by Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!
Not a lot of fiction gives you a mission statement quite as clearly as Star Trek. In just a few sentences (and fragments), the opening credits establish the where, what, and why of what of an entire universe, providing fuel for decades of new iterations and reimaginings. The mission statement for Outer Darkness is a bit more complicated, building on what writer John Layman calls “dramas set on spaceships” (in the grand tradition of Star Trek), while also folding in “outer space sci-fi horror,” for which he has charmingly few examples. The result is something obviously more difficult to pin down than that clear logline of Star Trek, but while this issue doesn’t quite cover its entire mission, it absolutely articulates its storytelling sensibilities, as Layman and artist Afu Chan make some distinctive choices to broadcast their tone.
The issue starts with our protagonist, Joshua Rigg, looking out into, well, space.
We don’t need to be told it’s the final frontier — we’re quickly oriented to how bizarre and unpredictable space is in this series, as many of Riggs’ crew are abruptly possessed by malevolent spirits. But again, the point here is less what is happening so much as it is how it’s happening. We don’t yet have a lot of context for how to react to those possessions, but through the course of the scene, Layman and Chan settle us into a comfortable moment-to-moment rhythm as we follow the drama on the bridge. This fully invests us in the scene as Riggs and his trusted right-hand man (who is at least partially modeled on Moby Dick‘s tattooed Queequeg, unless I’ve completely missed my guess) stage a mutiny in order to save the crew from certain doom.
But then we smash cut to three weeks later as Riggs is awaiting a court-martial and drowning his sorrows in a bar. We don’t need to see how the rest of that scene played out to understand the situation he’s in now, and the abrupt shift in tone from high tension to low squeezes a laugh out of that inevitable progression. Layman and Chan do something similar at the end of that scene, after Riggs has been offered a gig as the Captain of his old ship. When does he start? Jump to:
Here again, we’re not missing any of the story, but cutting out the perfunctory bits manages to turn simple plot points into goofy little jokes.
Layman and Chan pull this off once more before the issue is done, though the last time the joke is on us, as the abrupt shift in tone is both horrifying and gross. These are telling moments, not because they reveal a great deal about the story to us, but because they reveal a great deal about how the story is going to be told. We’ve only gotten a little taste of this world, but Layman and Chan have been crystal clear about their storytelling sensibilities. I feel like I know exactly what this series is about, even as I have no idea what it’s about. The clarity of the style here gives me confidence that the plotting and motivations will fall into place as the series rolls along. In the meantime, we have more than enough information to appreciate the shaggy charm of this series.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?