Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ocean by Warren Ellis & Chris Sprouse

Below the surface lurks something unknown. Depths are forever home to objects gone from memory, matter driven from sentience, a refuge to both terror and the sublime. Seas rock in storms of taloned sea-bound bird beasts, gills with teeth, fallen creatures lifeless and exiled. Whether sharks or squid, the soft and the wet tear bravery to shreds, craven quiver remaining the only emotion to wield. Michael Crichton put alien intelligence on the ocean floor, as did James Cameron. Breathless lack of oxygen and claustrophobia assume new extremes. Foreign and crushing, lightless and inhospitable, sizable bodies of water conjure fear and mystery, inspiration to many a narrative.

Ocean, a six-part comic series written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Chris Sprouse, sees fit to explore just these watery conundrums and soaked shakes of puzzlement, this time shifting the action away from Earth. A big face asleep stares sightlessly from the cover, stilled slumber beneath an iced surface, the swollen presence of Jupiter hovering overhead. Space black cuts the background, sizzling cold as oceanic blue melts into the panels. Revealed are coffins, a numberless flotilla drifting submerged, deep in the blue. Housed in each coffin, a face shines forth, sleep-grimaced as puzzlement comes to the fore.

Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is the focus here. The series hypotheses that below its icy surface a vast ocean exists. With roots in reality, Ocean appropriates speculation in scientific quarters about what lies hidden under Europa’s exterior, choosing as a foundation proposals of a liquid interior. It’s an attractive idea and fertile soil for fiction, and clearly Ellis is interested in exploring such a possibility.

Introducing the plot is the discovery of lots of coffins in Europa’s ocean. A scientific research team posted in orbit around the moon make the discovery, forced into cautious shudder at the virgin sight, words of astonishment inflected with fright buoying their find. Cut to New York City and our protagonist Nathan Kane. He’s a United Nations weapons inspector, obsessed by the infancy of space travel, NASA’s early voyages into space, the way they seem so unsophisticated in comparison to the interplanetary travel of the present. He’s also been trained in the Samuel L. Jackson school of attitude (or should that be Attitude): the bald head, the curt remarks, the ballsy comic invective, the flights to violence. He’s been sent to investigate the coffin situation, for it turns out that the coffins are not the only objects populating the ocean. Mysterious weapons, canon-esque and ominous, float close to the coffins, as does a large ringed structure. Kane’s purpose becomes clear: strip from the objects their ambiguity and nullify any risk they may pose.

Working against him is a shifty corporation called Doors. They are carrying out their own research in the area and similarly discover Europa’s watery secrets. Given to the pernicious, weapon development is their principle interest and consequently moneyed glands are aroused by the potential offered by the mysterious weapons. Eventually the alien origins of all this is revealed: the coffins host a sleeping alien species that ran amok in the cosmos eons ago, then fancied a few thousand years of kip.

Ocean is an entertaining slice of science fiction. The proximity to truth that underlies the plot helps matters, giving authentic leanings to the comic flow as cosmological wonder parts to reveal aliens and action sequences. A dynamic is certainly created in the marriage of Ellis’s story and Sprouse’s wonderful artwork. Grand images provoke awe, a perfect container for the plot. Visual acumen facilitates fast-paced action, with each kick and sputter accorded due attention.

Alas it is the plot where Ocean falls down. Although enjoyable, the piece feels rushed. Granted, the restrictions of it being such a short series are apparent: it’s obvious that no great character study is going to be achieved in such a short time, the offerings reflect the limits of a run probably too brief. That being said, changes in structure, different choices regarding characterisation, the omission of redundant ingredients, could have worked to negate those restrictions. The characters are all drawn in archetypes: badass hero, promiscuous engineer, corporate villain, Asian scientist, beardy scientist, etc. The dialogue strains to be witty, and placed beside Ellis’s Transmetropolitan (that brilliant thread of Gonzo-quaking humour and exploding erudition), Ocean looks tired and uninspired.

Other elements reek of the already seen. The ringed structure mentioned before turns out to be a stargate-type construction, enabling one to move instantaneously from one point in space to another. Whether it’s Spader and Russell damaging perceptible spatiality, or Sam Neill going insane on the edge of a black hole, we’ve seen such an object before. The hibernating aliens, a humanoid bunch, it transpires that they are our ancestors. Before they went to sleep, they saw fit ‘to seed the requirements for human life on the young planet Earth.’ Again this isn’t a new concept, even a horrible movie like Mission to Mars posed the idea. In addition, propelling much of the narrative is the antagonistic force of the Doors corporation. Whilst I like the reference to Microsoft (Doors, Windows, see?), it might as well be Alien’s malevolent Company, perhaps swabbed in a different brand of conspiratorial cologne.

Ocean amounts to little more than a fun spurt of Sci-Fi, a tad too generic and derivative to earn the praise I would like to give it.


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