The most striking thing about Sea of Stars is its pure inventiveness. I’ll readily admit that I’m a sucker for science-fiction with a heavy space aesthetic, but the story crafted by writers Jason Aaron and Dennis Hallum, artist Stephen Green, colorist Rico Renzi, letterer Jared K Fletcher, and editor Will Dennis truly challenged my preconceptions about space and its use in storytelling. The most compelling thing about the genre for me has always been the emptiness that space implies, the void pressing in on everyone and slowly driving them mad. This cosmic horror is almost inherent in space storytelling for me, a crucial part of the experience whose absence can easily break my immersion in the narrative. Sea of Stars plays with this concept in an incredibly interesting way with its vibrant landscapes (spacescapes?) and its pure sense of adventure that permeates the entire fabric of the story.
Space has become mundane. Humanity has expanded from Earth into the beyond, the galaxy has been mapped, shipping routes have been set up and maintained. Presented through the eyes of almost nine year-old Kadyn, the universe is boring. Stuck on a barge hauling ancient artifacts with his father, Kadyn sees space itself as ancient. He craves adventure, the thrill of a black hole or a supernova. Merely sailing along at hyperspeed isn’t enough for the young traveler, but his wishes soon come true as a catastrophe separates him from his father and strands him in wild space. What follows is a fantastical journey across the frontier of deep space, positively filled to the brim with creatures and sceneries ranging from familiar and altogether alien. Separated by the calamitous destruction of their ship, Kadyn and his father Gil must somehow find a way to reconnect, pulled across the galaxy by pure instinct and resilience.
Here we see the main structure for the series: Kadyn discovers a love for the unknown, seeing past the boring old space freighter rides to the wonders of the cosmos while Gil frantically fights to the last to find and rescue Kadyn. Written primarily by Jason Aaron and Dennis Hallum respectively, the two plots work together to flesh out the workings of the universe and show two facets therein. As Kadyn discovers he has special powers to let him survive in the depths of space, Gil fights for his life at every step. As Gil is tormented by an aging guard robot named Kyle, Kadyn befriends a pair of lovable (for the most part) space wildlife, a monkey and fish aptly named Monkey and Fish. Parallels between the two main storylines ebb and flow, but at their core they converge to paint a story of familial bond, tested and proven by the endless abyss of the universe.
Ultimately, Sea of Stars is about that abyss; from the start, the book has emphasized that. “A father, a son, and a whole lot of space between them,” promised Image Comics, a tagline that is of course true to the tone of the book, catchy, and witty (honestly wittier than I could ever think up), but that really gives you a lot to think about as well. When I look at how the tagline is constructed, one thing really jumps out at me: the connotation of space being between two things. Taken literally, yeah there’s a lot of physical space between Gil and Kadyn. It’s never made clear quite how far apart they are, but when you’re talking about outer space, there can easily be hundreds of millions, even billions of miles between the closest celestial bodies. That’s not insignificant, and it’s pretty accurate to say that’s a lot of space.
But there’s something else in the usage of the phrase “a lot of space between them,” another connotation that I find fascinating. From the very beginning, from the opening splash of the Porkchop Comet literally sailing through the stars, it’s made clear that this universe is not empty. An establishing shot is never without a background: planets on the voyage of their orbits, nebulae stretched across the page. Even in the gaps between these inspiringly wondrous fixtures in the sky, there lies beautiful junk, the broken and discarded bits from worlds gone by, all with their own ecosystems and quirks. It is here that Kadyn’s story primarily unfolds, hopping between asteroids and similar heavenly detritus, testing the limits of his newfound and confusing powers.
The design sense here is frankly astonishing. Artist Stephen Green takes the opportunity afforded by the stark canvas of space, and he fills it with the most imaginative, the most creatively unique vision of outer space I have ever seen. It doesn’t fit into the confines of “alien life” necessarily — it’s more of a vision for a different kind of life. Yes, I know that’s pedantic, but stay with me for a moment. The oceanic aesthetic that Green pulls from is all-encompassing, pervading each and every design with a sense of near familiarity and tapping into a different kind of unknown than similar stories would evoke. This vision for the galaxy is dense, super-saturating the page with style and creating a sense of danger and dread around every corner. I think that’s the most interesting part of “a whole lot of space between them” for me: space itself is something that exists in the real world for the creators of this book. It’s tangible, it’s a vision of something in the way that my typical notion of space just isn’t.
While the premise of the book is simple enough — essentially, Gil and Kadyn exploring space for their own reasons — it works to enable this fleshing-out of the universe. To be a little reductive and silly, the sea of stars is the point. Kadyn and Gil are swept into it, humans lost to the expanse and buffeted by the currents, never truly in control of their own fates. While I wouldn’t really classify Sea of Stars as an “art read,” I think the worldbuilding is the most important part of the story and is justly given the most attention.
That being said, I feel that Gil’s and Kadyn’s stories could have been more solid from a storytelling perspective. Kadyn’s portion in particular felt a little nebulous, pushed around by the need of the larger narrative rather than having any kind of a strong central message. The story as a whole feels like two okay-to-good plotlines that both suffer because they aren’t allowed to be the main narrative. Now, this is by no means an indictment on the story itself; I found myself particularly enraptured by Gil’s planetside struggle to survive as everything goes wrong around him, forced to find alternative means to stay conscious in a toxic atmosphere. Structurally, however, the dual narrative tended to draw me in just as the story cut away, never building any kind of true positive momentum. In the same vein, it feels strange to me that Sea of Stars is a multiple-volume story. I obviously can’t judge a book that I haven’t read, and there very well could be a stark status quo shift in volume 2 that necessitates and justifies the lengthened story. I just can’t help but feel that what was given in volume 1 is a complete story, more or less. There is a large cliffhanger, but it honestly feels more contrived than suspense-building. Structurally, there are just a few key issues that stand out in an otherwise heartwarming story and fascinating setting.
I think the best thing to do with Sea of Stars Vol. 1 is to take it for what it is, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s an incredibly engrossing and vibrant book, with lovable characters and an interesting narrative that reveals layer upon layer of a well-crafted world with every page. While I do have a couple personal problems with the narrative structure and the way it’s presented, the story has a truly solid core. Moreover, it challenged my notions of what cosmic storytelling can be. Space doesn’t have to bleak; it doesn’t have to be a vast, uneventful void that presses in on its travelers and drives them to madness. Space can be fun. That’s really what the creators of Sea of Stars have done: they’ve spread a sense of joy onto what I have historically seen as a terrifying canvas. I would recommend this comic to anyone looking for that sense of adventure, whether you know you’re looking for it or not.