The concept of being an outsider is an important one in science fiction. The idea of being the only human in a group of aliens is possibly the most dramatic example of isolation imaginable. For writers of SF it presents a vast array of possibilities to explore not just the possibilities of alien cultures but also what it means to be human.
In Outsider, Jim Francis enters into this longstanding tradition with an epic of war and politics, depicted through attractive anime-style artwork. Francis obviously spends a considerable amount of time on both art and writing, and the world-building is extensive–but does the story hold up?
We open with a page of exposition: Humankind has finally gained access to the stars and immediately found itself with a choice: form an alliance with one of two warring powers, or be destroyed. The two warring powers, the Umiak and the Loroi, seem to be fighting for no readily discernable reason, and why no other race can remain neutral is not explained either. A bit more knowledge of the issues at hand would have been nice.
After the exposition, we get a view of the interior of the humans’ ship, the Bellarmine, and four members of its crew: Dylan Meconis, a hunchbacked stormtrooper, a skinny guy hugging a fire extinguisher, and our hero and narrator, Alexander Jardin. “At last, action!” Jardin says, which unfortunately sums up his character quite nicely: in all situations, Jardin behaves like a teenager, and treats reality like a game intended for his amusement. As he sees it, the entire situation is simple: they watch a battle between the two sides, and join up with the winner. I’m no military strategist by any means, but even I can see the gaping flaws in this idea. There are so many aspects to consider in this situation aside from which side has the tactical advantage. Taking sides based on the outcome of one battle could result in any number of problems down the road, especially considering that we don’t know anything about the politics of the situation. Thankfully, Jardin is not in command, at least for the moment.
In any case, he is cut short by hostile aliens blowing up the Bellarmine, which leaves Jardin adrift in space, where he doles out gratuitous and unnecessary internal monologue boxes. Imagine this sequence without them…is it not stronger? He vows revenge just as an alien ship swoops toward him, giving me a convenient opportunity to say a few words about the artwork.
Francis works with a combination of CGI and hand-drawing. CGI is usually reserved for backgrounds, in which it generally looks pretty nice, although in some cases, particularly those where too much of it is visible at once, it becomes a distraction. The success of the CGI but that depends on it not drawing too much attention to itself. Sometimes it just contrasts too much with the characters, and other times looks more like screenshots from Doom than it does like a believable spacecraft. Also, as seen in the above excerpt, sometimes the combinations are just odd. This sudden appearance of a CGI spaceship is visually jarring, and its relationship to the drawn character is hard to understand: is it a tiny spaceship flying toward a huge astronaut, or a huge spaceship flying away from a tiny astronaut? If it’s the latter, how did Jardin not notice it before now?
Despite these gripes, however, the CGI/drawn combination actually works quite well here in most cases, probably better than anywhere else I’ve ever seen it attempted. The concept is not without its pitfalls, but in general Francis pulls it off very effectively, and it definitely meshes well with the futuristic vibe he’s shooting for.
Back on the ship, Jardin awakes, spouting bubbles of strange internal monologue all the while. When he comes to, he sees that he is surrounded by blue aliens, the Loroi. Their uniforms make them resemble action figure robots, and they sport brightly-colored anime hairdos that seem at odds with the fairly original (not to mention more logical) concepts explored elsewhere. Jardin says that he represents humanity, which the Loroi mistake to be the name of the species, which in their speech balloons is sometimes (but not always) spelled “Humaniti.” Annoying as this misunderstanding is, Jardin never even tries to correct them on it.
The Loroi decide to probe Jardin’s brain, which I would assume must be a pretty risky move considering what I’ve seen of his psyche so far. This doesn’t work, but does lead Jardin to make an analogy to being “zapped with a cattle prod.” How does Jardin know anything about cattle prods? Are they still being used in the far future, and does he know what it feels like to be zapped by one? Jardin often has a tendency to make analogies like this one, and they don’t usually make a whole lot of sense. Granted, it would have been just as bad for him to say “it was like being zapped by a Plotarian Zap Beetle” or something equally ridiculous, but I doubt he would ever have even heard of a cattle prod, much less been zapped by one. An ideal solution probably would have been to skip the analogy completely; he looks pretty unhappy even without it.
