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The isolation of space highlights the power of a found family in Sentient published by TKO Studios. Jeff Lemire writes the six-issue series and teams with artist Gabriel Walta. Together, they've created a fantastic sci-fi short story in comics form. The tale takes place on the U.S.S. Montgomery, a ship that has left Earth behind and is carrying a handful of families to join those already living on a newly colonized planet. However, humanity's transition from Earth to the stars is not going well. As the Montgomery enters a communications dead zone, tragedy strikes. The adults die and leave the children alone aboard the ship.
The children aren't alone, though. The ship has an A.I. named Valerie. Val goes beyond her programming to take care of the children and try getting them to the colony, while the children react to the trauma they've gone through, each in their own way. It was the mother of one child, Isaac, who is responsible for the deaths of all the other parents. In her mind, Isaac's mother did it for him, but their relationship was still cold in life. Isaac, seeking to make up for what his mother did, finds comfort in Val as a surrogate mother and does his best to fit in with the other children. Lil, the oldest of the group, had a loving relationship with her own mother. Needing a target for her anger, Lil blames Isaac for what happened and resents Valerie for assuming her mother's place.
As a piece of science fiction, it's interesting how Sentient presents universal themes onto which issues are easily grafted. The parents' deaths are the result of a movement to free the new Earth colony from the old Earth government. The act of violence by Isaac's mother leaves the children with a faceless caretaker in the most literal sense possible. Is this a metaphor for the struggle between the anti-vaccination movement and the government? A reflection on the real-world government's efforts to care for children coming from broken homes?
It's not difficult to draw comparisons, but Valerie is too much of an individualized character to be reduced to an institutional stand-in. If there's a flaw in Lemire's script, it's that he encroaches on writing Valerie as being too human, almost negating the premise of the story. It's more focused on the act of parenting, and what it means beyond simple biological connections. Valerie becomes a mother to these children because she acts like a mother to them. She doesn't proclaim or insist on it; she does it. And through those actions, the children form a family network, able to rely on one another. Even when Lil almost gets them killed, it's Isaac—the "sibling" she most scorns—who reaches out to her.
Lemire shows he's capable of effortless worldbuilding here, as well. There's a complete political drama unfolding in the background of this story. The state of the planet, the failure of "EarthGov," and the future of the colony are all addressed. These are a handful of hooks that could be the focus of a different story set in the same universe. Instead, like many good sci-fi tales, they form a potent backdrop to the more personal story Lemire and Walta are telling.
Walta is the perfect artist for Sentient. There's a thickness in his linework that sells the distressed technology aboard the Montgomery. Walta makes everything feel both futuristic and lived in. Instead of glistening sterility, we see an oil-stained industrial aesthetic that grounds their futuristic existence. He also creates believable, powerful emotion in the faces of children, as well as the "faces" of Val when she chooses to inhabit them. He evokes the dread interstellar isolation of a film like Alien. Through all of that, Walta never loses the heart of the piece and punctuates moments with—when appropriate—sudden and raw violence. Sentient is a testament to Walta's versatility, adaptability, and raw talent.
Steven Wands deserves a nod for some stellar lettering in Sentient as well. He creates a visual for Valerie that becomes a natural part of Walta's artwork. Then, late in the story, he's able to contrast that calm, cool style with the visual voice of another distinct AI. It's a clever act of storytelling via lettering that adds to the atmosphere and tension of the story.
Sentient is the kind of taut, sci-fi thriller that won't let you set it down. Lemire and Walta empower a story of family and fear structured as a Bildungsroman. Any fan of sci-fi storytelling and well-crafted comics owes it themself to check out this incredible tale.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Published by TKO Studios
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Gabriel Walta
Letters by Steve Wands
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