Orbital: Resistance by Sylvain Runberg & Serge Pelle, Cinebook £7.99/$13.99
♦ Peter Mann reviews the series to date, and the latest installment, as well as profiling the creators. Because someone has to…
In 2278, Caleb and Kristina Swany watch from an adjacent building as their parents host the last international conference in favour of Earth joining the 781 races that make up the galactic confederation. A yes vote will give Earth access to real interstellar travel. There is opposition to the process from isolationists, who bomb the building, killing Caleb and Kristina’s parents. In reaction to the destruction, a pro-confederation vote is cast: but a few years later isolationist politicians gain power and use the new interstellar technology to nearly exterminate the Sandjarr race. The confederacy forces the humans from Sandjarr space, and a pro-confederacy government gains power in the aftermath of the war, but the damage is done: humans are seen as warlike and arrogant creatures.-
Fast forward a few years to the new agent intake of the IDO –the Interworld Diplomatic Office. A late-comer is Caleb, now an agent, but one distrusted by his fellow agents due to the reputation that humans have for being belligerent and aggressive.
Caleb is paired with Mezoke Izzua, a Sandjarr to represent “the superiority of the values of peace over all forms of disagreement, the victory of intelligence over hatred, of reconciliation over conflict.” Although Mezoke looks female, Sandjarr culture places little importance on gender or social interaction and gender is not indicated by external signifiers – Mezoke might be male. Sandjarrs consider asking about gender to be an infringement of their individuality. The point is largely moot, as to begin with Mezoke avoids speaking to Caleb anyway. During training Mezoke begins to recognise Caleb’s qualities, but the odd couple’s relationship is tested during their missions.
Initially at least, the series unique selling point is the potential for conflict between the two main protagonists. As the story progresses you realise that their conflict is simply a mirror for the conflict between human beings and the other races of the Confederacy. The suspicion that exists on both sides exacerbates a problem that in fact comes from elsewhere.
Resistance is the 6th book in the Orbital series, which has now run over 9 years in six volumes. Caleb and Mezoke hiding amongst a community of exiles who have opted out of what they perceive as the corruption and violence of the Galactic government. Caleb and Mezoke, and Angus, a living spaceship, are being hunted by the authorities, as well as a terrorist group. The end of the book is a bit of a showstopper, but no spoilers here. Resistance (Book 6), with Justice (Book 5), forms the third volume of Caleb and Mezoke’s story, and possibly for the North American market Cinebook would have been better to do what they do with the Largo Winch series and include both in one volume, rescaled to the size of an American graphic novel. It is lovely to see such gorgeous art full size, however.
The art is in the European style, but with the exposure of Moebius and the work of creators like Ladronn and Moritat, this is no longer as big a culture shock as it was. The art combines of line work and painting throughout, and while cartoonier than much regular comic book art, effectively conveys alien technology and environments. The only drawback with this style of book is that the word balloons are sized for the original French dialogue. This means that the English dialogue often takes up less than half of the balloon, because the English is not colloquial; however, this is a minor flaw in a series that offers a real alternative to more conventional science fiction in comics.
Orbital, like all good science fiction, is not just based on gadgetry but on the wider social and cultural issues that any extrapolation of the future must deal with. It is also appealingly unshiny: it’s a bit grimy in Pelle and Runberg’s future. If you enjoyed Joss Whedon’s Firefly, the Aliens film, Larry Niven’s Ringworld books, or hard science-fiction of any kind, this is a series to savour.
Orbital writer Sylvain Runberg divides his time between Sweden and his native France where he was born in 1971. The socio-political aspects of Science Fiction interest him the most: he sees Science Fiction as a mirror for examining societies and individual actions. Orbital was written to examine whether cultural conflicts are ever avoidable: “What makes you tolerant or not when you’re facing something completely different from your own personal background culturally, politically, morally, philosophically? And of course, a Confederation with 781 different alien races was a good start to explore it.” Runberg extrapolates from human culture initially. For example in Nomads, the third book, he deals with cannibalism, a human issue, but seen very differently from an alien point of view. His idea of having humans as the last race integrating into the Confederation, allowing them to be seen by other members as hostile and aggressive, is inspired by the racism and intolerance that faces new immigrants in human society.
To Sylvain what matters are the characters. “Where they come from, why do they act like they do, are they really who they seem to be, all that sort of thing that makes a story interesting to follow in my eyes.” As an example, he cites Mezoke, whose gender we don’t know. “It’s all the prejudice that is still so strong today about the so-called different ways of thinking or behaving that are supposed to “naturally” separate men and women. I think we are all different as individuals, and that it’s our environment and our own personal decisions that make us what we become, absolutely not our gender. A woman can be violent and insensitive and a man can be sweet and patient and everybody can be all of that from time to time depending on the period of our lives. But I don’t think there’s a natural, specific way of approaching things depending on whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s funny that a lot of readers ask me what Mezoke’s gender is, because some of them seem to be uncomfortable not knowing it.”
In writing Orbital, Runberg’s only conscious influence was Iain M Banks Culture novels, although the Orbital universe is very different from the universe of the Culture. His favourite authors range from Alan Moore and Brian K Vaughan to Nordic novelists such as Ake Edwarson, Karin Alvtegen, Henning Mankel, and Arnaldur Indridason.
Quotes and writer information from Penny Kenny’s interview with Sylvain Runberg at http://comicsbulletin.com/sylvain-runberg-star-defines-orbital/ – go there and read a much longer piece!
Serge Pelle studied graphic design until 1989, doing his first comics work in 1993. He worked on TV set design, and game design at Ubisoft until (after a few failed projects) Dupuis called to offer him Orbital. He had already developed a technique for designing fictional worlds when he worked on the science-fiction TV series Malo Korrigan. Pelle starts with a simple sketch, and works out the colour. He then elaborates using gouache, and acrylic with oil pastels. The work is then scanned into a computer which Pelle uses to fine tune the colour and other elements of the drawing. He considers the computer to be a tool that is complimentary to his design work, rather than being dominated by the technology.
At the beginning, he and Runberg devoted many hours talking, so as to understand the universe of Orbital, but over time he’s found it easier to design due to the clarity of Sylvain’s writing. Pelle feels science-fiction is a good framework with which to tell a story. There are rules to the genre which can be used or broken as needed: for Pelle it is a backdrop on which to graft the story. Pelle’s influences include movies like Blade Runner, Brazil, Scanners, Videodrome, Star Wars, Alien, The Matrix, and Akira. In comics he likes Heavy Metal and in literature Edgar Allen Poe, Lovecraft, and Jules Verne.