Past and Present and Beyond: My brain sometimes aligns and nostalgia and space-heavy sci-fi.
That could be a weird programming error, but there’s perhaps a larger reason for the mental melding. It mostly started after reading Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard (which has nothing to do with either — or anything at all really). In it, Knausgaard writes, “Nostalgia, the longing for what once was, the shadow sickness. The corresponding natural emotion is the longing for that which still doesn’t exist, the future, which is filled with hope and vigor and which is not impossible…”
They are both, then, these deeply visceral reactions, a profound yearning for the past and an unfettered dream of tomorrow. Moreso, they’re each born from a society wildly unhappy with its present, seeking answers somewhere beyond the here and now. I get that it’s all a stretch, but then isn’t that sort of the point? Unrealistic expectations and impossibilities galore to ease the mind and liven the soul.
I can’t blame the dense canon of sci-fi for its preoccupations, but it does make the litany of titles somehow hard to appreciate. Because the struggle is so far removed, so far disconnected from the moment, it feels so inconsequential. Like, it’s all a dream and it’s never going to be a thing in my lil’ world. But then you get something like We Only Find Them When They’re Dead, and the past and present and future and the known universe coalesce in such a beautiful way you can’t help but dream big time.
The Journey Begins: For those unaware, We Only Find Them When They’re Dead is the brain child of Al Ewing and artist Simone Di Meo. Taking place circa the 24th century, it’s basically space miners looting the corpses of dead gods to sell like some futuristic gold rush. I won’t even mention the rest of the first issue’s main story, but suffice to say, it involves a mad dash adventure involving said gods and the beginnings of some truly heavy family drama surrounding main character Captain Georges Malik.
If the whole premise seems silly, it’s understandable; it’s definitely a little bonkers, like some Marvel comic on super steroids. But the story takes such a delightfully silly skeleton and makes something so much more wondrous and compelling. That’s a huge upside of this book: you enter on a gimmick only to find this rich, beguiling world.
The Slow Build: I said earlier that the story has a kind of quasi-anachronistic streak, and that’s true. Whereas some sci-fi feels nebulous given its timing and the overall universe, Ewing’s story feels far more grounded (even with the sleek spaceships and planet-sized deities). That’s because he doesn’t want you to get lost in the heavens but instead in the sense emotion and narrative goodness that exists within the characters and primary plot. So much of the tension in this debut is between competing ships claiming bits of a dead god; it’s like watching a city council meeting from Jupiter. But that tension, spurred on by the basest of human emotions, makes you feel connected to the emotions and the story more than any grand myths. Sci-fi can feel like Taco Bell, the same five elements expressed in slightly different variations. As such, the way to truly hook readers is to give them something they can’t get elsewhere: a really great drama.
This is not a series about some massive events in a world wildly alien to our own: it’s about how we as people face the continued onslaught of ourselves and the universe regardless of when and where these stories take place. That’s what great sci-fi does — slap a shiny coat on the mundanity of life and make us question our values and delve into the drama of everyday life, placing ourselves in these moments because they’re still deeply human despite any circumstances. Ewing knows what we need to find ourselves in this new universe, and he delivers with expert timing and nuance.
The Tears of the Gods: Of course, the story is only so much of the success of this first issue. You have to give just as much credit to the unbelievable art of Di Meo. When I say this book is gorgeous, I mean it took my breath away to gaze, slack-jawed, upon the shimmery divinity of these gods. Without making them any less daunting or scary, Di Meo depicts these space deities in such a way that you get why anyone would see them and want to pull apart every piece of cheek or glob of eyeball: they beg to be consumed (and to not do so is to deny whatever basic instinct that makes us human). And Di Meo doesn’t just nail these Celestials-esque figures, either. The entire aesthetic of this deep universe is hugelybeautiful and totally engaging. My first thought was it’s akin to a hugely slick version of Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555; which is to say, this perfect, almost idealized version of what space travel feels like. It’s a perfect balance of both uncanny realism and the wonders of saccharine anime.
But even with the bright colors and slick lines, Di Meo never forgets the crux of humanity. There’s always a hint of depth and imperfection throughout these scenes, be it in the faces of a character or some artificial angle of a passing spaceship. It’s just enough chaos and dissonance to not distract or strip power away from the story but color these massive visuals with some much needed subtlety and subtext. These visuals are hugely powerful and you’ll want to spend hours exploring them as the emotions ebb and flow accordingly.
The Shape of the Universe: It’s only the first issue, but I can’t help but think about what this book will become. Clearly it’s a story about space folk trying to eke out a living. Perhaps it’s also a tale about family and how those connections matter. Also, it’s about the power of humanity amid the swirling madness of the universe. But there’s something more here than just these tent-poles (as enough of a compelling story as that all would be). Like, how we make our own way in the world and what matters most is that decision to leave the masses for the promise of what’s new. Or, how we can’t escape our own smallness, and we must accept a certain order to things.
Perhaps this delves into the importance of choosing battles and opting for the long haul over the delights of a fast reward (like primo god meat). It could just be a story about the promise in the dark and how that sense of what could be is generally enough to sustain most lives. Whatever this book becomes (all of those but then maybe none?), it works because everything feels so deliberate and thoughtful while the narrative meanders gently to its next point.
Up and Onward: I was thinking more about why sci-fi and nostalgia feel like such perfect companions. It may also be that they’re both about heightened feelings, exaggerations of emotions that make us see the world in a certain kind of way. In that sense, We Only Find Them When They’re Dead is the best of both pillars, a dazzling demonstration of a world where gods are real and we’re the ones in charge. It’s cream of the crop, grade A emotion at its purest, and you want to swim endlessly in this world.
Wherever the journey lands in deep space, this book has already arrived upon something unique and utterly compelling.
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