Over the last decade or so, there’s been a marked trend in entertainment media, especially of the Hollywood variety, toward mixing genres that have traditionally maintained their own distinct identities. Horror/Comedy and Science/Fantasy are probably two of the more popular amalgamations; there is another that, at first glance , may seem a bit more of a stretch than either of the other two mentioned, namely, the Science Fiction/Western.
What may come as a bit of a surprise is that the sci-fi/western is nothing like a recent development. The first entry that I can easily recall is Westworld, the early ’70s thriller that starred Yul Brynner and Alan Oppenheimer and featured gun-fighting robots run amok throughout a futuristic theme park. Well, that film panned critically, but became something of a cult classic. Perhaps the weirdest thing of all is that despite its age, Westworld was beaten to the punch almost 40 years earlier by this film.
While “Serenity” was definitely well-received among critics and fans alike, “Cowboys and Aliens” achieved the financial success that may have sparked a new wave of similarly themed properties for the foreseeable future. Take for instance the recently released Copperhead from Image Comics, the story of Sheriff Clara Bronson and her ongoing acclimation to a new planetary frontier.
Outside of the obviously alien setting, Copperhead is more crime thriller or police procedural drama than either of its recent predecessors, and that’s no accident. Creator Jay Faerber has characterized the book as ” basically Deadwood with aliens”.
Where “Serenity” and “Cowboys” focused on the more inventive aspects of there respective stories, either by way of genetic enhancement or well, aliens, Copperhead seems to be shooting more from the hip in terms of addressing real conflicts via outlandish avatars.
It’s a technique that will, along with its strong female lead, draw some fans from other realms that may have overlooked the book.
The first issue was rife with socially potent undertones; Bronson’s prickly reception from her new deputy, one Budroxifinicus, due to his double resentment of both her position of authority over him personally, and her unintended and uncontrollable representation of the imperial domination by way of her “race” over his people.
The story takes place in a period following an as yet unexplored period of war between humans and the inhabitants of this world, one that didn’t end in the natives’ favor. There is also the added amorality of the “arties”, artificial life-forms bred specifically to fight the battles that the humans proved to frail to endure during the war; they now serve as attaches to the human ruling class.
There’s also Bronson’s dual identity as cop and single-mother, a grounding element that keeps the story from moving too far afield. The constant struggle to balance her responsibilities in her new environment is met with alternating degrees of benevolent indifference and outright hostility.
The pace of the series thus far has been slow, but nothing like boring. The cast includes a veritable plethora of characters, outside the aforementioned main players; from the rowdy Sewell clan to the pseudo-aristocratic Benjamin Hickory, the plodding pace is necessary to round out the ensemble troop.
Ishmael, an artie, is a perfect example of the multifaceted nature of the cast. He’s one part loner, one part warrior, one part good Samaritan, and one part opportunist. Following a violent attack on the Sewells, he steps in and rescues Bronson’s son Zeke, but it’s later revealed that Ishmael has ulterior motives that are none to honorable.
Like Ishmael, no one introduced in the book is nearly as one-dimensional as first appearances might suggest. Faerber has chosen to give his characters life through complexity instead of caricaturization, a nod to the intelligence of his comic book audience and a welcome one at that. He does play a little with prejudices; Budroxifinicus is at first glance, a lumbering brute, likewise the Sewells behave like stereotypical hicks. The genius, however, is in the layers of personality that everyone displays as the story winds and weaves from Copperhead main out into the Badlands.
The exchanges between characters are organic, thankfully, as there is no narration or internal dialogue to speak of. Without the wry humor and barbs thrown about here and there, things would be far too stiff and formulaic. As it stands, the dialogue feels real; during conversations characters are sometimes at a loss for words, andother times noticeably, but not overly, emotive. The characterizations are distinct, if mutable, and a lot of that flexibility comes through in the fluctuating discourse.
I haven’t mentioned the artwork, not because it’s bad, or anything less than brilliant actually; no, I was just so impressed with the story and the characters that the art took a back seat to my desire to share said impressions. I still don’t want to heap too much praise on it, lest I be accused of gushing, but you really need to read AND see this book. Godlewski is putting in some masterclass work that really jibes with the tone of the tale. The colors are faded out and the palette is appropriately restricted, emitting a decidedly rustic aura over the entire book.
We’re four issues into the series’ run and still in the information gathering phase of things, which points toward a lengthy lifespan, both in terms of story arc and overall series duration. With that said, you should definitely be reading this title already, but if you aren’t, issue #5 due out mid-January needs to be on your pull list. But even if it’s not, keep an eye out for big/small screen adaptations, I’m almost sure one or two are in this book’s future.