Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 49: One Way

A while back, I discussed Christopher Baldwin’s Spacetrawler. That comic has since concluded, but Baldwin has launched a new project, which I’d like to tell you about now. Like Spacetrawler, it’s a comedic science fiction tale populated with fascinating, well-rounded characters. Unlike Spacetrawler, it’s less a daring adventure unfolding on a galactic stage and more an intimate examination of interpersonal relationships. Allow me to present the quiet introspection and seethingly repressed emotional landscape of One Way.

One Way is the story of a group of humans traveling on a journey to meet alien life for the first time in history. Their ship’s technology is still experimental, they have no guarantee as to how the aliens will receive them, they’re traveling far from where any other humans are or have ever been, and the comic’s title implies that they’re unlikely to come home afterward.

Unusually, the story isn’t about first contact or exploring the unknown or coming to grips with humanity’s place in the universe. It’s all about what this handful of people choose to do when they are on their own with no external accountability.

These characters are not the best and brightest that humanity has to offer; they are capable and qualified crew members whom, for one reason or another, nobody would mind losing to the cosmos. They lack motivation, or personal skills, or life goals. Some have none of those things. For a job like as dangerous and far afield as this, you send people who can get it done, but you don’t dare send anyone important.

I’ll note here that One Way is definitely best read in order from the beginning. I’ll try not to spoil too much here, but an astute reader could probably pick things up from my writing that give away plot points, so tread carefully.

One Way puts me in mind of a Bottle Episode. It features a small cast of characters, confined to one location, and deals primarily with conversations between those characters. While there is some spectacular science fiction action, it’s confined to the background. The focus is on the people and their interactions, not on the challenges facing them or the philosophical and political ramifications to those challenges. Things may be happening on a large scale, but the drama unfolds on a small scale, based on individual decisions, friendships and other relationships that develop among these crew members.

Given the way these character’s relate to each other, it’s clear why none of them were in high demand among humanity. They don’t get along easily, some being acerbic while others are friendly but socially incompetent. Of note is that, of the sexual relationships that have been established among these characters so far, none are romantic in nature or anything more than convenient trysts that are amenable to the parties involved. These people can get along when necessary, but they don’t show any interest/ability in forming close personal bonds.

Conversations are awkward, full of missteps wherein misunderstandings are brutally corrected or carelessly allowed to slide. Witty banter serves dual purposes, both providing punchlines for the reader’s entertainment and creating barriers so that the characters can avoid genuine emotional connections. Often, characters speak without making eye contact; they communicate the necessary information to the reader and to one another, but they avoid transcending the professional aspect of communication and allowing it to bolster their personal relationships.

A defining factor of One Way is the characters’ lack of agency. They’ve been put into this situation by those in power, and now there’s little any of them can do to change their circumstances. There are one or two big decisions for the crew to make as a whole, and probably someone could do their job incorrectly and wind up catastrophically damaging the ship and killing the remaining crew members, but for the most part they are literally traveling on a set course.

A story like this, wherein the characters cannot control the outcome, is all about their inner journeys. None of the individual characters can control where the ship will land or when it will get there. They can’t affect the outcome that awaits them. The only thing they have any ability to change is themselves. The story becomes introspective, focusing on the characters’ growth and development under challenging circumstances.

As I read One Way, I realize how very many assumptions I’ve been making about this crew, their origins and history that may or may not be correct. I won’t get any more specific right here, to preserve the thrill of discovery, but I’ve been reading carefully for mentions of particular details that seem never to show up. Possibly those details are left vague in order to avoid locking the comic into one particular vision of humanity’s future development, but I find myself wondering whether there are any surprises in store regarding things that the characters consider common knowledge that the reader has yet to learn. There’s enough going on in this story that a careful reading is recommended anyway, so I’m taking that care and using it to prepare myself for one or two shocking revelations that could potentially come to pass.

One Way almost feels like a play I’m watching. The scope of the action is limited to a particular set, with only hints and allusions letting me know that there’s a larger setting outside the confines of the main characters’ location. The characters themselves are complex and flawed, and the fun is less in the things they do and more in their reasons for doing those things. This first time, I have no idea what’s going to happen or how any of these characters will turn out, but even once the story concludes and I know how it ends for all of them, I can imagine going back and spending hours dissecting these characters and their motivations, staring at particular panels and trying to reconstruct the thoughts going through their minds at that moment.

Any one of these characters feels deep enough to be a meaty and compelling role for a great actor, the type of character whose inner life is the subject of debate and contradictory interpretations between performers for generations. I guess what I’m trying to say is that One Way strikes me as the Hamlet of comics. No matter how many essays English students may write about it, there will always be more to consider.

If you didn’t scoff and assume I was going overboard with that Hamlet comparison, then I probably don’t need to do any more convincing to get you to start reading One Way right now. It’s full of complex, well-rounded characters, contains a few compelling mysteries (which I haven’t even mentioned previously, because they’re most fun when they sneak up on you), and everything happens in the context of a far-reaching science fiction story that presumably has drastic consequences for humanity as a whole. This comic is made out of many of my favorite things, and it mixes them up in a way that feels new and unexpected. There’s a lot to unravel here, and I always look forward to watching the next piece of action unfold.

One Way is written and drawn by Christopher Baldwin and updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I recommend it for people who think Twelve Angry Men would be a whole lot better if the eponymous men were on a spaceship the entire time.

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