By Zack Quaintance — Space, but if it was haunted. This was clearly the pitch for writer John Layman’s new Image book with artist Afu Chan, Outer Darkness. I don’t want to call this a well-trodden concept, but it’s definitely one we’ve seen, in a number of mediums. It is not, of course, the elevator pitch that determines the ultimate success of a story. No, it’s how the story, characters, pacing, and other elements are carried out. With all this in mind, Outer Darkness is exceedingly well-done.
Let’s talk about the setup and plot: our story opens with our protagonist captaining a cargo vessel through an unmapped necro-storm, as members of his crew succumb to all manner of paranormal possession, despite having five on-board holy men and exorcists (which we are left to infer is common in this world). The hero makes a difficult decision to jettison the ship’s cargo—a move later has him facing jail time—to save the lives of those on his ship, and soon we flash forward weeks to find him at an intergalactic bar.
The real hero’s journey then kicks off in earnest when an old and powerful friend shows up with a call to action: avoid the aforementioned jail time and get his pension/insurance back by agreeing to one last nine-month mission to the farthest reaches of the Sagittarius Quadrant, and beyond. This all adds up to a tight construction for the first issue of a new sci-fi book, giving us readers a clear and orienting idea of this series’ elements, from its world to its characters to its humor and tone.
Simply put, Outer Darkness is solidly-built and charaming from its start, doing the tip-toe first issue necessities of getting across exposition without sacrificing pacing or intrigue. In fact, with the one-two punch this year of Leviathan and Outer Darkness, I think it’s safe to say John Layman has established himself as one of the most adept writers as it pertains to launching fully-formed creator-owned books. With Outer Darkness, Layman and collaborators get first issue basics done so fast and effectively they have time left to flesh out the world, hinting at a deeper personal motivation for the main character while also showing the dark cost of space travel, neither of which are points I’ll reveal here, since I absolutely recommend checking out this comic.
The artwork is also exceedingly strong. Afu Chan borrows from a number of different aesthetics—afro futurism, United States Navy, religious customs—to forge a look for the clothes in this comic that feels novel and new. Chan’s design of space vessels is also strong, keeping things like cargo ships and transports utilitarian, while making the central ship stylish and unique, akin to if Star Trek’s Enterprise had a baby with Sonic the Hedgehog. Chan is quite talented and if this first issue is any indication, he and Layman are a great creative fit.
Overall: A solid and charming debut. In the back matter of the comic, writer John Layman describes Outer Darkness as the distillation of what I love the most. Science fiction, horror and weird shit. Well, I like those things too, so sign me up to journey into space with this one. 9.0/10
Outer Darkness #1
Writer: John Layman
Artist: Afu Chan
Letterer: Pat Brosseau
Publisher: Image Comics
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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase. He also writes comics and is currently working hard to complete one.