War, as they all say, is hell. So it follows that a war in space would also be hell. (Umm, notwithstanding a war a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, of course.)
Harlan Ellison has never believed in that space fantasy stuff. He’s a man with a complex, nuanced view of the world as it really is, and a view of how a space war might actually affect people, filtered through his thoughtful perceptions of the world. Ellison smart enough and tough-minded enough to know that even in deep space, when men fight the Kyban in glorious rocketships, war will still be hell. Men, women, humans, Kyban and a million other alien races will still be ravaged by the horrors of war. Atrocities will still happen. Heroes will become heroes only by accident, or through misunderstanding. Small, unexpected incidents will either save and destroy peoples’ lives. Ellison knows that war changes everything and that a society will never be the same after a war.
There’s a new edition out of Ellison’s terrific 1980s graphic novel Night and the Enemy and it’s really worth checking out. Published by Dover, and with smartly created and empathetic art by the excellent Ken Steacy, this is a remarkable, intriguing and sometimes sobering graphic novel that kept me spellbound.
Ellison is also very well-known for his idiosyncratic ways, which often include blazing his own paths on things. For instance, he was a pioneer in creating audio books of his stories, recording records of him reading his stories and releasing them as special limited edition items. When it comes to comics, Ellison has always had a complicated relationship. His rare comics releases have been intriguing items, from a two-part Hulk story that showed the Green Goliath love at the heart of the atom to Ellison’s own comic book/graphic novel Dream Corridor that presented adaptations of some of his classic short fiction (that book fell victim to the 1990s comic industry bust).
In Night and the Enemy, Harlan Ellison and Ken Steacy take a rather unique approach to the storytelling: all the text in the stories is typeset, giving each tale the feeling of reading an illustrated novel as much as reading a graphic tale. That technique provides an interesting effect, sometimes distancing the reader from the story while sometimes adding more context to the story being told. It also causes the reader to flow through the pages differently than they otherwise might do. He or she lingers, takes in the words, feels a different sort of tension than usual between image and text.
The page above from the first story in this collection, “Run for the Stars”, is a good example of what makes the book both succeed and fail. We’re all used to computer text for word balloons these days, but the text in these panels is in a more distancing font than usual. It appears like a book font instead of a comic font and thus pushes the reader away slightly. Though the events in the panels are shocking, we feel a bit of distance because of the way that the team presents the words.
We also feel a bit of distance due to Steacy’s choice of colors and the way he renders images. Suffused by claustrophobic warm colors and a feeling of being boxed in, this page conveys the horror of Benno Tallant’s situation in a way that deepens our fear about what is happening to him. The threats in the final panel on this page have more weight because of the way that the page is colored.
Thus, even when Steacy and Ellison present a more conventional page, like the one above, they still leave the reader embedded in their fear and horror through smart use of blacks and dark colors. Through the image in the final panel on this page is a bit of a cliché, it still works due to the ideal combination of elements. Color combines with light which in turn combines with a look of fear on Tallant’s face to convey a perfectly composed scene.
As the story wraps up, it expands larger and larger, so that we start to see the enormity of the war and the way that one man’s destiny would emerge from his story. Ellison ends the story with lines that send chills:
He didn’t hate anyone now. He was above that. He turned away from the port and looked about at the ship that would mold his destiny, knowing that he was free of Deald’s World, free of the dust. He needed neither now. Now he was God on his own. Now he would get even.
From a man who breaks free of dust in “Run for the Stars” to a man who crash lands in dust in “Life Hutch.” This second story is a strong contrast from the first. It’s the story of a man who falls to a planet that has a “life hutch”, or safe area, where he can wait for a rescue. However, it’s a bit ironic to call this a life hutch because fighting man Terrence soon finds himself under attack by a malfunctioning robot that had been set up to maintain the safe area and provide assistance but instead attacks mindlessly.
This story is as claustrophobic as the first story, and it benefits equally well from the split between words and pictures. In fact, for a tale like this one, where so much of the drama happens internally to Terrance, it’s easy to see how it works better by providing his thought processes abstracted from the tangible events that happen to him. Comics are notably weak with long-winded internal monologues; this arrangement neatly side-steps that problem by having them in different fragments.
It’s a tribute to the smartness of Steacy’s art that a page like the one above works so well. It gives readers the feeling that we are thinking along with Terrance, and shows the slowness of time passing as he considers how to escape what seems like his inevitable fate. When the story discourses into story tangents before exploding into the exciting final scene, there’s a deep feeling of relief that’s emphasized by the way that Steacy and Ellison present this story.
“The Untouchable Adolescents” is not a claustrophobic story, at least on the surface. Steacy chooses a gaudy color palette for this story, perhaps as a way of emphasizing the seeming youth of the alien race that the humans find, or perhaps to serve as a subtle bit of foreshadowing for the incredibly dark ending of this story. The apocalyptic-seeming colors in this story act as an indication for the cataclysm to come.
The subtext of this story is especially interesting. I kept wanting to read “The Untouchable Adolescents” as an anticolonial parable in which the natives are savage and wise and the colonizers are arrogant and stupid. But Ellison, smart and innovative writer that he is, refuses to play by those sorts of rules. He won’t be put in any conventional box, and this story shows that he’s looking to play in more complex and interesting ground. That thematic density makes the ending of this story even more devastating because of its utter senselessness.
The Ellison/Steacy collaborations wrap up with “Sleeping Dogs”, which places a strong female military officer in opposition with a stern, angry and pig-headed male officer as they try to discover the secret of some strange buildings on a crucial alien planet. Steacy draws both characters very well, with their emotions shown in a ways that place the reader inside their heads. As the most comic-like of these stories, Steacy is asked to convey more of the tale. He does so with subtle indicators and smart panel arrangements.
This page is an especially nice indicator of the battle between the two characters. It’s smart panel design to set the two people on opposite sides of the page from each other and to contrast their faces in close-up. Steacy fills this story with scenes like this one, and that design gives the story a sense of symmetrical design, a feeling of elements in counterpoint until the final two pages when the story breaks out of that tight confine and declares a winner. It’s lovely work: Steacy places forces in physical opposition before he finally gives readers catharsis at the end by breaking out of the rhythm that readers have gotten used to.
The team includes two text-only stories by Ellison, and the last story is especially devastating. “The Few The Proud” uses colloquial language to convey a horror that could only happen in war and a parable about when it is too early to declare young men heroes.
Night and the Enemy is a relatively slim book, but those 100 or so pages pack a very strong punch. Ellison and Steacy deliver an outstanding meditation on the hellishness of war, even in outer space, and sparks the most dystopian thought of all: no matter where we go, humans are always human and we always bring our hells with us. Those are sobering thoughts indeed.