Universal War One #1

Historically, European comics have had a hard time getting a foothold in the American market. Although manga has broken through in a huge way, the US comics industry is primarily a superhero zone, and the distribution method of choice is 22-page monthlies ("floppies"/ "pamphlets") collected into 6-8 issue trade paperback collections. For reasons that escape me, the European method of releasing longer graphic albums in genres other than "men in tights" has had little success on this side of the pond.

It's not from lack of quality. There's some good stuff that has reached these shores in those short windows when an American company had tried to broaden their readership. Way back in the halcyon days of 1999 Dark Horse struck up a deal with Italian company Bonelli to publish digest-sized reprints of Dylan Dog, Nathan Never, and Martin Mystery, but they flopped and disappeared from the shelves after six volumes apiece. Humanoids and DC Comics had a brief alliance in the mid-2000's, and DC also made a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get Rebellion's impressive 2000 AD catalog on US bookshelves.

Call me an incurable cynic, but I'm not sure how Marvel thinks their new arrangement to reprint Soleil material is going to break the losing streak. So far the material looks good, but to my mind the failure of the previous ventures can't be chalked up to quality, which was always high. But none of these had enough sales to thrive, and I wonder why Marvel thinks their Soleil books will succeed where others did not. It's not that I'm rooting against them, in fact I very much would like to see other genres outside of superheroes in the US. It's just that history suggests the odds are long.

I sampled the first issue of Sky Doll when it was released a few months ago, and found it enjoyable but not enough so to add to the ol' pull list. I certainly admire Marvel's balls in selecting a story that so blatantly lampoons America's contradictory obsessions with religious dogma and porno, and the artwork is terrific, but I wasn't enthralled enough with Noa as a character to invest in the rest of the series.

Now Universal War One, on the other hand, is right up my alley: Space fleets, borderline personalities, unchecked mega-corporations and a helluva BIg Dumb Object. Sign me up!

French creator Denis Bajram envisions a future 100 years hence where humanity has spread across the solar system in massive artificial gravity enabled spaceships, colonizing even the furthest planets and moons. It's not entirely clear how he expects us to advance so far technologically in just a century, but what is apparent is that in this future society, militaristic white men are in the driver's seat (just like now) and farm out the plum development gigs to powerful corporations (just like now).

Then a very big something appears to mess up their carefully maintained status quo, a massive black sphere, three billion kilometers in diameter, suddenly appears in space, seeming to emanate from the central point of Oberon, moon of Uranus. The gravity pull of "the Wall", as it's dubbed, is so intense that not only do probes sent in not return, they can't even send any signals back. Oberon is a holding of the Colonization Industrial Companies, but their reps claim ignorance.

This, to coin a phrase, is a job for June Williamson and her squad of ne'er do well pilots, the Purgatory Squadron.

Twenty years ago, during an uprising on Titan, Williamson commited career suicide by refusing orders to cut down a village of women and children refugees. As luck would have it, two of those survivors happened to be the wife and child of a fleet admiral, who intervenes on her behalf. Now the daughter, Kate Von Richtburg is June's second-in-command of a squad of misfits with a last chance at redemption.

And what a squad it is! The fractured personalities Williamson has cobbled together include the reckless, the cowardly, the perverse and the violent. Think Wedge Antilles' X-Wing Rogue Squadron crossed with Lee Marvin's Dirty Dozen. It's clearly an uphill struggle to keep these loose cannons in line; in the first issue each continues to exhibit the deviant personality flaws that got them in trouble in the first place. But in contrast to the unimaginative bureaucracy of the military, these anti-heroes may just be non-conformist enough to actually solve the puzzle of the wall.

As intruiging a set-up as this is, the artwork is even better. In the European albums, quality is stressed over quantity, and while American artists are putting the pedal to the metal to churn out a minimum 22 pages a month, artists like Bajram clearly have the time to really draw in great detail and it shows in the ship designs and the backgrounds. Even if the book hadn't been translated to English I could spend a half-hour poring over Barjam's intricate panels.

It the story falls down a little bit, it's in some of the dialogue, which reads a little more "comic-bookular" than a writer might be able to get away with in a prose novel. Also some of the scenes of conflict come off too melodramatic, particularly one far-fetched scene where a butthead Colonel puts down the theories of Ed Kalish, one of June's men, despite the fact that Kalish was the director of the Fleet's Physics Research Division before he got in trouble. Also, there is a pretty sappy encounter between Kate and her father, which has dialogue like this:

"You can give your scientist the green light to pursue his project."

"Thanks, Dad. But, you know, what I really wish is that you'd give me the green light to live my own life."


But I can't give UW1 too much flak, it might not be captial-L literature, but issue 1 has pulled me in with an intruiging premise, compelling characters and great art. And by the end of the first book, we haven't even seen what's beyond the wall yet! These comics were originally published in 1997, but I haven't read any more about the story beyond what's presented in this first issue. But with a name like Universal War One, I don't think the answer will disappoint.

Although I haven't seen issue 2 yet, I believe it is already on the shelves. If you see them out there, buy 'em both. At first $5.99 might seem like a steep price tag, but issue 1 at least has 46 of story, which means the per-page price is more or less in line with regular monthly Marvels. If you are a SF fan, and want to see Marvel's partnership with Soleil succeed, vote with your wallet and enjoy a fun comic from across the pond!

On a 1-10 scale I would rate Universal War One #1 an 8.5.

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