Æther & Empire Vol. 1: Eternal Glory by Mike Horan, Bong Ty Dazo, & Tim Yates
If Victorian-era steampunk is your thing, you may want to check out Æther & Empire Vol. 1: Eternal Glory, which piles clockwork hearts, steam-driven automobiles, and an interplanetary voyage on top of a daring adventure tale. Written by Mike Horan, with pencils/inks by Bong Ty Horan and Tim Yates on colors, this trade paperback collects issues 1 – 6 of the Æther & Empire comic.
Issue #1 begins with a thrilling battle between Her Majesty’s Airship Nimbus — a craft that looks like a two-master with some horizontal sails and huge overhead balloons providing lift — and a privateer airship “[s]omewhere over the Libyan coast,” in 1879. The battle goes badly, but enough of the British crew survive and distinguish themselves, garnering the attention of Her Majesty, who wants to send those men on a rescue mission. It seems that a clandestine scientific expedition was sent to Mars some time ago, but has not been in contact with anyone back on Earth, and either they must be rescued or some sort of retaliatory effort must be made. So a new crew is formed of enlisted men and scientists, placed aboard the H.M.S.S. Jules Verne, and sent off on a two-month mission to the Red Planet. But what they find is not at all what any of them could have expected…
Æther & Empire’s first volume does a good job of establishing this world and its politics, especially with the mock-broadsheet tucked into the back of the book, detailing wars against the Zulu and cadaver sales to various interested parties. The architecture and fashion are all period-appropriate, and anachronistic elements like steam-powered space ships and a “logic engine” are incorporated in such a way that they feel organic. This version of Mars is one with a breathable atmosphere and Earth-like gravity — again, authentic to the scientific beliefs of the intended time period. Horan et al. aren’t going for modern accuracy or concerned with the temperature of their equations; in revisiting a certain time period’s limited knowledge, they capture the sense of wonder and excitement present in popular science fiction of that same time.
On the scientific side, there’s Dr. Barnaby Dunwood and his coterie of experts, including Miss Ranjini Gangadharan, who designed and operates the ship’s heliograph (a potential nod to Lieutenant Commander Uhura), along with a stowaway with a very personal stake in recovering the members of the first mission. On the military side, Captain James Bristow is in charge of a number of loyal men, all of whom wear their lobster-red coats with pride. The leaders of these two groups clash more often than their subordinates, who work cheek-by-jowl to ensure their collective safe passage through the vacuum of space. Many of the characters share similar facial features and body types in addition to identical uniforms or work clothes, so it can be difficult at times to quickly distinguish who is speaking to whom.
In many panels and, in fact, most pages, the use of color is quite muted, so occasional pops of color stand out and seem exaggeratedly bright in comparison. The splashes of verdure in the Jules Verne’s oxygen-providing greenhouse, the scarlet of freshly-spilled blood, and the radiant crimson of Mars itself are a relief among the dulled maroons, tarnished bronzes, and dirty greys that surround them throughout Æther & Empire. It’s all very deliberately chosen and placed, and the juxtaposition works tremendously well in creating stunning visuals.
The story itself has a few kinks that could have used a little more ironing: I’m not entirely sure what’s actually happening on Mars, or what’s going on between two warring factions and what the consequences are meant to be. There’s some muddled exposition that needs clarifying, and since it isn’t provided in Vol. 1, my hope is that as the story continues to be explored in subsequent issues, more information will be provided as to how events transpired in such a way as to cause this conflict and what is at stake.
Æther & Empire Vol. 1 is a fascinating start to a new series, blending elements of classic science and science fiction with new storytelling methods and attitudes. Fans of steampunk and space exploration alike are sure to enjoy it and demand more to come. Recommended.