“I learn such a great deal from you. You are wise beyond my short years, you are strong and fierce in battle.
“But sometimes you act like a big dumb bug swinging your big dumb sword.”
A couple of years before I moved up to Wisconsin, a young woman I was close to decided one night to regale me with a description of the afterlife according to one Sylvia Browne. Browne was a so-called psychic and spiritual medium, the author of oodles of books, and would crop up on Larry King and Montel Williams’s shows when there was some sort of missing persons case and offer her “expert” predictions. I don’t recall much about her version of the afterlife, except that it seemed designed specifically to be comforting to boring people, basically “here, but nicer.” Honestly, my opinion is that if there is an afterlife, it had better be an interesting one. In a universe full of infinite possibilities, why would we — why should we — go from this mortal coil to something that’s just like here, but in a slightly better climate? Shouldn’t we have a whole different range of sensory inputs without our bodies? Shouldn’t our forms be something strange and malleable after we die, or maybe some kind of light or shadow? If it is as pablum as Browne sketched it, I can only hope that it’s a cover, the vision an exceptionally boring person with a poor idea of paradise sees because that’s the version he or she wants to see, and in reality it is something a little more prog rock, a little more strange vistas and colors we can’t even comprehend and a ruler above it all that our limited minds can’t even process.
I was thinking of this vision of beyond because the comic series I’m looking at today, Colonial Souls, manages a neat trick. Its creators managed to expertly target a kind of middle ground between the familiar and the unknown. It centers on what are described as a race of insect folks whose civilization is on its last legs. We follow the queen and her loyal retainer as they quest across space to seek souls for their unborn young. In days of old, their mighty empire would seize other lifeforms for this purpose; this led to war, hatred, strife, and ultimately this broken state of affairs. Their young queen seeks another way: investigating hauntings across the cosmos and harvesting troubled spirits to incarnate as her brood. The first issue offers two such episodes, and a series that just focused on that could easily have some legs. But instead, the next three issues of Colonial Souls instead track the growth of the young queen as her quest continues, from her idealistic youth to … well, where she ends up would be telling, but where the core concept is intriguingly alien, the arc of history that sweeps her up feels depressingly human.
And by this, I’m not knocking the book — no, the familiarity of that arc is part of its strength. Artist Andrew Maclean, along with colorist Pete Toms, produce worlds and sights that remind me, more than anything else, of Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and their many friends and collaborators’ Prophet — a universe that doesn’t look like anything around these parts. It’s as if the wilder creatures from the latter Star Wars trilogy were inhabiting a more technicolor version of the desolate places of the first, and without all those boring humans hanging around. The main aliens are referred to as “bugs,” but they look softer than that would suggest, have what look like fingernails — and for that matter, the queen’s three floppy hair/ear tendrils aren’t exactly bug-like. Kudos to whichever member of the team came up with the clever twist of anatomy that explains why the queen has what appears to be a human bosom; it’s shown five pages in, and it works for both the story and as a nod towards what that part of the human anatomy is actually for. They have clothes and swords and beds and such like we do, but the design and the priority on the soul hunting hook remind us that they’re not really like us. Those familiar elements give us an in, give us a way to relate to them even as we’re processing the differences. You look at something like Saga, or like one of the Transformers books, and those aliens are basically us in alien drag. Colonial Souls‘s aliens are a little farther out there — the arc of the story, the fate of those who live by the sword and trample the weak, is something we can relate to, but the details, the metaphysical sci-fi concepts both enrich that arc and also satisfy that itch for something a little less grounded.
The only knock I’d give Maclean is that sometimes the storytelling is a little rough around the edges; there are moments during action sequences, especially early on, where I’d find myself puzzling over how the “before” and “after” images related to each other, or how the blocking of the scene worked. Still, it’s the only knock; even from the start, his characters leap off the page, full of life and energy. Funny thing is, aside from those bits where the action gets messy, much of the book would probably make a kind of sense without the words, such is the cartooning on display.
I haven’t spoken yet of the book’s writer, Nolan Jones. If you know of him it’s probably from his role as one of the minds behind the virtual tabletop application Roll20, a program designed to make it that much easier for folks to play pen-and-paper role playing games over the internet. I know him, though, as a guy whose low opinion of the Cowboy Bebop English dub — and particularly Steve Blum’s performance as compared to Kouichi Yamadera’s as Spike Spiegel — hasn’t changed in over a decade. Nolan used to frequent the anime store I spent three years working at at when he was a teenager. We chatted. We hung out a bit. My pal Levi and I tried to recommend things to him. He’s not a close friend, but yeah, I’d call him a friend.
Given that, I’m so glad he knocked this one out of the park. What he’s done here, along with his masterful cohorts, is spin a tale almost like a fable, except that the creatures used to comment on our failings aren’t of this Earth. It’s cracking good sci-fi comics of the sort I kind of wish I had a physical copy to rack alongside many of those I’ve mentioned along the way. If you want to give it a look-see, visit colonialsouls.com; right now, its only available digitally, albeit in a wide variety of formats. Definitely worth the asking price. Click over and check it out.