03 July 2015

FWS Comic Review: SHRAPNEL Volume: I and II (Radical Comics)

When Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising originally published back in 2009 by Radical Comics, it was believed to be the beginning of an military sci-fi franchise that would include a trilogy of comic series, movies, and video games. The concept was developed by Zombie Studios head Mark Long along with Nick Sagan and written by Zachary Sherman. The original five issue limited series was quickly praised and given all kinds of positive reviews and healthy sales. So much so, that Radical ordered a three part sequel in 2011 and rights were secured for adaptation in other media, including a major movie deal. While Shrapnel is often touted as one of the best military science fiction comics, is it really that good? In this comic book review, FWS will be looking at Volume I and Volume II of the Shrapnel comics and answering that very question along with what happened to the film and video game based on the world of Shrapnel.

The Plot of Volume One and Two of Shrapnel
It is the 23rd century, and humanity has spread out among the planets, moons, and asteroids of the solar system. As man is conquering space, man is also reordering their own DNA to improve themselves and better the species as a whole...but at a price. The ones that can afford genetic modifications for their children are at the top tier of Terran society, while the ones that cannot afford the modifications are left out in the cold. The Solar Alliance, based on Terra and lead by the genetically modified are using the strength of the Terran military to impose their type of society and government on the settled places in the Solar System. In 2250, an ex-Solar Alliance Marine by the name of Samantha Narayan, is living on Venus, and attempting to avoid the Terran government, but they coming knocking to control Venus. The 2nd rock from the sun is the last free colony in the Sol system, welcoming all under equal citizenship, and it has become a place of people seeking relief from the harsh social laws and rules of the Solar Alliance. When the Marines coming to Venus, Sam is forced back into an XO powered armor suit to defend her new home and lead the ragtag volunteers of the Venus milita.

Some say that all science fiction derivative, that there are no new ideas, and how the creator(s) mix the elements and their skills to reinvent these familiar themes and ideas, determines the results: either it is good cocktail or a hollow shell of limited imagination. Shrapnel is one of those works that does synthesize something more than its derivative original elements. In some ways, Shrapnel is a mixed cocktail of  Gattaca, Starship Troopers, the Classics, Joan of Arc, the French and American Revolutions, and Mark Long's own experience in the US Army. The basic universe of Shrapnel in the 23rd century is also a good setup for the war between Venus and Terra, and you can really believe that Shrapnel is the world that first began in Gattaca. It is also nice to see a military sci-fi future war scenario being set in our own solar system, with a realistic issue that could trigger wars on other worlds. Our core character of Shrapnel is ex-Marine Sam Narayan, another female soldier character in military sci-fi, and she is a well-done female character that does not descend into trope territory until later in the first volume and does transfer some of traits of the Gattaca character of Vincent into Sam Narayan. The design of the world of Shrapnel is well done and this includes the Marine XO armored powered suits, making for some iconic images.    

I will discuss Volume One Aristeia Rising first, and follow up with Volume Two Hubris. The good elements I discussed above for Volume One become the bad elements as the comic goes deeper into the war between Venus and the Solar Alliance. Main character and ex-Marine Sam quickly becomes the savior of Venus and the only one who seems to have any military experience and her actions alone are the saving grace for the Venus government. This grows tiresome and overplayed. Then there is the writing. Some of it is fine, some of it is not. But, during the battle scenes, it is downright comically. The words written seems more like kids playing with toy soldiers and mimicking things they've heard in war films. with shouts of commands and directions. It just doesn't work here, nor does the art support the dialog, making for a disconnect. While these elements of Volume One are negative, Aristeia Rising is better as a whole than its 2011 sequel: Hubris. Volume Two is simply flawed on every level, and simply fails as a comic and sequel. The art, story, dialog are all lacking. It is filled with bad dialog, a weak uninteresting story, and a solar system road-trip trope. I was simply amazed that some of the same creative staff were involved with this mess as the first 2009 limited series. It really seems like the creative team ran out of creative gas when it came time for a sequel. The worse thing I can write about this comic series, is that  when you read Hubris, it makes want for something better. I wish Radical Comics had extended the first series with more issues to deepen the story, because it seems that is where the organic story of Sam and the attack on Venus should live and stay. I honestly do not think that Shrapnel needed a sequel. In some ways, Shrapnel: Hubris is The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or ALIEN: Resurrection of the Shrapnel comic world: it is something that simply should not existence and only born out of greed. It was a sequel that was not suppose to exist and it's poor concept is proof positive of it invalid nature.

