By Leo Healy

Does Dan Abnett ever sleep? It’s a question I have to consider when looking at his work. He seems to write a new Warhammer novel every year, as well as several series for Marvel and DC, on top of having at least one ongoing serial in 2000AD/Judge Dredd Megazine at all times. One of these serials is The Out, first published in June 2020, which has gained a great deal of acclaim among 2000AD fans. A trade paperback collecting the story so far is being published soon, so now is the perfect time to talk about why this is easily one of the best 2000AD serials in recent years.

Written by Abnett with art by Mark Harrison and letters by Annie Parkhouse, The Out tells the story of Cyd Finlea, a photojournalist travelling through outer space, otherwise known as ‘The Out’. She’s been travelling for so long and has travelled so far that she has no idea where Earth is, how to get back, or even how long she’s been travelling for. The planets she visits are wondrous and beautiful, and this sense of wonder pervades the series – seeing these fantastical alien worlds through the eyes of a very normal person like Cyd gives The Out a tone entirely unique in 2000AD‘s landscape of stories. Cyd takes photos for a publisher on Earth, and they wire payment to her to fund her travels. Or at least, they used to send payment – Cyd discovers that her employers haven’t paid her for months and she’s run out of money. This is one of the many aspects of The Out which feels incredibly modern; Cyd falls victim to the gig economy and is forced to scramble to find another job.

As Abnett has confirmed in interviews, the impetus for the series was Mark Harrison’s desire to co-create a strip rather than taking over from another artist (as on their previous collaborations), and the series itself takes the lead from Harrison’s stunning art. The creative process apparently starts with Harrison designing the visual aesthetic of a planet, with Abnett then devising a story to take place there – a much looser creative arrangement than is usually found in mainstream comics. And this centring of Harrison’s art is entirely justified; he is producing career-defining work on this series, his hybrid digital style sings when creating exotic, far-flung planets, and his use of light – multiple sources and numerous digital overlays affecting colour and tone, drive home the alien-ness of these worlds and give each a distinct feel.

Harrison is an interesting figure as a 2000AD artist, he started out on the prog in the mid 90’s, debuting on Judge Dredd before quickly moving on to Strontium Dog spin-off Durham Red, where he first worked with Dan Abnett. The duo were then the sole creative team to work on Durham Red from the late 90’s through the mid 00’s. Around this time Harrison also worked with Gordon Rennie to co-create the new serial Glimmer Rats, which only lasted for one series. His only other co-creator credit, The Ten-Seconders with Rob Williams, was handed off to other artists when it returned for future instalments. Harrison’s previous long-running serial with Abnett, Grey Area, based in an alien refugee camp on Earth, was co-created by Karl Richardson and drawn by several other artists before Harrison came on board to work with Abnett again, and a similar story can be seen on Harrison’s collaboration with Al Ewing on Damnation Station

Outside 2000AD Harrison has worked as a cover artist for Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics, as well as a video game artist and level designer on the PSP version of Star Wars Battlefront II, which perhaps gives some clue as to where he developed his skills in designing fascinating, intricate alien landscapes. With this history in mind Harrison’s desire to co-create a long-lasting series with a long-time collaborator like Abnett is entirely understandable, and hopefully with The Out Harrison and Abnett can work together on a successful serial, with the creative spark coming from Harrison himself, for a long time to come. 

 

While working in a bar Cyd is shocked when the entire planet she’s on is evacuated; Orlap, a nearby planet, is being attacked by a race called the Tankinar, who are so feared that entire systems flee rather than fight them. Cyd volunteers for an aid taskforce, and on Orlap we first catch a glimpse of the Tankinar themselves, through Cyd’s camera as she takes a panicked photo before they attack. In a shocking twist Cyd and her entire team are killed, and we pick up the story decades later as she is woken up after being cloned and her consciousness put into a new body. We’re lead to believe throughout Book One that The Out is going to be a relaxing, chilled out story of a woman exploring the wonders of outer space, especially with such a heavy focus on Harrison’s otherworldly art, but I found the appearance of the Tankinar and Cyd’s sudden death to be a shocking change of direction, and completely shift the nature of the series as we had been expecting it to progress up to this point.

