One of the major problems with science-fiction comics, especially as the genre bursts into the forefront of the mainstream comics with the likes of Image and Boom and Aftershock, is that there’s this feeling that we’ve already seen all of the future visions – space opera, cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, space-western, etc. – and that we’ll only be getting various quality rehashes of other people’s idea from now on. Even a series as fantastic as Extremity obviously works within established traditions and tropes – a bit of Mad Max here, a dash of Studio Ghibli-style there, and you have an aesthetic, a world, a story.
Which is why, aside from a few minor gripes, the first two issues of this new science-fiction action series by Juni Ba (art and writing) and Keenan Kornegay (writing) feels so welcome – because it doesn’t look like everything else on your shelf. While the story of the last two survivors of a once-proud tribe who become dangerous mercenaries in a galaxy full of terror and take whatever dirty jobs fate offers them is not by itself particularly groundbreaking, the first two issues Kayin and Abeni put that framework to good use.
Afrofuturism is, by this point, an established artform (and possibly one to get a boost in the Western mainstream if the upcoming Black Panther movie becomes a big enough hit to spawn imitators of its design sense at least), but personally I am yet to see it expressed in a comic. It’s possible that there’s a whole swath of such graphic stories in African countries, being that comics from that continent shamefully never gets translated into English, but I’m guessing that for many people, such as myself, Kayin and Abeni could be the first exposure for this style. Of course, just being “new” does not make a comic successful; not only said newness is often relative (what’s new to me might be old hat to you) but also because you still need to put in the craft to make the work palatable. Once the rush of newness subsides, there must be something more to make the comics engaging. Good thing; Kayin & Abeni has craft in abundance.
Look at this page from issue #1 – it’s a fight scene, showcasing one hero jumping from his spacecraft to don his futuristic power armor, ending with a dramatic pose as he lands. It’s a basic idea, but performed with such grace. Kayin starts far from the reader, getting closer to us as he descends. His approach is also marked by an increase in power – this is the first time we his power armor / mask in combat, and there’s a flash of surprise as the small object in the first panel covers him in the second before revealing his new form in the third. By the fourth panel, the transformation is already completed, but Juni Ba keeps the momentum of the scene by pulling back the view to reveal the terrified enemies as Kayin is crowned by the onomatopoeia – his mere being is an earthquake.
Check out the use of colors – how the red horizon is rushing to meet the brown earth, how the clouds of dust end up separating the two, and the way Kayin’s body, composed of black and white and yellow, pops up right at you (just as it pops up at the enemy combatants) when he lands. Everything in the scene is such a smart design choice, centering the eye and pulling towards just the right point.
Note also how there is no explanation for the human-animal hybrids, no narration throughout the issue explaining to us if they are mutants, or an engendered species, or something supernatural; they just are. Since I’ve mentioned Mad Max earlier – one the great things about the fourth entry in the film series, Fury Road, is how skimpy it is about delivering exposition. It obviously has a very complex idea of its fictional world, but since the characters already know it there is no need to pause and explain how things work, a good pulpy story needs to keep moving and let the readers catch on by themselves.
Unfortunately, while the world-building doesn’t hold your hand, the expositing of the thematic elements is a bit in-your-face: Abeni and Kayin are now killers themselves, and they must be careful lest their desire for vengeance turn them into the kind of people that killed their families – a notion that is carried out well enough by making the final soldiers of the evil warlord into a couple of kids in battle masks. We understand, once the masks are stripped, exactly what they are – having the characters spell out the morals feels unnecessary, forceful even. There other examples of that problem throughout the first issue – people telling us what art shows well enough.
I’m all for having each issue work as independent unit, not merely as part of a future collection, but this one seems to be rushing to its conclusion and covering for it with too many words. The other problem is also word related – for a series that makes such good use of sound effects and has some decent lettering there is something off about the placement of words within speech bubbles: there’s a lot of dead space within many of these bubbles and it’s something that’s immediately noticeable
Despite its problems, issue #1 worked well enough to get me to try the second issue, which is an immediate improvement in terms of presentation and storytelling. Unlike the previous issue, issue #2 drops us right into the action with the kidnapped Kayin thrown into a fighting ring to duke it out with a bastardized version of his own armor, all the while having flashback to his dead father.
Here we get right into the character’s emotions, into his rage, as the two halves of the story intertwine. It’s not simply that they took something that was his, it’s that they took something that was the last memento of his people and turned it against him, bending and meddling with it in the process. They are perverting his history, as seen within the memories of his father. And yet the issue is not simply about wallowing in the past – it’s about Kayin realizing that he must grow out from it.
The storytelling in the second issue feels less rigid, more willing to let the character move throughout the page, allowing us to experience Kayin’s mental situation by shifting the art style. (There’s one full-page splash that seems closer in presentation to traditional art, which is fitting because our protagonist was literally cowering from his own tradition, being pummeled by the past.) It ends up with Kayin triumphing over the armor, taking over his own legacy, and we get this powerful shot of him at the top of the page.
Look at him here – his chest puffed out, his head tilted even farther into the background, while the armor is cast to the side: despite the arena being an equal plane we get a near-physical sense of Kayin being above it all. He has already won this fight in his mind, and the actual punching of the bad guys in now an afterthought because the arc of the issue is completed.
A final criticism is that, two issues in, we still don’t have much of a sense of who Abeni is. Kayin always seems to be the one in focus, while Abeni is flying in the distance, mostly serving as a voice in the radio. But still, Kayin and Abeni ended up being one of the big positive surprises of 2017, and it’s definitely a series that I hope will not only continue on a more regular schedule but will end up with a print run as well.