Sunday Slugfest - Unit Primes: Volume 1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Michael Deeley, Kelvin Green, Jason Sacks
Michael Deeley

The Unit Primes are space-faring devices of unknown origin. They are made of wood and driven by steam, yet each possesses the power to destroy an entire planet. To every world they target, they deliver the message: “I am Unit Prime. The way must be made clear for The One.”

This is the story of four people who survived the Unit Primes. Harko, Alo, and Yiralo find a lifepod containing a young human boy named L-Bee. L-Bee reawakens Harko and Yiralo’s paternal instincts. But Alo, Yiralo’s husband, tries to remain cold as he focuses on solving the mystery of the Unit Primes. One day, the group reaches a planet targeted by a Unit Prime. Their evacuation attempt does not go well.

Well, this was a depressing story. Not to give away the ending, but it’s a very unhappy ending with little cause for hope. It looks like all life in this universe is going to be destroyed by the Unit Primes, and we’ll never know why.

Then again, the fact that I felt anything at the end of the story is a testament to the writers’ ability to involve the reader in the book. Paplham does a wonderful job writing the characters’ very emotional dialogue. Their complex motivations and feelings are revealed through their speech. You get the sense that they are real people and not just clichés. Alo’s cold manner is a defense against getting attached to people he thinks will definitely die. He may also be jealous of the attention L-Bee is getting from his wife. Harko’s humor and optimism hides a desire for revenge against the machines that killed his family. And L-Bee is that rare child character whose innocence is genuine and not cloying.

It is vital that a sci-fi comic create its universe and citizens visually. The fantastic must appear probable. Failing that, it has to look cool. Zumel and Dreier clearly spent a lot of time and effort crafting the characters’ spaceship. The walls are covered with instruments, monitors, and other signs of advanced technology. Personal items adorn the rooms, along with a thousand other details that result from living in one lace for so long. The ship looks and feels like a home. I also want to commend the artists for their work on Alo and Yiralo. The two aliens look alike in every respect but two: Yiralo has feminine lips, and Alo’s eyebrows are usually arched. That’s enough to tell them apart. It’s a simple device that could easily have been botched. Zumel & Dreier use it perfectly.

If I could change anything about the book, I would rearrange some panels to improve the flow of the story. I would also change the title. The story isn’t really about the Unit Primes. I’d go with “The Survivors,” or maybe “The Found Family”; something that better represents the book’s cast. Finally, I hope the book is published in color. My review copy is in black & white. I understand if the final version is printed that way, but I think colors would improve the story.

I can recommend this book for anyone who enjoys science fiction that focuses more on human feelings than fantasy and technology. This is a story about survivors, people lost and alone, united in their need for companionship. For most of them, their journey comes to an end. I won’t lie to you: this is a very sad story. But feeling sad is better than feeling nothing. I’m looking forward to seeing Unit Primes in print as a graphic novel.

Kelvin Green

In Unit Primes, four aliens are brought together by the destruction of their homeworlds by the titular machines and together travel the spaceways searching for answers to the mysteries behind the strange doomsday devices.

But this graphic novel is not really about that at all. The science fiction elements are merely a backdrop for what turns out to be an intense character drama concerned with people and relationships and how death affects them, and it makes for an absolutely cracking read.

The characters are complex and interesting, with distinct dreams, desires and motivations; they’re wonderfully well written individuals with a great deal of depth to them, and I think that aliens or not, they're probably some of the most realistic personalities I’ve seen in comics in a long time. The relationships between the characters are similarly vivid and well-realised; for example, the human L-Bee is adopted by the maternal Yiralo, while her husband Alo barely tolerates the child. Meanwhile, ship’s pilot Harko takes on an older brother type role for L-Bee and contrasts with the couple with his more light-hearted and carefree attitude. This good solid character work forms an impressive core for the book, and as bonds are formed and broken and a broad range of emotions and feelings are explored, it’s difficult to not get swept up.

The focus on the characters and their interactions means that certain elements get overlooked a tad, particularly the central mystery of the Unit Primes themselves. These strange devices make for an evocative and imaginative science fiction concept; interstellar death machines of unknown origins, apparently fashioned from wood and powered by steam. They’re such an interesting idea that it’s something of a shame that their mystery goes unresolved, and yet it doesn’t really matter; although you could conceivably call Unit Primes bad science fiction for not properly exploring the concepts it introduces, it more than makes up for any such perceived faults with such strong characters.

Also impressive is the art. While there are a couple of panels here and there which could have benefited from some more time and thought expended, on the whole this is a good looking book. The black and white art is intelligently done and obviously tailored to the format; there is never a sense that this is just uncoloured art. Frederico Zumei does a great job of drawing whatever the script throws at him, from the horrors of a Unit Prime's attacks on a homeworld, to quieter and happier moments as the ersatz family interact. In an interesting parallel to the writing, the art seems geared more to conveying emotions and personalities than in creating evocative science fiction designs. Spaceships and worlds are given functional and unambitious appearances, and character designs are similarly low-key, almost unimaginative; Harko’s character design is rather too anthropomorphic and as a result is a bit bland, but Alo and Yiralo are more interesting, and Zumei does well to convey their personalities visually considering their inhuman appearance. Science fiction is a genre exceptionally well suited to comics (something the Europeans and Japanese already know, but the American industry can be a bit slow about these things...), as the wild visuals the genre often demands can be presented with few of the limitations imposed in other mediums. So it is a bit of a shame that more isn’t done with this in Unit Primes, but again, it’s the characterisation and storytelling that impress and the unrealised visual potential of the setting is only missed a little.

This is an impressive piece of work; as an independent publication, even more so. Perhaps it doesn’t make the most of its genre trappings, but with characters and relationships as well written as this, it’s a little churlish to complain that the space ships aren’t flashy enough. Recommended.

Jason Sacks

This is a sweet and original graphic novel that's well worth your time. After the unspeakably evil Unit Primes destroy his home planet, a young boy is adopted by three alien creatures who are trying to learn about the Unit Primes. The three aliens form a familial bond with the boy, a bond which is tempered in sadness by the ongoing threat they all face.

The approach of the creators to this graphic novel is quite unique. The universe faces a great threat, but the emphasis of the book isn’t the threat itself. Instead, the threat is always hovering in the background. The threat of the Unit Primes is a maguffin, a plot point that allows the creative team to focus on the relationship that they really care about. Palpham and Zumel care much more about the boy, L-Bee, and the aliens, Harko and the married couple Alo and Viralo. Alo and Viralo virtually adopt L-Bee as the son they never had after rescuing him, and it’s the warm and charming family relationship between these characters that gives this graphic novel its emotional depth.

It’s that depth that gives the team’s desperate plan for defeating the Unit Primes its poignance. The group of characters feel they have to try to save as many people as they can from the next planet that the evil being is about to attack. However, the attempt goes terribly wrong and has horrifying consequences for the group of friends. In the end, sad moments occur but growth has also happened. The characters grow and change in real ways through the course of this book.

The artwork in this book wonderfully conveys the emotion of the story. It's got to be hard to depict alien creatures‘ emotions, but the team of Zumel and Dreier are up for the challenge. The art is better than what you might find in more mainstream books, and you can clearly see the commitment to the work in every panel. This is one of the treats of reading independent comics: because the creators are working just for themselves, they often pour a tremendous amount of heart and soul into each panel.

Heart and soul are words that define Unit Primes. Readers can see heart and soul both in the story and in the commitment that the creators give it. I hope we get to see more of this story in the future.

Community Discussion