Finally a gorgeous epic Sci-Fi thriller/adventure graphic novel series all space opera fans (Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Expanse and etc.) can sink their teeth into!
Orbital plays in the 23rd century and follows the story of two rookie special agents of an ancient, intergalactic UN like organization (the Confederation). Caleb a human and Mezoke a Sadjarr. Two species that have only recently joined the Confedration’s policing/intelligence/diplomatic service the IDO. Pairing Caleb and Mezoke together is a historic partnership because humanity has made many enemies due to its reputation as an aggressive and underdeveloped species and the Sandjarrs have always kept out of intergalactic politics. That is until humanity fought a genocidal war of aggression/extermination against the Sandjarr race.
Throw into this tension continued human xenophobia, a dangerous terrorist organization (ISOS) and an alien scheme to wipe out humanity and you have yourself the makings of a deep action/political thriller.
A Non-Utopian Future, Dark Conspiracies and Fights Over Real Estate
With this background Orbital starts with Caleb and Mezoke’s first mission for the IDO, prevent war from breaking out between the Jävolds and Human colonists over possession of the mineral rich world of Senestam. When three Jävold scouts go missing in Senestam’s trelium mines, radical political forces on Jävold call for war unless the colony is immediately handed over and its Human population expelled. Only, the colonists aren’t planning to back down without a fight and it looks like they have help.
Scars is a wild ride and introduction into the world of Orbital. I love it. This isn’t the standard fare of optimistic sci-fi tropes that TV has feed us over the last few decades. And yet, it isn’t a dark pessimistic story either.
We see the origins of Calebs’ strong desire to be an IDO agent and his dedication to the Confederation when his parents and 120,000 (can’t get my head around that number!) other people are brutally murdered by ISOS terrorists 15 years ago at a pro intergalactic integration/peace rally in Prague.
We see the prejudice that humans face from other species but also see that humanities own prejudices, bigotry and xenophobia is alive and well in the 23rd century. No utopian version of ‘perfect’ humans spreading their superior progressive culture throughout the universe here! Just people carrying their baggage to the stars and behaving like humans have for thousands of years.
And we are introduced to the mysterious Sandjarr and the even more enigmatic Mezoke. Few before the war, Humanities greed fueled genocide against them has pushed the Sandjarr to the edge of extinction. Mezoke is quiet but not tragic. She very clearly demonstrates her character by saving Calebs life early on in Scars.
In fact it is clear that both Caleb and Mezoke are going to work together in a mature way and will do what it takes to make their partnership work. The ambiguity of Sandjarr genders leads to a funny conversation between Caleb and a human bartender at the Orbital.
Which is another very cool concept in this series. The Orbital is a huge city trapped in a pocket dimension that can be accessed by ‘crop gates’ statically placed throughout the galaxy. From here the Confederation promotes peace and trade between its 500 plus civilizational members.
An Epic Setup a la Babylon 5/Expanse
Pellé and Runeberg manage to fit all this background information into the first 30 pages of Orbitals 1: Scars and then launch us into what appears to be a simple border dispute that is threatening to get out of hand in Orbital 2: Ruptures.
Human miners want to keep the home they have sacrificed so much for but are keeping a dark secret. The Jävold are a peaceful people, whipped into xenophobia and anger by a very convenient economic crisis and Machiavellian political manipulation. Some sort of foreign power seems to behind their unrest and willingness to go to war over Senestam.
But there is hope for Humans and aliens alike. Not everybody is willing to let fear and prejudice lead them to a war. Some characters are deeply conflicted and are just trying to do what they think is best for their people.
We see the beginning of a bond of trust and mutual respect form between Caleb and Mezoke. We meet pilot Nina Liebert and her biological ship Angus that may or may not be one of the neuronome living ships declared illegal by the Confederation centuries ago.
It’s at this point that we really get to see the huge scale and detail of the story Pellé and Runeberg are building for Orbital. While the story is an epic adventure masquerading as a thriller, sometimes it reminds me more of Babylon 5 than any other TV space opera.
There a plots and schemes in the background that are just hinted at. As you go on to later volumes and story arcs of this series, things become clearer but you still have to read between the lines to get a glimpse at the deeper story lines that move the different players in Orbital.
The Art & Writing of Orbital: Scars & Ruptures
Serge Pellé’s art is beautiful. It’s his unique attention to detail that makes Orbital come to life. Visually it’s unique and may be very different from other graphic novels you have read. Especially if your experience has mainly been with American and Japanese graphic novels.
Unlike their American and Japanese counterparts, most Franco-Belgian artists use colors to create shadow and light effects instead of black and white shading. And Pellé follows this tradition wonderfully. The art is gritty and complements the story really well in large parts thanks to the dark color pallet Pellé uses.
Backgrounds tell a story. Human technology is utilitarian and stark, more advanced alien technology is sleek and beautiful. The character designs are unique as well, especially the alien races.
There is no confusing Sandjarrs with humans or Jävolds. That’s something I really loved about the TV show Babylon 5 and Orbital captures it masterfully –the aliens actually look alien, not like blue humans with bad theater prosthetics (which can be charming… sometimes).
Sylvain Runberg writing is top-notch. He builds a world in the far future that is believable. People are not perfect. All life forms seek power, if it be for reasons of greed or to protect what they care about. Caleb fights for his believes that Humanity needs the Confederation to grow into something nobler.
But he is also a man haunted by his parents murder, the shame of the Sandjarrs genocide and his obsession to make his parents dream of a better world a reality. Mezoke shows her strength of character when confronted with the bigotry and racism of the human settlers on Senestam. She is willing to go to take great personal risks in order to get the job done but is also very astute at reading people.
The factional politics in Orbital 1: Scars and Orbital 2: Ruptures are also one of the highlights of this series. Runberg shows how politicians in the Confederation and on Jävold maneuver and manipulate situations and people in order to get what they want. He shows as the dangers of populism and fanaticism.
Nobody is innocent in this world. The Human colonists are former soldiers of the Human-Sandjarr war, a political embarrassment and shame that Earth would like to go away.
Translation is always a concern for me when dealing with non-English language comics but as always British publisher Cinebook has knocked it out of the park. There are no awkward stumbles in the dialogue and all visual text effects have been translated into English.
Orbitals story arcs come in two volumes of approximately 60 pages each. The first story arc in Orbital 1: Scars and Orbital 2: Ruptures comes highly recommended. There are currently 5 volumes of Orbital available in English from Cinebook’s.
Orbital is an excellent read for readers looking for a very entertaining but mature thriller adventure with realpolitik undertones set against a science fiction backdrop.
PS: If you want to read a deep action/political thriller with a sci-fi setting get yourself a copy of Orbital 1: Scars here and Orbital 2: Ruptures here. So worth it for sci-fi fans and anybody who wants to diversify their reading!