From the throne in the baroque city of Joanna, Papess Lodovica’s spiritual empire spreads the state’s power and influence to other worlds, converting or allying with other gurus and leaders as the situation requires. Casually existing alongside the denizens of the highly sanctimonious empire are a race of semi-aware female service robots called Sky Dolls. Filling the roles of hostesses, sex workers, and the lowly grunts of most businesses, they are passable as human but not given equal status in society. One such Sky Doll named Noa, through some mysterious connection with the ex-communicated Papess Agape, begins to become aware of her potential for full consciousness.
Sky Doll is an ongoing sci-fi comic book series from French book publisher Soleil with art, story and colors done by Italian duo Allessandro Barbucci and Barbara Canepa. While the story of robotics gaining consciousness is hardly new, Barbucci and Canepa managed to find a very creative way to put a new spin on this concept. By far the most brilliant part of this series is the setting in which our main robotic protagonist Noa begins to reach sentience. Barducci and Canepa took great pains in the development of the world through which Noa moves. Every empire built under the three main spiritual leaders, Lodovica, Agape, and Gaia, has its own blend of religiously influenced culture and art stratified between class and gender. So much detail put into the world building makes this sexually liberated but physically constrained alien society foreign, but familiar, and thereby even more enjoyable to get lost in.(Spoilers) Sky Doll‘s plot just kind of… happens. This is a series about the world of Sky Doll, rather than a story about Noa. While it’s established early on that Noa is headstrong for a Sky Doll, her go-with-it attitude makes her less than an active actor in her own life. Everything that pushes the plot forward relies on something being done to Noa rather than by her, with the drama emerging as we see her cope with the latest development. This seems to actually work in the plot’s favor surprisingly. With the influence of Agape pushing down on her mind in a very Voldemort-like way, it’s not unbelievable that Noa would be stumbling through life. The highly immersive world of Sky Doll also points out that Noa’s movements, as a servant and robot, are highly restricted so it’s not like she can leap into adventure without incurring serious consequences. But while Noa can’t take the initiative easily, her mind is free to ponder. This in conjunction with a team of artists that really know how to draw emotions, means that there are many great scenes of Noa simply off by herself.
Parisian and Italian comics unfortunately have been marginalized in the US comic industry, although not for lack of trying. In 2008 Marvel and Soleil formed a partnership to bring a variety of French mini-series to the US market. In addition to Sky Doll, other titles of particular interest from the Marvel and Soleil partnership included Ythaq and Universal War One.1 While a fun experiment that brought a line of consistently introspective hard sci-fi and sci-fi/fantasy into the States for a few short years, in 2010 most of the titles Marvel licensed from Soleil came to their conclusion without anything new being released to fill that sci-fi shaped hole in our hearts. At present the fate of the partnership between Soleil and Marvel remains in limbo. The English language rights to Sky Doll have likewise lingered in copyright purgatory.2
Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception of Sky Doll when it first hit American comic book shops, there was a reasonable concern over what kind of success this and the rest of the Soleil publications would have after Marvel’s lukewarm success into reprinting Humanoids titles through the Epic Comics imprint during the 80s and 90s.3 And rightly so. Marvel didn’t count on Barbucci and Canepa’s plot becoming so… naked in its story. Sky Doll very quickly becomes R rated beyond Marvel’s standard “Mature Content” warning. With its intensely cynical examination of sex, religion, and political power-play, Barbucci and Canepa’s speculative sci-fi stands awkwardly apart with standard superhero and Michael Bendis crime-drama Icon Comics imprints Marvel is known for. This has unfortunately meant that Soleil has continued publishing the book well into volume 4 in French.4
Marvel and Sky Doll are as mismatched as Nickelodeon and Invader Zim. Both of these entertainment companies pride themselves on subversive material that can still work on a PG to hard PG-13 rating, but anything treading into R territory is best left to another company that will not be under so much pressure to appeal to the family-friendly crowd. Image Comics and Archaia Entertainment, with such titles as Saga and the Hawken franchise respectively, would both have been a more appropriate publishers given the themes and visuals of Sky Doll.
1The Comic Book Database. “Soleil (Marvel)”. n.d. Web. 11 June, 2015. http://comicbookdb.com/imprint.php?ID=394
2My Comics Shop.Com. “Comic books published by Marvel/ Soleil”. n.d. Web. 11 June, 2015. https://www.mycomicshop.com/search?pl=Marvel/Soleil
3McMillan, Graeme. i09: We Welcome the Future. “Is Sky Doll Too Hot for America?” 18 February, 2008. Web. 11 June, 2015. http://io9.com/357911/is-sky-doll-too-hot-for-america
4Good Reads. “Sky Doll: Sudra (Sky Doll, #4)”. n.d. Web. 11 June, 2015. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24860616-sky-doll