Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 41: Drive

I dream of interstellar travel. To journey through the cosmos, encounter alien life, and experience the excitement that a galaxy - or even a universe - full of diverse environments can provide. Current technology does not permit such explorations. By the time human travelers could reach even the nearest star, they would be dead. As for the nearest inhabited planet… we’re not certain there is one.

Practical transportation between solar systems may never be within human grasp. If such a thing is ever developed, though, it will change everything. And the one who develops it will be in an unprecedented position to influence human life. The consequences of such a development, and the discoveries that may follow, are thoroughly explored in Drive.

Drive is a comic about the ragtag crew aboard a dingy little spaceship and the adventures they have. The main group of characters serve as a focus through which the audience can witness momentous events, the machinations of an empire on an interstellar scale. This particular crew is right in the thick of things, either by coincidence or design. (I mean, really they’re in the thick of things because otherwise the story wouldn’t be about them, but you know what I mean.) For the most part, the assemblage of this particular group of people seems accidental, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover an organizing principle at work that hasn’t yet been revealed at this point.

Regardless of how they got this way, the crew of the Machito stand at the lynchpin of great happenings, regardless of whether they are qualified to occupy that position.

Note: Drive is a heavily narrative-based comic and must be read in order from the beginning. I won’t be able to get through this review without spoiling anything, but I’ll keep away from major plot points and make sure I don’t give big stuff away that’s not revealed at the beginning of the comic. This is one of those stories where information is revealed slowly over time, and I don’t want to disrupt that process for new readers.

The plot is intricate, with storylines interweaving across vast distances and time spans. While one group of characters definitely receives more attention than any others, I’d say only about half of the story is spent on them. There are just so many other things going on, whether in flashbacks or just a view to what’s going on in another part of the galaxy while our heroes are busy drinking milkshakes.

There’s an awful lot of information to keep track of. Every time I reread the comic I feel like I have a better understanding of what’s going on, both because more information has been revealed to me and because I get better at processing what I’ve already seen with repeated exposure.

Receiving information is only a small part of understanding. Putting that information into the correct context is trickier, and also more rewarding.

Don’t feel intimidated by the heavy plot stuff, though. Drive is a rewarding experience even for a casual reader. The story itself may be dense with conspiracies and uncertain loyalties, but on the level of individual installments, Drive is one of the funniest things out there. A fascinating array of alien species shows up, with unique evolutionary paths that led to some spectacular abilities. The resulting physical attributes and cultural systems are often comically exaggerated and even downright silly. (I don’t want to give much away, but I basically love everything about Fillipods.)

And though the characters are neck-deep in imperial intrigue, they aren’t the least bit decorous. Some characters are humorous by their nature and wouldn’t know serious drama if it hit them on the head, while others just seem to prefer a more laid-back, snarky attitude despite the serious happenings around them.

One major recurring theme in Drive has to do with the differences between cultures, and their coexistence and/or synthesis. Humans and aliens interact in a variety of ways, finding common languages and points of reference, and dealing with the stereotypes and misunderstandings that inevitably arise.

Even within the human empire, cultural differences are prevalent. This is particularly notable because so often in science fiction, a single planet is treated as a single cultural entity, and with American-created science fiction, that usually means an entire Earth that’s just like the US.

In Drive, the human empire is based in Spain, and the standard imperial language is a hybrid of English and Spanish. I have to wonder whether the English is only in there because that’s the native language of the comic’s creator and primary audience, and if the comic were written for a Spanish-speaking audience the presence of English words would be minimal or nonexistent. (Practically speaking, most of the comic is in English, which I appreciate because I would have a hard time reading it otherwise.) But regardless of why the creator chose to hybridize two languages, the choice has the effect of reinforcing the idea that all large cultures are the result of smaller ones joining together, and that this diversity continues to have repercussions throughout the lifetime of the larger culture.

One of the main characters is an alien with a ridiculous accent, not because his species talks that way, but because he spent time in Moscow. The lesson: don’t go around stereotyping Veetans. You should stereotype Russians instead. (I mean, we can’t be expected not to stereotype people at all. That would be ridiculous.)

