A few months back, I finally got around to watching Alien. After all, nothing quite beats a flagrantly belated viewing of the film that undergirds so many of one’s pop culture obsessions. It was a strange experience to say the least; one almost feels like there’s some near-mathematical obligation to enjoy it, yet running in a lot of geek circles meant that even when I hadn’t seen the film, I knew more trivia, anecdotes, allegories and facts about the film than your average person who had seen it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it (it’s right up there with Blade Runner for Ridley Scott’s best work), but growing up when I did, it’s far more intuitive for me to place the sci-fi horror flick in the context of what it inspired, as opposed to what inspired it.

So, much like films such as Sunshine and Event Horizon, and the Dead Space series of video games, Black Mask Studios’ The Disciples inevitably faces comparisons to Alien. Thankfully, writer Steve Niles (30 Days of Night) and artist Christopher Mitten (Umbral) have thoughtfully towed the line between homage and facsimile, all the while playing with the expectations and tropes that one familiar with the Alien franchise will (perhaps subconsciously) bring to the table.

Like most horror tales, the introductory conceit is a straightforward one, couched in the “best laid plans” mindset that horror narratives embrace. In the future, a trio of intergalactic bounty hunters/mercenaries (named Rick, Dagmar, and Jules, to be specific) have landed a new “job.” And what of this gig? Well, they’ve been tasked by a U.S. Senator with retrieving his daughter from a cult she’s taken up with. Except, you know, that cult is on Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. Apparently the wealthy CEO of a pharmaceutical company staked a claim to colonize said moon, as a way of giving his religious followers a place all by themselves. Like I said…cult.

Like, is there a way we can make EVERYTHING Mitten draws be about space? I mean....dang.

Like, is there a way we can make EVERYTHING Mitten draws be about space? I mean….dang.

Right out of the gate, The Disciples wisely imitates Alien’s unwillingness to name a clear-cut protagonist through the framing of the narrative’s perspective, provide contextual hints at character backgrounds, or reinforce genre archetypes. Those looking for a high-strung character that’s got a little too much riding on this, someone that makes furtive glances when left alone with the main computer, or an individual that just doesn’t seem human…you’re simply not going to find them. Alien prepares you for the notion that a ship’s roster will unavoidably consist of at least one crewman who’s itching to unfurl machinations that fall outside of the primary objectives. Yet nothing of the sort even happens. It’s a simultaneous reinforcement and subversion of what readers bring to the table, which makes it all the more anxiety-inducing.

Much like the crew, we find ourselves trapped within the claustrophobic confines of the Venture, with Niles’ script remaining an unflinching gaze that shackles us to the mundanity of the ship’s operations. There is no veering off to a flashback sequence, or cutting away to present an event simultaneously happening on Earth, or Ganymede. Not only does this methodical deprivation of extra-ship activities allow the reader to not glean additional information about the crew members or their past, but this unblinking perspective leaves the reader convinced that there aren’t any undocumented moments amongst the crew that they, as readers, weren’t made privy to.

crewconvos

Coffee…still sorta the same…in whatever year this is.

Indeed, horror fans will undoubtedly appreciate Niles’ initial setup, one that’s seemingly airtight to a point that readers will squint to find any of the usual narrative cracks itching to “spiderweb” into a full-on cosmic scare-fest. Yet, in the closing pages of the first issue, the inevitable, yet tried-and-true trope of hypersleep/stasis rears its agency-rending head. Those who rack their brain will not have to ponder long to throw together a handful of tales (Alien 3, for one) where this seemingly essential staple of space travel serves as a surefire gateway for things to spiral out of control.

As for The Disciples, Niles baits his readers with this potentially dangerous process, and has his characters emerge unscathed. With only a page or two left in the issue, Niles constructs a masterful tension between whether to carry on the issue’s tendencies (a series of feints and fake-outs ultimately suggesting a long-game approach, where the actual horror is reserved for Ganymede), or actually deliver a genuine scare or two before the issue wraps. Without saying too much (a preempting phrase that any of my fellow writers or friends will tell you holds no weight), Christopher Mitten’s splash page that bookends the issue is equal bits grotesque, strangely maternal, and the embodiment of a Rorschach ink blot test.

Nothing quite says comfort like a bulky uniform and dozens of cords attaching to it.

Nothing quite says comfort like a bulky uniform and dozens of cords attaching to it.

