Welcome to the Global Exo Segregation Zone, The Grey Area. Where a beleaguered Earth, beaten down by a disastrous first contact two decades back, now carefully controls alien immigration. All extraterrestrial visitors, immigrants, tourists, illegals, some friendly, others not so much, are placed in this shanty town holding area, somewhere in Nevada.
It’s not a great place to be, and it’s a worse place to try to keep the fragile peace. Which is just what Captain Adam Bulliet and his team of Exo Transfer Control Squad officers are vainly attempting to do. Just that stunning cover by Patrick Goddard should tell you just what a complete chaotic mess the place is.
Basically, The Grey Area is Dan Abnett creating a modern bit of classic 2000AD sci-fi, the sort of thing that perfectly reflects the ills of the modern world, complete with prejudice, discrimination, and immigration, through a futuristic lens. It’s fast, it’s funny, there’s a lot of action, much of it familiar to the bug hunts in the Aliens movie, but through it all, there’s a depth that sets it apart as one of the great bits of 2000AD of the last decade.
(Communication is everything in The Grey Area. Is it any wonder things are so bad? Art by Karl Richardson.)
It’s all set in 2045AD, where Earth is twenty plus years down the road from a devastating techno-virus unleashed from the species that made first contact. The Greet, as it’s become known. Many died, more were transformed into what’s known as “greeted humans”, who are treated as pariahs of society. The undoubted stars of the piece are Captain Bulliet, who leads his Exo squad with a decidedly world-weary attitude, and the rookie squad member Birdy.
The story opens with Birdy’s first week on the squad, and she’s our point of view and our in for the story, Abnett again using classic storytelling techniques (You might call them cliches, but they’re so well used, we’ll let them go). Through Birdy we get to see the workings and failings of the Grey Area and the Exo Transfer Squads.
But of course, her empathy isn’t greeted well by the more hardened members of the squad….
Birdy: “I have been on the force a week. I have seen all manner of creatures.
I am no longer sure who the monsters are.”
Janzen: “Dammit Birdy, why does every rookie say that crappy cliche at least once during their probation?”
Ok, so the setup is familiar, the alien-hunting exploits lean heavily on standard sci-fi fare, yet throughout it all, Abnett keeps things interesting and moves it all along fast enough to entertain. There’s plenty of opportunities to get the Exo Squad mixing it up with various alien types as well, something that suits Richardson and Goddard’s art particularly, both gents producing kinetic, solid artwork that easily delivers the action.
In the weekly 2000AD comic, where we’ve recently finished what will hopefully make up volume 2 of this excellent series, The Grey Area has turned into one of my favorite reasons to pick up the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Dan Abnett and artist Mark Harrison have taken the Exo squad way out of their comfort zone in a truly epic sci-fi tale. But the material in this first collection, as explained by Abnett himself in his introduction, is more of a case of the week police procedural thing, and very much a year one for the title.
Some of the stories here are individual ‘case of the week’ tales that show the crew trying to figure out what the latest arrival is up to. Others thread together in longer arcs, and contradictory themes such as acceptance and xenophobia run through them… The stories collected in this volume represent ‘year one’, and feature the work of several different artists who did an amazing job laying the foundations of the strip.—Dan Abnett, from his introduction
The earliest stories here seem to consist of setup and beatup moments in equal measure, but as the pages turn, there’s a sense of a bigger picture developing. The continual message is that things aren’t as simple as first laid out. The squad, and we readers, find themselves dealing with increasingly complex and morally, ethically problematic issues. (Oh, yes… the Grey Area indeed.) Whether it’s Birdy’s naive views, the slow reveal of Bulliet’s complicated nature, and particularly through the “greeted” Kymn’s translation abilities, things go far beyond the seemingly simplistic setup. And it’s in the second half of the volume that things really kick into high gear, with a little less fighty fighty and more carefully considered responses to the issues from all involved. You can almost feel Abnett settling in for the long haul after the initial set of case stories.
(Bulliet doesn’t know it, but here’s where the seeds of disaster are planted. Art by Lee Carter.)
But just because it’s hard sci-fi that deals with some very prescient issues, Abnett’s smart enough to never fall into preachy polemic territory. It’s a tale with its tongue firmly wedged in its cheek, whether that’s in some of the sharp enough to cut dialogue between squad members, or some of the insane situations they find themselves in. This humor works as a welcome relief and contrasts perfectly with the serious issues.
Take for example the unfortunate Bulliet drawing the short straw when it comes to a very immersive cavity search of a giant alien visitor. Or the more subtle, but just as cleverly funny episode involving Christian missionaries causing ructions in the Grey Area. Things go south mighty fast when they attempt to bring the gospel to a species whose “God” decided to get all Old Testament biblical on them before this particular species of warrior aliens took the logical step and decided the only solution was to kill God. Needless to say, preaching to this race ends in more chaos for the Exo Squad to get in the middle of.
(Bulliet quite literally up to his neck in it mid investigation. Art by Patrick Goddard.)
As for the art in The Grey Area, having three distinct art styles for beginning, middle, and end does mean there’s a definite jolt when switching from Richardson to Carter and finally to Goddard. Karl Richardson’s art is solid, powerful, with some cracking alien designs. Lee Carter’s art I found at first to be a jarring mistake on seeing it in the comic, but collected here it seems to integrate pretty well. I’m still not that great a fan of the hyper-bright, overly realistic style that sometimes falls down with the basics, though. Finally, Goddard, my favorite of the three, ends this volume with a similar style to Richardson, more solid perhaps, but just as powerful and with a great sense of layout and page design.
Still to come in volume two, you have the delights of seeing Bulliet and his squad head off Earth after Bulliet’s decisions and actions in this first volume put both the squad and the Earth in terrible danger. Oh, there’s some incredible stories to come. But before then, grab this year one collection, sit back and enjoy one of the best strips in 2000AD for the last few years.
Grey Area Volume 1 (and I’m definitely hoping we’ll see a volume 2!) is written and created by Dan Abnett, with art from series co-creator Karl Richardson, Lee Carter, and Patrick Goddard, and is published by 2000AD/Rebellion. Grey Area Volume 1 has recently become available digitally as well as in print from 2000AD.