Editor's Note: Soleil: Universal War One #1 arrives in stores Wednesday, July 16.
In the latest of Marvel's line of imports from French comics publisher Soleil, a futuristic gang of misfits must band together to fight some sort of unknown cosmic funny business. It sounds like The Dirty Dozen meets Star Trek, but it's actually Universal War One, a popular series that began in 1998. Creator Denis Bajram constructs an interesting future in which humanity has colonized the galaxy and is menaced by some sort of space-time anomaly (known as "The Wall") which has blocked off half the solar system and disrupted interplanetary travel. Scientists have been investigating the phenomenon, but they are at a loss as to what exactly is going on and if there is anything to be done about it.
However, all that is background for the main characters of the story, the members of Purgatory Squadron, a motley crew who are stationed on a ship near the Wall and assigned to help investigate it. Each of them has a dominant personality trait; there's the Brash Hothead, the Coward, the Feisty Chick, and the Irascible Genius, among others. Bajram does try to flesh them out a little, but there's not too much there beyond what we learn the first time we see them.
Interestingly, Bajram initially kind of throws all this information at us, almost expecting us to just catch up as the story goes along. It's kind of exhilarating, when it's not too confusing. Unfortunately, he soon backs off of that initial impulse and doles out several scenes of pure exposition, with characters explicitly spelling out their motivation for the audience and helpfully informing each other of facts that they should be well aware of, just so the audience can understand what is going on. Here's a typical monologue:
"Hey, father of mine, do I have to remind you that it's you, the admiral, who authorized June Williamson to form 'Purgatory Squadron,' and that I gladly became her second-in-command when she made the offer? If you don't like what we're doing, you shouldn't have opened that door twenty years ago. Aren't you the one who kept June from being tried by court martial? And why? Because her insubordination saved the lives of your wife and daughter during the great Titan mining riots!Who talks like that, outside of awkwardly-written action movies or soap operas? It's disappointing, since Bajram had seemed to trust the readers to grasp what was going on pretty well by that point.
But maybe it's just the expectation of setting up his world so he can tell the story he wants to tell. He obviously has big plans for some epic conflicts and big revelations about what is going on on the other side of the Wall (judging by the self-aggrandizing interview he gives at the end of the issue), so it might end up being easy to let him off the hook if the story develops well beyond its clunky beginnings. And the exquisite artwork will certainly help in that matter. The sweeping space vistas and intricate sci-fi technology are incredible to look at, with some really amazing images (an event in the midst of Saturn's rings makes for an especially incredible page) popping up every few pages or so. The character work is pretty good too, with some nice, moody shadows blanketing the faces of the crew as they bicker and argue their way through their jobs.
Bajram does make some odd choices here and there, such as the quotes from Genesis that begin each chapter, modified to seem more "sciencey." An example: "And God separated the Light from the Darkness. God called the light 'Energy' and the Darkness he called 'Space-Time.'" Weird. And then there's a big plot point in the issue, in which a character tries to rape one of his fellow crew members. This kicks off another round of exposition, as we learn all the characters' backstories, but the act itself is left troublingly unpunished, at least for now. Rape is a tricky element to include in any story, and to toss it out so casually here is a poor choice on Bajram's part. Hopefully he'll be able to address it more fully in future issues.
So it's kind of hit-and-miss, overall. If you like big ideas (and the promise of even bigger ones) and pretty pictures, you might be able to let those elements gloss over the storytelling weaknesses, or at least help you ignore them until you see what happens next. The series is definitely worth paying attention to, if only because it's all too rare to see European comics get imported to the United States. Here's hoping the next one won't have to settle for a qualified recommendation.
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