I’d go so far as to argue that the first issue was about luring the reader into a state of mollifying omniscience regarding the goings-on of the starship Venture. Characters were placed in largely stationary positions behind desks and consoles or in sleep pods, while Mitten’s already minimalist facial and speech expressions come across as static or unchanging across panels. Nobody gets overly animated (literally) or worked up, or bounds off for more than a panel or two. Mitten’s panelwork largely bounces back and forth between close-ups on the crewmates talking shop, and gorgeous splash pages of the Venture rocketing through space.

With that in mind, Niles and Mitten effectively invert this formula of security and control in the second issue, with the lead-off panels perfectly encapsulating this tonal shift. We begin with a panel of pitch-black darkness speckled with flecks of grey smoky cosmos…or is it? The following panel zooms out to reveal that our preceding scene appears to take place in an unknown room on board the Venture, with clouds of smoke/ash/dust billowing about the room…and it faintly resembles the ambiance we encountered at the tail end of the first issue. Meanwhile, Jules has been brought to his knees somehow, and Dagmar lies unresponsive. And, as the initial panel’s one word implied…we don’t know where Rick is. There’s also something darkly quizzical that Dagmar’s first inquiry is “where is it?” instead of something regarding Rick’s whereabouts. Perhaps there’s something to be gleaned about their relationship from such.

Niles and Mitten absolutely NAIL this opening sequence from the second issue.

Niles and Mitten absolutely NAIL this opening sequence from the second issue.

Either way, the second installment of The Disciples’ plot finds itself caught up in diligently emulating scenes from the Alien franchise…but fails to convincingly riff on this material in a way that goes beyond being an homage to a nonetheless deserving film series. Do we have crewmembers discovering their unconscious cohort with a parasitic organism setting up shop on his face? Why, absolutely! Does said creature vacate the premises and seemingly die/disappear upon further investigation? Uh huh, that happens as well…with the crewmember in question going so far as to say, “it felt like something was inside me…and now it’s gone.” Sound familiar? “But is it really gone, Nick?” you ask. Well…have you seen Alien?

Unavoidable similarities aside, the book’s creative team have successfully tweaked several of the “space horror” mechanisms pioneered by Alien in ways more within the wheelhouse of Mr. Niles. Alien cast aside the idea that whatever we’d end up encountering in our unyielding attempt to tell everyone in the universe just how culturally-bereft they were for not having seen The Wire, might look/speak/reason like us. Instead, Alien showed us an apex predator that had arrived at such an esteemed position without the utilization of advanced technology or diplomatic pleasantries, and with the sole goal of survival/propagation.

Niles and Mitten’s creatures, however seem to have aims beyond unadulterated murder, and some (the one at the end of the first issue) even sport something of a humanoid appearance. And while the Xenomorph (that’s the creature from the Alien films, for the uninitiated) was a being unmitigated in its ferocity, it was also constrained by its grounded physicality and biology. It couldn’t just appear on the ship, it had to be brought on board, and it couldn’t just disappear at will, either. The same can’t be said of the beings in The Disciples. They possess a weird astral glow, and appear to have an aim (albeit, an unspoken one) beyond that of unmitigated murder. But as for what they want, where they came from, how they come and go freely on a ship hurtling through space, and if Mitten’s fish/worm take on the “facehugger” has anything to do with the somewhat-but-not-quite-human creature…we have no idea. Heck, the crew isn’t even totally convinced that either of the things were real.

I mean...weird...right?

I mean…weird…right?

So while Alien’s “first contact” shifted the film into a decidedly “kill or be killed” scenario (which is not to downplay the efficacy with which such is played out), The Disciples takes a more open-ended and ponderous approach, and opts to let the questions pile up, without answering few (if any) of them. It’s only after the crew scours the ship for their humanoid visitor that the repercussions of their uninvited guests are felt, even if their intent remains unclear.

While this series of disturbing revelations manages to bring back memories of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, and subvert expectations…the remainder of the issue has an “on rails” feel to it. There’s never a question that the crew (in one state or another) will reach Ganymede, and the ease with which they shrug off what is easily the most disturbing moment in all three issues is slightly jarring. That, or maybe we can write it off as shock. Either way, the pacing of the second issue comes off uneven. It reaches its point of “maximum impact” halfway though the issue, and then rushes through the aftermath in order to ensure that impatient readers will set foot on Ganymede by issue’s end.

...now, that's not to say that Niles doesn't enlist the help of at least one or two horror tropes...