Along the same lines as general cultural understanding, communication is key to the drama in this comic. After all, the biggest obstacle to cultural understanding is often just getting the two cultures to talk to each other, and, more importantly, to listen. At least one important message is misunderstood to disastrous effect, and the cases where species don’t attempt communication have a tendency to go badly.

Communication is definitely worthwhile, but it’s not always easy. Furthermore, political power often requires secrets, which just make communication more difficult and fraught with opportunities for trouble.

The difficulty of effective communication is reinforced by the fact that Nosh, that alien with the silly Russian accent, is a science advisor, tasked with “translat[ing] tricky sciences talk into the plain Englishes.” Nuance is key to so much of communication, and so difficult to translate effectively, that it’s almost surprising that anyone manages to work around the barriers at all.

Sometimes you’ll come across a page that is entirely text, with no pictures whatsoever. It’s easy to be intimidated when you see all those words, but don’t be! The text pages are wonderfully entertaining, written with the same style and sense of humor as the comic dialog. They provide important exposition and background information, really fleshing out the setting and making the story come alive. These are all in-universe documents: letters, historical texts and such, and if you’re interested in the story at all, there’s a lot in these documents that will draw you in. This is information that couldn’t easily be communicated in other ways, so it’s presented as succinctly as possible. Also, the way that these documents are arranged provides scads of insight into the way that the empire handles information specifically and day-to-day operations generally.

Remember when I said I love everything about Fillipods? I love everything about Fillipods.

I recommend Drive to anyone who is curious about the future, who worries about traversing language barriers, or who just enjoys some good-natured silliness now and then. The intricate plot is what I remember and think about the most, but the basic humor is what draws me in. Drive is one of a very small number of works that I think strikes the perfect balance between short-term, self-contained entertainment and long-term payoff. An individual installment is often plenty entertaining on its own, but only when you take them all together do you truly appreciate what’s going on. Feel free to approach with as casual or as serious an attitude as you like, and Drive will accommodate you.

Drive is written and drawn by Dave Kellett, and has been updating weekly as of late. (Mr. Kellett spent quite a lot of time putting a documentary together, but has now resumed comicking with a gusto.) If you like laughing and/or caring about fictional political developments, do yourself a favor and check it out.


  1. I don't think it would be too spoilery to note that the captain of the tiny scout ship Machito is "Captain Teneel", a pun that came out of nowhere (except the 1970s) to hit me in the funny bone and is quite UNrepresentative of the style of humor here. (I mean, Kellett has shown such self-control in NOT using Nosh the Veetan's Russian accent to do Yakov Smirnoff-ish jokes).

    Or to note how the pivotal character referred to in the cast list as Pilot but who's called by the other characters "Skitter" (much to his annoyance) has a resemblance (with certain augmentations) to a character in Kellett's other comic, the intrepid lizard Flaco. Also with some similarities - and some significant differences - in personality.

    Or to note that the 3-page prologue that explains how humanity acquired "practical transportation between solar systems" is simple, believable and somewhat banal... only to be later dovetailed into another flashback with one small clue - that, in fact, I missed the first time I read it - of a major future plot development (Okay, maybe that's a LITTLE spoilery).

    I don't know why webcomics has become the dominant medium for Comedic Space Opera, but it is... the early web's "Melonpool" (1996) and "Zortic" (2000), Kris Straub's completed "Starslip", Chris Baldwin's also-ended "Spacetrawler" (previously featured here) and its underrated successor "One Way", Howard Tayler's long-running epic of Hard-SF concepts, daily punchlines and bad art "Schlock Mercenary" and this happy-to-have-it-back "Drive".

    1. I honestly hadn't even noticed Captain Teneel's name. Which I can say about a lot of details in this comic. It really rewards a close reading, and re-reading.

      As far as I'm concerned, you can never have too many Comedic Space Operas, and I'm just grateful that webcomics is taking on the task of filling out the genre.