Æther & Empire combines the grand sense of adventure from Jules Verne's classic novels and Star Trek's thrill of exploring the dangerous corners of space to bewilder us with its exciting story that's set at the height of Victoria's reign. Written by Mike Horan and edited by Thomas Mumme, the six-part story from Blue Juice Comics follows a group of scientists and heroes who take on a dangerous mission in space to rescue a scientific expedition to Mars that mysteriously vanished, and investigate what exactly happened to the men of the first voyage.
From the very beginning, Æther & Empire with its sweeping shots of impressively detailed illustrations by Tim Yates and Bong Ty Zo. The airship battle in the opening is a captivating preview of the story's daring adventures, a prologue displaying the bravery of a young officer saving a merchant vessel and losing his crew in the process. While it doesn't set up the stage for Æther's main plot, it does set the tone and scale of the conflicts at hand. It seems like a Steampunk graphic novel at first, and to a degree, it is with its Victorian tropes and airship battle cliches, but the space opera elements soon take over.
The quality of artwork is impressive. Highly detailed environments, creative designs of airships and spaceships are almost impossible to erase from memory. During action-packed sequences, each panel builds the tension efficiently on each panel, boldly showing us the grand scale of the battle as the shades of the background set the right atmosphere for each conflict the characters face.
The story centers on the crew of the starship H.M.S.S. Jules Verne, whose mission is to learn about the fate of the scientists who ha an expedition to Mars five months ago, and decide if a theat exists. The way they gather prior to the launch gives a sense that this is a kind of story that Christopher Nolan would direct. There are intellectuals with hidden agendas, scientists with thirst for "Eternal Glory", and brave heroes who just want to rescue the lost expedition. Barnaby Dunwood is a man of science, leading an expedition to find Douglas, the missing husband of Lilian. The members of the crew is diverse, but I felt like the pacing of the story is too fast for some of them to get the develpment they deserved. Despite their alluring visuals, even the most epic moments feel too abrupt.
However, the story does take its time to highlight the fine details of H.M.S.S. Jules Verne during its long voyage to Mars. The Steampunk aesthetic mixed with space looks wonderful, and the amount of details put into the starship is just incredible. There's even a page that shows the blueprint of the starship. The interior designs of the ship look elegant. While Horan doesn't delve into how technology actually works, the details are sufficient enough to suspend disbelief without jamming us with excessive exposition. We even get to see the crew communicate with chalks and boards while exploring an abandoned vessel. Then there's the unexplainable logic machine, which looks like a bulky computer that efficiently makes critical decisions for their journey.
During the section that showed the progression of days of space-travel, various panels give us glimpses of each section of the starship: there's a greenhouse area, a laboratory, a bridge with astrolabes, periscopes and other forms of antediluvian technology. Even though some parts have no dialogue, the images develop familiarity of the crew and life in the ship. The setting feels like Snowpiercer, but instead of a train, it's set in a starship, and minus the dystopian elements. The aesthethics of the natural and artificial are juxtaposed well: the alien starship looks like a huge shark, the"clockwork heart" that seems to be inspired by Frankenstein, and the Æther itself looks stunning. The Æther is a "single pervasive substance that allows light, heat, magnetism, and even gravity to travel through space", and apparently, Dunwood wants to rewrite science, not giving a damn about sacifices the crew would have to make to find "Eternal Glory".
Æther & Empire shines when its dialogues dig deep into its questions about science and religion. Miss Gangadharan, the creator of the starship's heliograph, says, "Science often deals in the unnatural, there is not just what we understand, but what we can do with that understanding." The clockwork heart seems to serve as an allegory to God's connection to science, and Barnaby's clash of views with the Captain made me question if the quest for immortality despite its dangers is actually worth it. As Barnaby argues:
"Science may just be the enemy of Faith. If God wanted us to be immortal, would he not give us immortality?"
On the other hand, the Captain opposes his view with a chilling metaphor:
"I am here to provide with protection. When your light of knowledge reveals the horrors of the unknown."
The story revolves around this theme: Is the truth worth knowing even if it would cost human lives? "Ignorance is bliss you cannot unsee" after all. Through the terrors of space, the grotesque physiology of mutated aliens and unknown horrors, is the enlightenment found in the darkness truly "enlightenment"? Why do humans dare explore the unkonown? Æther & Empire may not provide clear answers to these questions, but they shed a light of truth, and sometimes, a shed of light is enough to motivate us to venture into unknown.
Check out on Blue Juice Comics