Readers of A Place To Hang Your Cape certainly don’t need me to remind them that we’re living in something of a sci-fi moment (but I’m doing so anyway). The genre is prominent in mainstream entertainment in a way it never has been since that fateful summer on Lake Geneva. And this is due, in no small part, to superheroes.
Generally when we think of sci-fi we’re not thinking of superheroes. We’re thinking of totalitarian regimes, spacecraft, androids, the reanimated dead. While all elements can be present within the superhero genre, it is rather more flexible. And of course, many genres are home to superheroes. There are fantasy characters such as Doctor Strange and Constantine, or historical stories such as Bombshells or 1602. But despite such flexibility the origins of the superhero genre remain tied to science fiction.
I found myself thinking about such topics after reading Jon Laight and Philip Knibbs’ Brethren Born. It’s a comic that highlights such connections in a way few others do. Brethren Born works as both a classic science fiction story and a superhero adventure.
Following a strange young man by the name of Newton, Brethren Born opens in familiar superhero territory. A foiled bank robbery and a hero with both mysterious powers and a desire for anonymity. But Brethren Born soon takes us from such heroic territory and into less familiar waters.
Laight takes us through past, present, and future. The present story-line opens during the aforementioned robbery; the second, in a hidden military lab in 1994, and the third in a crashing spacecraft in 1963. Each setting, each part of the story reveals something more about Newton’s past, and an exceptional past it is.
Now only the first story-line, the contemporary one, is really a proper superhero story. We have powers, catchy nicknames, and even an dramatic villain. But still, Laight keeps their story on the relatively more grounded side; foregoing spandex or publicity. Newton, despite his penchant for traveling via Weasley approved flying car, is less concerned with appearances than he is with seeking vengeance on the man who destroyed his family.
Which brings us back to 1994 where Newton is just one of eight children in exceptional circumstances. They were subject to opaque experiments deep in a secret military site in the Himalayan mountains. There the kind Dr. Bradshaw and a cruel man known only as the General watch over them. When the later orders the termination of both the project and the children Newton is the only one to escape out into the mountains. There he would have died if not for the kindness of a wealthy philanthropist Jiao-Long Fan Jin.
Finally we go back to the 1960s where a strange craft comes down from the sky and right into the hands of the US military. This segment of this story is the most classically rooted in science fiction. We have an extraterrestrial, a secret military installation, and even John F. Kennedy faking is own assassination. Honestly, it’s a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in the X-Files.
Many elements of Brethren Born are staples of science fiction and superhero stories, but Laight is able to put a unique spin on the familiar. Their take on superpowers is particularly impressive. It can be difficult to make a hero’s powers stand out these days, what with decades of powers behind us. But Laight takes familiar abilities (flight, aquakinesis, super-strength) and interprets them in a unique fashion. Laight’s superpowers all involve a very literal manipulation of physics.
Newton for instance, has control over gravity, effectively allowing him to fly and have a certain degree of telekinesis. One of his opponents, Vortice, is able to control any substance subject to fluid dynamics. It’s an interesting take on superpowers, allowing for familiar feats while leaving things open enough for unexpected interpretations.
However along with the super-heroics, there’s the mystery. One of the best parts of spreading a story out over time and space is the way an author is able tease out mysteries and meaning at a controlled pace and foregoing exposition. Indeed, Laight also handles pacing beautifully. Their story moves at a brisk pace from year to year, unfolding smoothly and without leaning to heavily on any one setting. We know Newton and the other children are connected to that alien ship from the 1960s, but how remains unclear.
Laight offers further snippets of information in the back-matter of issue three. A series of somewhat erratically composed notes (presumably the General’s) lays out various powers and their origins, all of which are due extraterrestrial DNA. How said DNA became part of humanity, in what ways the military is involved, and why the General hates Newton and his kin remain, as of yet, unexplored.
The only issue is that we get the occasionally piece of cliche dialogue, but this is fairly rare. I suspect this has a lot to due with how the story notes Laight hits that are an established part of both the superhero and sci-fi genres. Regardless this is a relatively minor quibble and does not overly distract from the story.
As for the art, Brethren Born favors a high-contrast, dynamic style. Aesthetically Knibbs’ designs read like those of classic superhero comics (if I had to pin a specific era I’d say the style is most similar to late Silver-early Bronze age comics). They use simple, sharp line work to emphasize movement and give their art a clear sense of urgency.
But my favorite aspect of Knibbs’ art is their use of contrast. There are times when even the most beautiful art can appear flat and washed out because an artist was afraid to use the full range darkness and light. Not so with Knibbs. Here we have electric bolts of power shooting through pitch darkness. It’s a striking effect that adds drama and intensity to the comic.
Despite occasional stiffness, the art is lively and dynamic. More concerning are that several dramatic scenes are squeezed into their respective pages. While Knibbs reserves large swaths of the page for significant moments we never get a double or even full page spread. Several striking moments are cramped into large panels when they would be best served in two page images. Of course with limited time and space, such considerations are not always possible. A damn shame.
Still these are minor complaints and ones from which Brethren Born doesn’t overly suffer. The story and art are strong and dynamic, sure to draw readers along. Fans of science fiction and/or superhero stories are sure to feel right home with both the aesthetic and narrative. Overall Brethren Born is a well paced adventure that seamlessly crosses generic lines and conventions.