Welcome to Orbital – a political action thriller from Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé. It’s a strip that’s part thoughtful galactic exploration, part all-out action, with each storyline split across two volumes. Think Valerian and Laureline meets Aliens and you’re at least partway there to describing a thrilling and gorgeous Euro book.
Over the course of the 8 volumes so far, we’ve been introduced to the 23rd Century world of Orbital, all centred around a couple of agents of the Interworld Diplomatic Office (IDO), a peacekeeping agency of the Confederation, an 8000-year-old multi-species agency that’s only just welcomed humanity into its ranks.
It’s a controversial inclusion as well, as humanity is, at best, seen as a troublesome teenager compared to the ancient space-faring civilisations of the Confederation. And it’s a view not without basis either, as humanity’s first interplanetary contact was the slaughter, almost to extinction, of the pacifist Sandjarr people, simply because their planet was a valuable mining resource. Yes, that doesn’t sound like humanity at all, does it?
In an attempt to prove the power of diplomacy, the first human to join the IDO, Caleb Swany, is partnered with Mezoke Izzua, one of the Sandjarr race that humanity almost wiped out. This is the new partnership from the cover of volume 1 of Orbital…
Over the course of the last seven volumes, we’ve ventured forth (boldly gone even) with Mezoke and Caleb on their intergalactic diplomatic peace missions and discovered that this is a wonderfully rich and diverse universe of dangers and diplomacy, where the politics of the situation is just as important to the tales as the action.
Orbital really does have an epic feel, with both writer and artist exploring just what alien life really would be like. It has that feel of Valerian and Laureline, Babylon 5, Star Trek, and so much more when it comes to the importance of introducing the vast universe to explore that requires political manoeuvring and plentiful diplomacy.
But there’s also an awful lot of out and out action, something handled beautifully well by Pellé’s artwork – such as this from an earlier volume, where the flow and almost balletic nature of the action sequence really impressed…
Overall, in the volumes I’ve read, it’s a series that mostly gets the mix of the political and action about right. As each storyline takes place over two volumes, it does tend to be that the set-up and heavy political stuff happens in the first part of the 2-volume story, whilst the finale of each 2-parter has the out and out action. Sometimes it works wonderfully well, sometimes it’s a little too obvious and feels like two mismatched halves of one story.
However, when Orbital works, it works wonderfully well. There’s been a growing relationship and understanding between Caleb and Mezoke, each playing their roles – Caleb the headstrong agent who acts first and thinks later, whereas Mezoke is more thoughtful and diplomatic in her actions. The development of the political background to the series, with the troubles within the Confederation and the IDO playing out slowly has made this a tense and tight overarching storyline.
And of course, best of all, we have Pellé’s artwork. I love what he does on a page, the action I’ve already talked a little of, but across his pages you’ll find sumptuous artwork and colouring, backgrounds that simply look incredible, full of depth and detail. And it’s thanks to his art that Orbital really does have a truly alien feel, where the races are all believably otherworldly and different rather than being just another human-ish alien species.
In this latest pair of volumes,’ Implosion‘ (Vol 7) and ‘Contacts’ (Vol 8), we’ve seen Caleb and Mezoke as renegades who’re being hunted down by the entire Confederation. They ended up on Tetsuam, a space station that’s become the home to this galaxy’s criminals where they looked to find some form of sanctuary. However, the galaxy has other plans for them, as the Confederation, itself only just recovering from a civil war finds itself under threat from suicide attacks from the Neuronomes, giant sentient ships.
Of course, Caleb and Mezoke end up uncovering the truth that the Neuronomes are so much attacking the Confederation as they are making a last desperate move to get help. The Neuronomes are under threat from their own mystery enemies and have positioned themselves around the mega-cities, ready to explode, should the Confederation not agree to help.
So, as before, we have a first volume that lays everything out carefully, covers the political aspects well, explores more of the relationship and growing friendship between the two leads as they seek sanctuary from the authorities that they once worked for, and builds up the tension as things go increasingly wrong.
Volume 8, ‘Contacts’, is where it kicks off, as before, with the action taking priority over the politics and slow-burn build-up. Instead, Caleb and Mezoke head to the Neuronomes’ homeworld to attempt to find a way to save the Neuronomes and, in doing that, save the Confederation cities as well.
The great thing about this is that it gives Runberg and Pellé free-reign to take us to a wonderfully alien planet, with a scale suited to the size of the Neuronomes and a completely different set of alien fauna and flora to wonder at. Pellé’s art excels here, creating both grand vistas and moments of terrible danger…
And then there’s the ending. Oh hell. Shocking, brutal, and one that (hopefully) will send our leads into a completely new and absolutely incredible journey in a series that’s had its highs and lows but still always manages to deliver a heady mix of complex intergalactic politics and action-packed thrills.
Unfortunately, we may be waiting a while for new Orbital. Contacts was reprinted by Cinebook in April 2020 after original publication in September 2019 by Dupuis. Hopefully, we’ll get to see Runberg and Pellé reunite for volume 9 sooner rather than later, but it’s going to be at least a couple of years. And with the way volume 8 ended, that’s way too long to discover just what’s going on in the world of Orbital.
Orbital Volume 8 – Contacts. Written by Sylvain Runberg, art by Serge Pellé, translation by Jerome Saincantin. Published 2020 by Cinebook.