In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have zero knowledge of the Dead Space video game series. My active gaming life ground mostly to a halt sometime around Halo 2, and although I still throw together the occasional session of Call of Duty or Madden, gaming as an entertainment option has dropped pretty far down my personal list.
With that in mind, understand that I won’t be able to offer much commentary on how these Dead Space graphic novels tie into the games. I’m coming at these strictly as a reader to gauge how they hold up as sci-fi/horror stories. Let’s see how they do.
Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Ben Templesmith
As a total Dead Space novice, I must express my appreciation to Titan Books, publisher of these graphic novels, for including extensive character profiles at the beginning of this first volume of comics. Not only did they fill me in on the characters in the story I was about to read, they provided a ton of backstory about the world of Dead Space as a whole – backstory that I assume the first iteration of the game provided to those who played it. This really helped me settle into the story without feeling completely confused.
The story centers around a central struggle that’s familiar to us all – science versus religion. While preparing a distant planet for “planetcracking” – something I gather is intended to make the place suitable for human habitation – a group of colonists discover a huge artifact. This relic, a giant stone covered with strange markings, is identical to a Marker, an artifact that is central to the religion known as Unitology. Immediately after its discovery strange things start happening to the colonists, beginning with bad dreams and increased aggression and ending in escalating acts of violence and a shocking mass suicide. As things deteriorate, the Marker becomes an important pawn in a tug-of-war between those determined to protect it and those determined to whisk away before it further interrupts the lucrative colonization of the planet.
It’s all intriguing stuff, and then things reach a fever pitch. In a gooey cross between Night of the Living Dead and The Thing (the John Carpenter version), the dead begin to rise and transform, infecting every corpse they can find so that the colony is soon overrun with creatures that are as dangerous as they are grotesque.
Writer Antony Johnston fashions a tense, thought-provoking story laced with bucketfuls of gore. Artist Ben Templesmith’s style – scratchy and chaotic with an almost unfinished feel, the direct antithesis to the hyper-realistic style of many of his peers – has never been my favorite, but it absolutely works here, adding to the hectic pace of the story. Dead Space is a totally engaging off-world adventure, and an excellent introduction to the series as a whole.
Dead Space: Salvage
Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Christopher Shy
As a direct follow-up to the story in the first volume of Dead Space, Salvage falls prey to the shortcomings that have caused many a horror sequel to stumble. The central theme of science versus religion that made Dead Space such a captivating read is largely jettisoned in this shorter volume so we can get to the wet stuff faster. Unfortunately, a less compelling story (and a less compelling cast) makes for a less satisfying effort all around.
That’s not to say that Salvage doesn’t have its moments. It’s a classic setup – on one side, agents from Earth’s government are searching for a ship called the Ishimura, a vessel that was integral to the events in the first story. There is pressure to recapture it because it might contain information about what went wrong on the colony from the first series, and also because many Unitologists believe the ship still carries the Marker found on the doomed planet.
On the other side, someone has already found the ship – a ragtag group of illegal salvagers that call themselves Magpies. They see it as a bounty of riches, something they can strip down to the bone and sell off piece by piece.
Naturally, once everyone gets on board the Ishimura, they find that the opposing group isn’t the enemy – it’s the hideous collection of reanimated corpses that they need to watch out for. And thus, the body count begins to rise.
Christopher Shy’s art is very similar to Templesmith’s, and he does a good job of detailing the nightmarish creatures – when they can be seen clearly, that is. Too often they are blurred or obscured or otherwise rendered ineffectual. But when brought to the forefront, his designs pop and ooze off the page.
Johnston’s story has some good moments, but by fading the character building and science/religion debate into the background for a more action-oriented approach, the story suffers somewhat. It’s a fast and entertaining read, but probably nothing that will compel you to revisit it once you’ve finished it off.
Dead Space: Liberation
Written by Ian Edginton
Art by Christopher Shy
Liberation is the latest in the Dead Space comic series, serving as a direct tie-in to the just-released game Dead Space 3. Artist Christopher Shy is back, working from a script provided by series newcomer Ian Edginton. Whereas the previous two volumes were directly related, this one forges an entirely new story, albeit with the same basic elements that are cornerstones of the Dead Space mythology.
On a planet called Uxor, another mysterious Marker has been discovered. Scientist Damara Carver is studying the artifact. Her husband, John, is also on site. Where Damara is an accomplished, respected expert in the field of data archaeology, John is a grunt, a man who has wasted multiple opportunities to advance his career. His troubles have put a strain on his marriage, a strain that becomes impossible to alleviate when Damara is killed by parties that want to cover up her findings.
Those findings – evidence of human tampering with the Markers that dates back centuries – not only point to a sinister purpose behind the Unitologist religion, but also to a way to end the Markers’ threat to mankind once and for all. John is determined to see her mission through for her – the only way available to him to make amends for the rift that had grown between them. Edginton quickly brings these disparate parties together, where they battle each other – not to mention a bigger, uglier, and more dangerous group of affected dead than we’ve seen before – at the story’s climax.
Remember that this story is a lead-in to the game, so while some of the plot threads are resolved here, many more are left to dangle. I’m not sure that it’s necessary to read this before playing Dead Space 3, but I’m sure it will enrich the storytelling aspect of the game if you do. As a standalone piece of fiction, it’s a blast to read as long as you don’t mind not having everything tied up in a neat little bow at the end.
Overall, I found the Dead Space comics to be a good, solid read. I thought the first volume did the best job as far as putting together a satisfying story, giving something that was purely entertaining with some thought-provoking debate thrown in for good measure. While the subsequent volumes were more flash than substance, they still serve as effective, moody little horror stories, something no fan of the Alien series, Carpenter’s The Thing, or sci-fi/horror mash-ups in general will want to miss.
More information on the Dead Space graphic novels from Titan Books.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.