The comic industry doesn’t have a reward show as widely recognized as the academy awards, but if we did Drifter would be the comic equivalent of Oscar bait. This isn’t to say that Drifter is by any means a “bad” comic, in fact it’s quite good, but only a certain type of person is going to be able to appreciate such a nuanced story. This is a comic that is going to have a very loyal fan base but I think there is a reason why reception has been a little quite for Drifter. It’s the kind of comic you can pour yourself into, searching every nook and cranny, reading and rereading lines, hypothesizing and extrapolating every last drop of meaning with your friends until the next issue comes out. This can be fun to some but other might find the experience tedious because in fact you have to pour yourself into Drifter because it’s not giving anything to you.
Summarizing the Drifter is a bit of a challenge. Maybe I’m just an idiot but I can’t really say what happens in this issue and that’s kind of the problem. Essentially the storyline is about a man who crashes from space onto a desert planet that is generally a Sci-Fi western. Imagine Firefly that favors dark and serious over humor. So all of the old tropes are there for westerns; sinful preachers, bar fights, miners in dangerous positions, dangerous natives and for the most of the time it’s played pretty straight. Until it’s not. When Drifter shines it’s a force to be reckoned with, creating one of most interesting worlds with an ecosystem as great as any classic fantasy story I’ve read. Given a long enough time span people would figure out the entire ecology of the world. I’m especially fond of the humanoid type characters who move in mysterious ways, hinting at a living world.
So what’s the problem with Drifter? The problem is mostly in the writing. Let’s start with the dialogue. No one speaks normally in this story. And I’m not addressing the fact that people speak in a type of southern dialect, that’s fine with me. An astronaut who says yall isn’t beyond my suspension of disbelief. But a miner who says, “It’s been too many hours. We can’t even afford minutes.” As opposed to, you know, “hurry the fuck up,” is just beyond me. It seems like a small gripe out of context but everyone talks like this. People’s language gets a little too flowery, a little too poetic. It’s actually at ends with the tough no nonsense tone of the story when every other character speaks like a poet laureate.
Strange dialogue in and of itself wouldn’t be too much of a problem but the other issue is the mysteries at the plot level. To me, a story should have a discreet beginning middle and end. A story with an occasional dangling story thread at the end is fine, especially as a promise to a future storyline. But every single issue of Drifter ends in some sort of cliffhanger and none of them are explained by the end. There is just so much that is not explained in this story. What is this world? How did it come to be like this? What was the protagonist’s mission before this? Why doesn’t he go home? Why does anybody stay here? Can they leave? Why does that other guy shoot him in the beginning? Why does he care about a girl who he just met in a bar? Why did the story jump a year into the future? Who was that guy who died? Didn’t that guy say those things were as strong as five men, how did he kill one with a shovel? If you are the type who can deal with a story that doesn’t feel the need to explain itself then maybe none of those questions are deal breakers for you but I personally felt the combination of overly flowery dialogue and lack of explanations for the world and characters just left me scratching my head.
The story I’m most reminded of is the television show Lost. I believe there will be an answer to some of these questions but I get the feeling that most of them won’t be. And the most important question I have as a reader is. ‘If not one of these questions can be answered in one graphic novel, why should I trust that there will be a satisfying ending to any of this?’ That’s kind of a pact when writing any serialized story. At the end you need to have resolved something to show us that you are capable of doing so with the complete story. And I’m not so confident because in my mind, nothing of value has finished in Drifter.
So why the recommendation? Well the art is basically the best thing around the comics and that doesn’t hurt. I’m not kidding. If you want to buy one comic just for the art alone go ahead and buy this comic. Each panel is like a vista, never feeling cramped and always giving just the right details for the story. The monsters feel distinct and tangible history conveyed in their design. The lightning colored against the night sky is some of the most beautiful imagery I’ve seen in a long long time. Seriously, this art is one to study and it goes a long way towards adding an aesthetic cohesiveness to the tone of the story.
At the end of the day Drifter is the kind of comic that a devoted audience is going to love but I think it’s a bit too esoteric to gain mainstream appeal. And maybe that’s okay. While I have a hard time recommending it I have to admit that I like it. I definitely will end up following this comic so maybe that’s enough. But personally I feel like comics that come out month to month should work a little bit harder to keep their audience engaged.