This review will contain spoilers for Starship Down #1. You have been warned!
It might be a bit hard for younger readers to imagine, but there was a time when Dark Horse comics was considered to be a top tier indie publisher of original works. In the early-to-mid ’90s creators were jumping ship from Marvel and DC to Dark Horse and creating a shared universe of unique and interesting characters that sought to rival what other indie publishers like Image and Valiant were doing at the time.
Multiple feature films came from these comics, including The Mask, Hellboy, Barb Wire, Time Cop, Mystery Men, and Sin City. Sure, not all those films were great, but clearly, for a little while at least, Dark Horse Comics was a house of ideas that got people’s attention.
Following the bursting of the 90’s comic speculation bubble, however, Dark Horse began to switch away from most of their original work and instead focused much more heavily on their licensed titles. A handful of the best-sellers stuck around for a while, but the writing was on the wall, and for the most part, the majority of those original titles either ended or left for other distributors.
And to be fair, while a good deal of licensed titles are little more than shameless cash grabs, the books Dark Horse put out were actually considered to be quite good. Many of their books, especially Aliens, Predator, and Star Wars, receiving high praise from new and classic fans alike and even crossed over with DC comics from time to time, so they were still considered a high-quality publisher even if they no longer put out as much original work. That being said, as a 90’s kid I missed those original titles, and I really missed the rebel feel that publishers like Dark Horse use to have.
While their shared universe was no more, Dark Horse did still put out occasional independent titles, and in recent years they have started getting back to their rebel roots, with the release of original titles like Harrow County, The Umbrella Academy, Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer universe, Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter (a personal favourite), and a number of other small run minis it seems like we may be on the cusp of a new comic boom from them. Are we about to enter a new, golden age of Dark Horse? Maybe, but even if we don’t they are once again putting out quality, independent titles that are getting my attention.
Starship Down #1 written by Justin Giampaoli with art by Andrea Mutti is one of those brand new, creator-driven titles, and it already seems to be generating a lot of buzz on the old interwebs. The manager of my local comic shop even texted me late on Tuesday night raving about how good the title was. This man has never steered me wrong before, so I knew I had to check it out.
Here’s what Dark Horse wants us to know about this book:
A cultural anthropologist consults with US Naval Intelligence to investigate the discovery of an extraterrestrial ship buried under the ice for thousands of years in Siberia. The meddling Russians, Vatican officials, the international media spotlight, and her own insecurities all threaten her efforts to keep the fabric of society from crumbling.
* A brand-new thriller with blistering art from Andrea Mutti.
If last week’s Decorum blurb was too short, this one is sadly too long, but it’s appropriate in a way because this is a very talky book.
At least it doesn’t spoil the big surprise at the end. I, however, will be spoiling that so if you want to find it out for yourself this is the place to pause.
Before we get to that reveal though, let’s talk a bit about some of the other things going on in this book.
First, the creative team. This book is written by Justin Giampaoli, an author who hasn’t done a lot of solo work in comics, but does have a handful of writing credits to his name, most notable among them being his work on the alternate history title Rome West that he produced with Brian Wood.
The story opens with an entire back and forth on a helicopter on its way to the site of a recently discovered alien ship. For some reason, our protagonist Dr. Young has no idea why she is there, and rather than tell her the reason before they left, Lt. Commander Trent instead waits until she is in the helicopter, about to land on the site to get her to sign the paperwork authorizing her to be there. He refuses to give her a straight answer and instead makes several vague comments that the reader gets because they’ve seen the cover of the book, but Dr. Young doesn’t.
This is the kind of thing that happens with some newer comic writers. This scene literally takes the first five pages of the book and adds very little to the overall story. That space could have been put to much better use at the end when the big reveal happens, and that whole helicopter conversation could have been easily scrapped. It’s not a major problem, but there is a lot of telling in this book, and not a lot of showing, and that’s unfortunate because there is a really good story here, but it is getting a bit lost in the exposition.
I know, it sounds like we’re not getting off on the right foot with this book, but I am not telling you to avoid this book I’m telling you to read it, but you have to dig a bit to get to the good stuff.
The story itself is really interesting and does have the potential to do some really deep, physiological explorations of society. And the ending twist is actually pretty interesting, enough to make me want to keep reading the story after this first issue.
You see, while “finding an alien ship in the ice” is a tried and true story trope, Giampaoli brings something new to the table. Instead of invaders from another planet, this spaceship seems to be carrying Neanderthals, the implication being that the Neanderthals were either the crew of the ship, or that they were brought there by the crew of the ship, and I have to say I like this idea, and I like the questions that come from this idea. Aliens mucking about in human history is well-trodden ground, but adding a Neanderthal twist makes it fresh, at least to me.
I also like the inclusion of the Vatican in the book because such a discovery would have major, religious ramifications for the world, although I do hope that the Catholic church is not the be-all and end-all of that part of the exploration of this topic.
As for the art, well, the art is fine. You can kind of get a feel for it on the cover. I don’t know if I would call it “blistering,” but I wouldn’t call it poorly done either. Mutti is an industry vet who has worked for pretty much every major studio, so he knows how to set up a page and keep the story moving sequentially. The designs of the characters and setting are okay, although I do feel the starship is a bit drab. Like I said, I’d like to see his art carry more of the story in future issues, and I hope he gets the chance to do that.
Personally, I’m interested in seeing if the creative team will keep things more philosophical rather than descend into conspiracy theory madness that plots like this can sometimes slip into (looking at you Prometheus). It’s a fun premise, with an interesting setting, and overall, I feel this story has a lot of potential, enough to justify giving it a read.
So if you do venture out to the LCS this weekend, and I hope you get the chance because they need our support, consider picking up a copy of Starship Down and see if the premise hooks you like it hooked me.