…now, that’s not to say that Niles doesn’t enlist the help of at least one or two horror tropes…

As for the third issue, Niles takes the time to imply that the creatures that appeared mid-flight are native to Ganymede (which is a clever way to confirm suspicions without actually revealing how they ended up in space), and shows us that the cult in question has seemingly taken a big hearty swig of whatever supplants Kool-Aid in this unspecified future. That is, if one believes that mass suicides are somehow followed by a frighteningly neat burial, in equidistant plots, of those seemingly involved. I’d discuss the issue more, but to do so would involve even more tiptoeing, so I’ll leave it at this: I’m not really sold on the “reveal” surrounding the burial plot at this juncture, and unless the fourth issue rescues it from the spontaneous nature it currently possesses, this is gonna be one unhappy intergalactic spacefarer.

While Niles’ script, aside from some of the aforementioned pacing issues, and the occasional padding of scenes, will sate the needs of most sci-fi horror fans, there’s no doubt that Christopher Mitten’s pencils won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Some probably feel that characters/facial features aren’t his forte, and that said characters look out of place when faced with the decidedly dark subject matter The Disciples presents. There’s also the fact that certain effects, like the spaceship’s engines rocketing through space, or the smoke trail the fish creature leaves behind, have a flat look that might throw those looking for something more conventional.

Personally, I’m not surprised that Niles teamed up with Mitten. One only has to look at the work of past collaborator Ben Templesmith to understand that Niles has an eye for new talent that’s capable of evoking terror, rather than those that resemble conventional/house comic book styles. Personally, I really love how the Venture blasting out of the station looks like fragments of tinted glass erupting from its engines, the way that character’s fingers come across blocky and square, or how the action of tapping buttons on a console creates this little spike of energy.

Hands down one of my favorite panels, and a great example of Mitten's blocky style.

Hands down one of my favorite panels, and a great example of Mitten’s blocky style.

Mitten just has this general avoidance of giving things the rounded, polished look that we’re accustomed to, and has some sort of affinity for ascribing a rough, angular asymmetrical finish in its place. This eschewing of the “shiny and neat” aesthetic many sci-fi narratives embrace, subconsciously prepares the reader for a tale that will likely not be the usual rigmarole of optimistic and upbeat space exploration. Did I mention that his aptitude for drawing terrifying stuff is only amplified by his absolutely fantastic inks? Honestly, some of the best inking I’ve seen in a while, and one can probably chalk much of that up to Mitten having the opportunity to do his own inks (something he has done on previous books, such as Umbral).

Mitten and Fotos are absolutely at the top of their game.

Mitten and Fotos are absolutely at the top of their game.

Overall, The Disciples is a book that clearly serves as a love letter to Niles and Mitten’s predecessors that pioneered the genre, while slyly managing to keep these earlier works from telegraphing their every move. The banter between characters is believable, and Niles has taken care to not have these characters fall into the usual roles that works of horror tend to play with. However, from the end of the first issue’s reveal, Niles lets the questions accumulate to a level that’s unsustainable, at least, not without addressing some of them.

The Disciples could have easily turned into an Aliens style “bug hunt” midway through the second issue, and postponed/shelved the whole “cult on Ganymede” plot for another time, but they didn’t. Instead, Niles has allowed for all of this mystery and suspense to reach a boiling point just in time for what I understand to be the final (fourth) issue. There’s a lot of danger to be had in this “all or nothing” approach, and the enticing breadcrumb trail of clues meant to string readers along to the fourth issue’s “tell-all” loses steam over the course of the second and third issues. And a Shyamalan set-up only works if you’re lucky enough to be The Sixth Sense, and not The Happening. While the strength of Niles’ machinations will only be known with the next installment, Mitten’s art and Jay Fotos’ colors are consistently eerie and unsettling, and are resoundingly well worth the price of admission…even if the plot might end up buckling under all the build-up.

Overall Score
93 %

Steve Niles and Christopher Mitten's The Disciples manages to be an excellent feather in the cap of fledgling publisher Black Mask Studios...even if it shelves smaller narrative reveals in favor of whatever awaits in the final issue.

Writing 90%
Art 95%
Colors 93%

About The Author

Growing up, Nick White dreamed of a career with the Chicago Bulls. This is because he was young and stupid, and his parents were of the "you can do ANYTHING" mentality.

When he was older, and probably not a whole lot smarter, Nick purchased Alan Moore's From Hell on a whim (that in itself probably says a lot). He was astounded to find that comics were as bizarre and twisted as his beloved Twin Peaks. After that he bought Batman: The Black Mirror strictly on the cover's aesthetics (Who the hell is Scott Snyder?" he said) and hasn't looked back since. Except, of course, in situations that necessitate such.

When he's not "busy" playing Castlevania or harassing Zander about what he ought to be reading, Nick continues to work on his makeshift shrine to Jeff Lemire.

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