Review: UNIVERSAL WAR ONE, VOLUME 1, by Denis Bajram

A few months back, I bought the first issue of Universal War One, originally published by Soleil Productions back in 1998, now republished in English by Marvel Comics. At the time, the phrase that came to mind over and over was I wish I could write like this.

Weeks later, on another trip to my local comic shop, I found issue 3. Issue 3 appeared to be the final issue of a planned miniseries. Alas! Issue 2 was nowhere to be found. Rather than spoil myself while missing the middle, I passed on issue 3, and sat down to wait for the trade.

As it turns out, instead of a trade paperback, we got a hardcover. And my opinion hasn’t changed – any aspiring writer should be proud to write like this.

The hardcover does indeed collect issues 1-3, a complete arc with room for more story, all written and illustrated by Denis Bajram. Unless I’m misunderstanding the Soleil Productions site and the French edition of Wikipedia, the complete series is 6 issues. I dearly hope we get the rest in translation as well.

The story is classic military sci-fi, and, for comics at least, surprisingly hard sci-fi. Against a background of rising political and military tension between the government of Earth and the corporate-owned colonies that dot our solar system, we have a small unit of space-fighters, known as Purgatory Squadron, investigating a great black wall in space, just past Saturn. One ship sends a probe into the wall, on a tether, and its crew suddenly find themselves fighting to keep from getting yanked in as well.

What turns out to be behind the wall is utterly fascinating. Not a device I’ve never seen before, granted, but cleverly presented. Also fascinating is the drama of Purgatory Squadron’s pilots’ personal problems, and there are twists later on in that aspect of story that had me beaming with delight.

One thing that impressed me was the pacing. If this story were being told by an American comic book writer, it would be a twelve-issue maxi-series. As presented, it feels fast-paced, but never rushed. Part of this effect is, I think, facilitated by the art, which uses a half-page panel where Marvel or DC might use a full two-page spread. The art is detailed and lush enough that this more compressed layout doesn’t seem to rob the book of visual scope.

Each issue is separated into multiple chapters, and there’s so much story packed into each issue that those chapter divisions actually feel justified.

Each chapter is headed by a few verses from a modified Genesis. Chapter 2’s is, for example:

God said, “Let there be Force
in the midst of Energy, and let it
divide Energy from Energy,
and it was so.
God made Force that divided
Energy from above
from Energy
from below.
God called Energy from
below “Matter.”
And there was evening
and there was morning.
And it was the second day.

These verses don’t ultimately seem to illustrate anything important about the story or the setting one way or the other, but I found them delightful anyway.

The book gets a touch bogged down toward the end, a the characters’ explanation of the main sci-fi phenomena in the story get bogged down in the sort of philosophical-sounding-but-actually-incoherent rambling that soaks a lot of anime climaxes, but even with that minor blemish, Universal War One, volume 1 is a delight from beginning to end.