The original graphic novel format has some advantages in comics storytelling. For one, it lets you take your time. In a serialised format, a story like Ark might have played out a bit differently, launching more quickly into the dramatics and being a more streamlined, strictly functional narrative. And it would have been poorer for it. As it stands, the measured pacing is one of the more distinctive features that marks this graphic novel out.
Writer Peter Dabbiene does love to take his time, though. In the approximately 140 pages given to Ark, I’d say it’s about 50 or so before the plot really starts moving. The set-up has a spaceship full of genetically-engineered “metahumans” and their human crew out on what is apparently a colonising mission, and just as they reach the fringes of our solar system after 13 years of travel, they lose communication with Earth. Such sci-fi tales about the isolation of the frontier of outer space will typically result in protagonists quite quickly encountering calamity, be it external, internal or both. But reading Ark, I started to find myself wondering if any such inciting incident would happen. I thought, “Maybe this will be a rare story where nothing disastrous goes wrong and we just see the human frama of these interacting humans and metahumans unfold?” And interestingly, as I thought it, I didn’t necessarily think this would be a bad thing, with how well-realised Dabbiene’s characters are. But when tensions do start to escalate, it’s handled masterfully, Dabbiene making the situation worse by degrees, control slipping away in a manner that lets the earlier human interest stuff pay off in devastating ways. And by the time we get into the third act, the pages are flying by and the pace is breakneck. And the thrills are all the more dramatic for the fact that they feel earned within the narrative.
The artwork of Ryan Bayliss has its ups and downs. There’s a lot here for an artist to get their teeth into, what with designing all the unusual meta characters, and in this aspect, Bayliss soars. The population of the spaceship Explorer is brought to life with all manner of odd, distinctive designs: from the balance between alluring and uncomfortably alien (which is something of a plot point) of plant girls Iris and Darien, to the way humanity is injected into the animal hybrid characters, and my particular favourite: the aspects of danger and vulnerability conveyed in short-fused Lee. Sadly, it’s with the human characters that Bayliss falls down, with some awkward anatomy and the odd goofy, unnatural facial expression. There are moments and sequences where the humans are realised incredibly well, but it’s not consistent. Thankfully, what is consistent is the rich, understated coloring, done with a light touch that resembles a brushstroke effect.
Ark is a slow-burn, but those who stick with it will be rewarded with a rich pay-off. If you like your sci-fi thoughtful and idea-driven, this graphic novel could be for you.
Ark is available to buy now from Comixology, and will be available in print later this year.