When Jardin next wakes, he is in a cell, and believes the Loroi to have successfully downloaded his entire brain. He fears that now they will use him for “gruesome experiments,” apparently not realizing that prisoners of war are more typically used as bargaining chips and are much more valuable alive. How Jardin managed to get this far without even a basic knowledge of international politics is a mystery.
I don’t mean to keep picking on Jardin, though. As is probably apparent, I don’t like him very much, but he doesn’t kill the story for me. He’s definitely not quite at the Wesley Crusher level of intolerability, I just wish he would think a bit more.
Let’s forget Jardin for a minute and look at the Loroi. Francis has obviously put a lot of thought into how to make them seem unique, and come up with some interesting ideas. One is their formal mode of speech, in which they say things only “seem to be” rather than saying they “are.” This is a clever touch, and a plausible cultural difference, but for some reason they are not very consistent with it and don’t use it very often.
In a similar inconsistency, one Loroi comments on how Jardin often hesitates in his speech, saying that the Loroi do not speak until they are certain of what they want to say. Then, on the very next page, she hesitates while speaking. In fact, they hesitate while speaking fairly often, leading me to suspect that she was just making stuff up. This is unfortunately typical of the Loroi: their cultural differences tend to be superficial and inconsistent.
The most noteworthy aspect of the Loroi, however, is their femaleness. Apparently the Loroi male-to-female ratio is 1:8, so males are protected and generally sheltered from any situation which might endanger them. This is a logical cultural outgrowth of their biology, and I salute Francis for it. From a feminist perspective, though, the female-dominated space crew is on shaky ground, as its commanding women are depicted as an aspect of an alien culture (thus making female command a non-human thing), and the fact that men are a highly precious commodity and mate frequently, with multiple females does not exactly make them sound like subordinates. I think Francis is trying to make his universe a progressive one, but the road of gender issues continues to be as treacherous as usual.
Finally Jardin is brought to the bridge, and much of the rest of the chapter is comprised of lots and lots of exposition. In summation: The Loroi tell him that they will help him salvage the Bellarmine, and that as the only survivor he is now Earth’s only liaison. Furthermore, they suspect him of having sabotaged their sensor system. In the comic this is explained through pages upon pages of explication, the characters spewing huge bubbles of text which take a long time to read and don’t contain much crucial information. This is a major problem throughout the comic; there are simply too many words and it could desperately use some editing. Allow me to rewrite the above page:
Jardin: It’s nothing but a coincidence. Anyway, why would the Umiak send a spy who looked like me?
Jardin: Your sensors… are they telepathic?
Jardin: Well, since you have to talk to me I gather you can’t read my mind. Maybe that’s why your sensors don’t work on humans. And anyway, the Umiak couldn’t possibly know we have resistance to telepathy.
Jardin: I know that wasn’t what you wanted to hear. I give you my word of honor that it’s the truth.
Loroi captain: Words are tools of deception.
The basic idea is maintained with much fewer words, which not only makes the comic easier to read, but is also more realistic dialogue.
Despite all this, though, Outsider is not a bad comic. The world-building actually seems quite detailed, and I do get the sense that Francis knows what he’s building toward. The actual plotting seems solid overall, and some of the mysteries (Who blew up the Bellarmine, and why? Why are the humans and Loroi physically similar?) are genuinely interesting and would be interesting to see resolved. The artwork, while derivative, is solid and attractive. The space battles in particular are handled with elegancy and dexterity. The beams of light contrasted against the darkness of space take on a beautifully geometric quality, and the Loroi tactical screens give a sense of the slow-motion movement which would certainly be felt when moving on a battlefield of cosmic scale. There are other nice moments, too, like this elegant mosaic and the cool Loroi bridge.
Overall, Outsider is worth a look. The art is crisp and futuristic, and the quality of the CGI seems to be improving. Francis’s figures are drawn with expertise and dexterity. The premise, while not completely original, is engaging. If in the future he can cut down on some exposition and make Jardin use his brain, he has a chance to turn Outsider into a pretty remarkable comic.
Final Rating: 7 out of 10. Above-average webcomic, falling somewhat short mainly due to awkward writing.