Boy, I've been looking forward to Shrapnel since Radical Comics released that cool, intriguing trailer a few months back. Okay, it looked a bit like a video game, but heavy metal mecha warfare, who can't get into that? In the intervening time, Radical has been promoting the heck out of it, sitting down for interviews with any site that'll have 'em. Hand it to these guys, they know how to market. Then you see the issue in question, a nice hefty size at 48 glossy pages for a stunning $1.99 cover price. How can you go wrong?
Well the short answer is: by having an uninspiring story and lousy art.
The issue opens with a military action that is depicted with such dark and murky art that it's hard to tell what the hell is going on. I certainly can't make out who is fighting whom, or who's winning. It's just flashes of armored soldiers, mechas and big guns and a lot of swirling flame. After 10 pages of this chaos, we find out that it isn't even a real battle we've been watching, but a virtual reality training exercise! Ultimately, we will realize that the marines training here aren't even the main characters of the story. In fact, they are invading world after world and crushing local resistance; in essence these are the bad guys. Why we want to watch generic hostile grunts practice fighting is beyond me.
Let me say up front, Bagus Homoto's paintwork is not to my taste at all. Pretty much the entire book is as dark and impenetrable as the opening. Even for scenes taking place in broad daylight, everyone is clouded in shadows and murk. Considering that faces don't look so swift even when we get a good look, maybe that's on purpose. Sometimes you have to take a hint from where the word balloons are pointing to figure out who's even speaking. It's a shame, the art has been so strong on previous Radical books that this is a huge letdown for me.
A quarter of the way into the book we are finally introduced to the protagonists, a trio of Venusian miners called Sam, Stap and Jammer. It's a somewhat trite scene in which the volatile Stap gets into a barroom brawl with a group of artificially-enhanced "Genotypes," as they argue back and forth whether naturally-born "helots" like Stap deserve equal treatment. It's exposition by insult, with lines like: "I'll break it down pre-school so you can understand-- we're smarter than you and that's why we run the system" or "Helots are just as good a human as any splicer. So I can't figure out pi to the last digit in my head, or run as fast as you, but at least I have some fricking manners!" Not sure I buy that anyone ever talks like that, but as least writer M. Zachary Sherman was able to set up the Genotype/Helot dichotomy for us.
By the end of the issue, I'm not sure how this class warfare even fits in. The main plot concerns the approaching invasion force of the Alliance, who have demanded the surrender of the local government of Venus. World by world, the Alliance has been assimilating the free colonies through brute force, and now have given the President of Venus 24 hours to surrender. Although the planet has no standing army, local genotypes and helots have just as much to lose if they don't volunteer to join the local militia to take a stand against the overwhelming numbers of space marines. Stap and Jammer answer the call, but Sam tries to talk some sense into them, failing to persuade them that they are going to die for a lost cause.
Sam is the female character depicted on the various covers for this series (don't ask me who or what "Aristeia" is; unless I missed a reference, the word isn't even mentioned), and really the only character who is given much depth in issue one. She's quiet, reflective and no-nonsense, and obviously there are some important events in her past which define who she is now. There's certainly some reason why she spends her off hours arguing with a psychological AI program versed in post-traumatic stress disorder, which she has elected to manifest as a hologram of her deceased little sister. When Stap accidentally begins floating off into space during a mining mishap, she reacts with much more command and unconscious training than a simple miner would be expected to have. The issue ends with her planning to flee in the face of the coming storm, but considering that she's wielding weaponry on the battlefield on most of the covers, one would assume that a change of heart is coming up.
Mark Long and Nick Sagan are credited as the co-creators of this book, but I'm not sure what that really means since neither of them wrote or drew it. Sherman uses some weird pacing and clunky dialogue, requiring characters to regurgitate information that the listener would already know, in order to explain the scenario to the reader. The characters other than Sam are pretty thin, and don't ask me why we spend so much time with the Alliance marines, unless the intention is to make some of them sympathetic in future issues, and not the steel-booted thugs everyone believes them to be. The art is just a mess, way too impressionistic and unappealing through most of the book. Honestly, any one of the many cover artists working on this series would be a better choice for the interiors. Radical, I still love you guys, but I think I'm gonna give this series a pass.