Despite Abnett’s assertions of the looseness of The Out‘s plotting this is a beautifully realised structure; the calm, gentle start to Book One makes the evacuation, invasion and Cyd’s death all the more jarring. We don’t even glimpse a Tankinar until part seven of a twelve-part serial, and when they do appear, even obliquely, their presence brings about the instant death of every character in the story. And the reaction of the characters around Cyd when she is resurrected is also completely unexpected; the doctors who complete the procedure are blasé about the miracle they have performed. Cyd is left traumatised by having her life so abruptly ended and then restarted decades later (a necessity given the complexity of the resurrection process, she is told), and we as readers are given a stark lesson in how different from our world The Out truly is, not only visually and geographically, but also culturally and philosophically.

No mention has been made so far of Annie Parkhouse’s phenomenal lettering work on The Out, and we must remedy this immediately, as this series contains some of the best lettering work in contemporary comics.

 

Throughout The Out Parkhouse has used lots of small, incidental SFX-type letters to create a sense of ambience, blurring the line between SFX and dialogue by depicting the voices of alien creatures in the background of panels, creating an aural ‘space’ for the action to take place in. This reaches its high point in part Eleven of Book Two (Prog #2261), as decades after their first attack the Tankinar have returned, and the planet Cyd is visiting is evacuated, and the inhabitants are taken to another, presumably safer planet. Panic sets in among Cyd and the evacuees; they’re told to hurry to the emergency bunkers at the end of an elevated walkway, kept away from a bed of carnivorous weeds on the planet’s surface. The weeds themselves hiss at the humanoids from below, creating an underlying sense of danger, and the mutterings and murmurings of the aliens around Cyd convey how large and unruly this crowd is.

Suddenly, the Tankinar attack, demolishing a chunk of the walkway, leaving Cyd and thousands of evacuees unable to get to the bunkers. Parkhouse’s letters signifying the attack cut directly across the walkway, giving physical form to the sounds of the destruction taking place. Parkhouse’s SFX becomes constant and much larger; visually disorientating in the same way that the sounds around Cyd would be confusing and alarming. We then see the full form of a Tankinar for the first time, revealing them as faceless, biomechanical behemoths, tense bionic musculature ready to pounce. This part of the story shows off the creative team firing on all cylinders, with Abnett’s plotting and character work complimenting Harrison’s chaotic crowd scenes and panicked close-ups, combined with Parkhouse’s explosive, impactful lettering to create a fearful, panicked atmosphere which leaves you gasping for breath. Cyd’s story continues towards a shocking and emotional conclusion as Book Two draws to a close, but we’ll leave that for you to discover for yourselves.

Comparisons have been made between The Out and Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s seminal 2000AD strip The Ballad of Halo Jones, and there is an awful lot to say about the similarities and differences between the two series. While both are ostensibly about a young woman from Earth exploring outer space, the focus of the two stories is markedly different. In Halo Jones we spend the entire first book seeing the boredom and futility of Halo’s life on Earth, before making the decision to leave at the end of Book One. In The Out however Cyd’s decision to leave Earth was made years ago, and we see her so far into her travels that she no longer knows where Earth is. Even in its darker moments, The Out focuses on showing us the wonder and otherworldliness of its environments, whereas Halo Jones focusses almost solely on Halo herself, the minutiae of her life, her relationships, her emotions.

I think it can be argued that this contrast in focus between Halo Jones and The Out is a direct result of the difference in the creative process of the two series. Moore and Gibson followed the traditional ‘Writer creates script, Artist creates story from script’ format which, with Moore as writer taking the creative lead, arguably resulted in a story focussed on the interiority of the main character, her thoughts, feelings, etc. Although this speaks to Moore’s meticulousness and vision as a creator, it’s difficult to imagine him giving up creative direction of a series to an artist he worked with. With The Out, Harrison is able to take more of a creative lead in deciding where the story will go next, and the result is a story focussed on place, on the wonder of outer space and the people and places found there.

 

2000AD Prog #2261: “The Out”
Writer: Dan Abnett
Artist: Mark Harrison
Letterer: Annie Parkhouse

 

Leo Healy has written comics for the now sadly defunct FutureQuake Press, last year he made a computer game (play it for free here if you like) and his prose short story debut will hopefully be published by Obverse Books later this year. Follow him on Twitter here!

 

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