessed by Caleb is a brilliantly paced slow build action sequence, the subsequent scene setting to establish the current political status quo in the alliance, the nicely worked visuals of the mission backstory as the IDO travels to the planet are amongst many really well done sequences and set-pieces. But it’s a book that can’t quite decide what it wants to be, as evidenced by the sudden, dramatic change of emphasis right at the end of volume one and I really don’t understand why Cinebook have decided to release Orbital as two seperate thin volumes. They’re very good at putting a couple of European albums together to make one thicker book and I think they should have done it here. Because 46 pages just isn’t enough to get much more than a frustrating sense of near enjoyment from Orbital. I’ll probably be back for volume 2 at some point but I feel it would have been so much more satisfying to have the whole thing here in one volume.