There can be no bigger crime committed against both volumes of the Shrapnel comics than the art. Plain and simple: the art, coloring, and the page layout cripples these comics (especially Volume One), preventing the comics from achieving the higher level that was desired by Radical and everyone else involved. Instead the art regates Volume One to an just "okay" comic with an interesting concept. While Aristeia Rising may have the stronger storyline and writing, it is plagued by this very dark, BLADE RUNNER-like inspirited art that lacks clarity and appears muted. The art and coloring is bad enough in more dialog-intensive scenes where the faces of our core characters are obscured by the shroud of darkness and blurry nearly watercolor profiles; it is even worse in the battle scenes. These exo-planet battles where the money-shot for the Shrapnel comics, paraded across the brilliant cover art in the original limited series, but in the actual pages of the comic, the art washes out any notion of intensity or grandeur, creating a darkly hued mess. This makes the first volume a painful and confusing to read and it also deeply betrays the much clearer concept art and the overall design of the world of Shrapnel. Another art team was hired for the second volume; Hubris, and while it is better than Volume One, it still is not good enough for what Radical Comics was hoping for. While everyone and everything is much more clear, and I can actually see the core characters faces, it still is lacking. However, Volume Two has greater problems than the art, as mentioned above.  

Should You Read Shrapnel?
I was certainly disappointed in both Volume One and Two of Shrapnel to say the least, and I honestly wished I had not the spent money on these comics. In the long term, I do not believe that I will reread the comics in the near future., causing them to be placed, along with Marvel Comics Universal War One in the "to sell" pile. I would advise that if the story sounds interesting, read Volume One Aristeia Rising and forget Hubris, but don't pay too much for Aristeia Rising. I am hoping that a long-awaited film adaptation of Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising makes better use of the concept of the Shrapnel universe than the half-baked comics.

The Shrapnel and Oblivion Connection
During the research phase of this blogpost, I ran across some other reviewers and websites charging Radical Comics with using Shrapnel has a vehicle to get a Hollywood deal, much as they did with Oblivion. Everyone knows that Oblivion is a 2013 sci-fi movie starring Mr. Tom Cruise, and some may know that it was some sort of graphic novel published by Radical Comics...but that is not what really happened. While there was a promised graphic novel for 2012 by Radical Comics, what was given away at the booth at the San Diego Comic-Con was a called an "pitch kit" by Oblivion creator Joseph Kosinski and was developed during the Writers' Strike of 2007.
What does this have to do with Shrapnel? These sites say that Radical Comics and Zombie Studios was attempting to do the same thing with Shrapnel, selling the idea of the comic via impressive concept art and action scenes to peak Hollywood's interest and help Radical Studios to create these films. This formula has worked several times in the past for Radical, and this makes me wonder about if Shrapnel was ever intended to be "a real comic" or the art-book/sales-brochure that the Oblivion "graphic novel" was? Is this why the comic book limited series sequel to Shrapnel Aristeia Rising sucked? 

Wasn't There Going to be an Shrapnel Movie and Video Game?!
In July of 2011, it was announced that  Hillary Swank was going to star as Captain Sam Narayan along with being one of the producers of a major live-action film adaptation of the Shrapnel comic. The film was yet another feather in the cap for Radical Studios...but what has happened since 2011? A whole lot of nothing. There is simply no news on the Shrapnel film, and could be dead in the water. Why? My only guess is that it could be due to the disappointing box-office performance of the big military sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow/Live, Die, Repeat. The studio could have seen the blood on the wall and decided to wait for more favorable conditions. It is likely that the Shrapnel movie could never be made. Which is a shame. Shrapnel could be a great military sci-fi film and the adaptation itself could have solved some of the issues with the comic itself.
What about the video game promised by a stunning CGI trailer by Zombie Studios? The very genesis of the comic was by Zombie Studios head Mark Long, and it was natural that he would develop a video game around the comic...but what happened to it? Once again, nothing. The big console military sci-fi game promised by Zombie was never developed in any tangible way before Zombie Studios folded up shop in 2014. There is little on the game that would have been developed for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC. However, one Shrapnel game was developed and released: the Shrapnel game for the iPhone/iPad. This was 3rd person shooter game have the gamer take control of Sam in her XO APS that was a more simplistic vision of the dark world that Sam operates in. The interviews were positive, but once again, when Zombie folded, it dooming the game to stagnation. 

Next Time On FWS...
It is clear to all of us that lived through the wildfire that was Star Wars, that it altered the way movies and toys were made and what they made for. Like any game-changing event, there are some examples that ride the trend and profit from these events, and then there are examples like the LJN's 1984 DUNE toyline for that failed film. This failed toyline is one of the best-worst examples of how a toyline can be designed for a film that shouldn't have a toyline in the first place. Join FWS next time as we attempt to explore and explain the 1984 LJN DUNE toyline.

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  1. Is it based on hard science or it is a typical space opera?

  2. It is not hard science fiction and more of typical space opera with healthy doses of military sci-fi