Note: These are not available at an LCS or digitally (not yet at least) as they are self-published by the creators. Individual issues/parts can be purchased at www.malachiward.com or mattsheean.blogspot.com.
No matter how esoteric sci-fi/fantasy can be sometimes, much of the story foundation of the genre gravitates toward social commentary by nudging the reader to think about sociological problems both in a contemporary and historical vein. There are many things happening in this story, but I want to focus on what I interpreted as the heart of Expansion, that is the creators raising questions/thoughts in my mind about imposing ideology (religious/cultural belief) upon people through shining a light on the tumultuous tight rope relationship between religion and power/influence.
While I do not doubt the positive influences that faith or belief (e.g., spirituality) can have on a person, I still tend to worry when individuality is stripped from someone who becomes apart of a congregation or group, and that extends out to so many facets of existing in a social sense—from peer groups to workplaces, from hobby clubs to religious organizations. The battle for self autonomy (the ability to always make a choice for oneself) along with religious and cultural establishment moves throughout Expansion and gives a more human connection to the sci-fi space elements. In fact, the universality I like about Expansion is that it could have been a story told in any genre, and I believe that Sheean and Ward use sci-fi as a vehicle as it seems to fit them comfortably with the subject matters, and they are able to execute a multi layered visual story expertly.
The need to dissect power/influence is important in thinking about this story of colonization that Expansion aims to tell. For one layer of the story, we have a group of religious hermits who have decided that their way of life is the right way, but all civilizations outside of their belief system are flawed. Based on that belief they take refuge in a black hole in a region of space, a black hole that allows them to remain in a slowed time bubble while billions of years pass outside of the bubble. (For a more detailed explanation of this concept, please see my “Time and…” article on Expansion here). When their calculations for the death of civilizations are met they plan to emerge. From that point they look to start a new non-violent civilization based on their beliefs on a habitable planet, but conflict arises as Sheean and Ward set up the closest habitable planet as one that has an indigenous people who live off the land and are able to support themselves. Could they keep looking? Sure, but ego wrapped in belief forces a decision. This mirrors our own points in human history when colonization began en masse with the invention of long form transport. Civilizations begin or are maintained through blood and influence. The religious colonizers of Expansion use influence but are ultimately undone by a number of factors, one of which is a great reversal historically speaking, but I won’t spoil any of it here.
The art of Expansion is a blend of architectural ideas of different time periods and some imaginative steps (for instance the cosmic housing of the A.T.R.). Before a brief thought about sci-fi staples of ship/transport design, I want to take a moment to point out something of interest about clothing. The clothing design is asexual: lots of tunics and robes. It interests me as a choice by the creators as it questions again how identity may be influenced, or even shaped, by groups or cultures. (Or then again, it could just be a simplification to save time and thinking, but I will defer to the creators on that one.) Now as for the ship designs, it moves from clean, elongated geometrical objects (the ships of the non-religious travelers) to some very intricate design work (the ships of the religious). The ships themselves are technological marvels, but I most enjoyed that they are never more than window dressing save for a few key scenes early in the first part/issue. Sheean and Ward are doing what all good visual storytellers do, they are using the foundational elements of a genre (space ship = sci-fi) but don’t make a big deal out of it and instead focus on the story itself. That focus translates also into an economical sense of panel on page where nothing seems wasted. This is one of the few comic series I have read recently that felt expertly edited, stripping out any fat or unnecessary elements.
Expansion has a lot of ideas percolating, and they will reveal themselves to the reader as they take their own journey in those pages. Sheean and Ward are a duo to look out for in 2013 (the first part of Expansion came out in 2010), and with some back-up work in Brandon Graham’s Prophet revival for Image comics already starting I expect to see some interesting work, both together and separate, in the not too distant future.