Pullbox Reviews: Sentient – outstanding storytelling from Jeff Lemire & TKO Studios

When a separatist attack kills every adult on board a colony ship in deep space, it is up to VALARIE, the on-board A.I., to help the ship’s children survive. But as they are pursued by dangerous forces, can VALARIE become more than what she was programmed to be- a savior to these children?

Being a parent is a lot of work. Being a working parent, even more so. You’re always on duty, even when you’re asleep, which you rarely seem to be nearly often enough. You’re just doing the best that you can, and hoping that you’re able to learn fast enough to avoid most of the missed opportunities thrown your way. When Alex Wu and Jill Kruger, colonists aboard the U.S.S. Montgomery, dropped their children off at daycare before going to their posts, they may have had very different ideas of how the day was going to go. Regardless of their individual goals, both mothers believed they were doing their best for the children.

The Montgomery was on its way to a new home, far away from an Earth whose life expectancy was measured in terms of years. Not centuries. Not decades. Years. The crew of the Montgomery, all professionals in their respective fields, were making the trip with families in tow to better populate their new world. When a crewmember with a Separatist agenda has different plans, when all of the adults aboard the ship are killed, it’s left to Valarie to see to the wellbeing of the children left in her care.

Valarie is the Artificial Intelligence aboard the U.S.S. Montgomery. Or, as the children come to think of her… Mom.

You know what’s beautiful about science fiction? A writer will establish the rules, the boundaries by which the science of their story is defined, and as long as they stick to those self-imposed guidelines a reader can buy into just about anything. Sentient tells us that our planet is on its death bed. Seeing the mess we’ve made of things in the here and now, that’s a bitter pill that doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief. We’re also shown that our contentious little race of malcontents can’t seem to agree on how to run their new world… also not too hard to believe. Loyalists continue to work within the framework of Earth’s government, while Separatists believe that it was said government which created all of their problems in the first place. When both ideologies clash and neither side is willing to work with the other, it’s left to Valarie and the children to pick up the pieces.

Kinda on the button there, ain’t it?

Jeff Lemire (The Question, Moon Knight, Descender, Green Arrow, Black Hammer, Gideon Falls, barely touching his bibliography) is painting a pretty grim picture. After essentially killing our planet, we’ve taken all of our dramas and conflicts to a brand new one, where old issues and ragged arguments can continue the destructive cycle. However, he also brings readers a little bit of hope, in the idea that something new could still be thrown into the mix. Sci fi is full of stories where the next step in computer evolution goes horribly wrong and computer A.I. comes to the understandable conclusion that things could be much better off without us. I mean, YouTube is full of videos where people are testing the learning capabilities of robots by shoving them around and knocking them over. Lemire shows something a little less Skynet-ish in Sentient. We get to watch as Valarie, freed from the restrictive protocols that governed her behavior, takes charge of the children placed in her care and grows into the role of Mother. Not stopping there, Lemire further shakes up the status quo by introducing plenty of gray area to the works. There are very few straight lines in his narrative, and he manages to twist things back and forth aplenty to keep his readers from getting too comfortable in their assumptions.

No stranger to crafting high tech yet full of heart visuals after his work on The Vision, Gabriel Walta (also runs with Magneto, & X-Men) continues to explore new worlds and new forms of… maybe not “life” per se, but you should have the idea. If Valarie is the brain that monitors and controls the ship, then the U.S.S. Montgomery is her body. Walta explores that idea throughout the book, addressing it through his use of colors. The majority of the environments in Sentient are pretty monotonous, given that it takes place on a utilitarian spacecraft designed to make a long trip with minimal crew. Wherever we see a flash of bright blue, we- and the children- know that Valarie is there. The other area where Walta excels is in his ability to convey emotional range through facial expressions. He has a relatively simple (clean, uncluttered) style, at first glance, but that doesn’t stop him from working some magic when he wants to. There are many artists out there who will spend a lot more time and energy on finer details, but whose characters still look stiff and wooden on the page. Going one step further, I have no clue how Walta was able to make pieces of machinery seem warm and caring… but he did it.

Finally, Steve Wands deserves credit for his work on the lettering for Sentient. His job was to take Lemire’s script and work it in with Walta’s art, giving readers different looks at different characters- human & machine- in their unique voices. He does it by playing with the fonts, giving a more mechanical voice to Val without making her text difficult to read. It’s a fine line that some letterers fall keister over teakettle trying to walk, but which Wands manages with seeming ease. I’ve known for a while now that talented letterers will rarely get the recognition that they deserve, simply because the better they are at their job, the less the reader will take note of the work they’ve done. If you’ve ever seen a case of bad lettering, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Sentient starts out with a pretty grim premise, the murder of families leaving children on their own in the vastness of space. Through skill and artistry, Lemire, Walta, and Wands are able to weave multiple themes together into a book that I had trouble putting down. Sadly, it’s over now, but like the very best stories it’s sticking with me. A heartfelt thanks to the creative minds involved, and to TKO Studios for corralling them and then having the guts to let them tell their story their way.

As always, TKO’s titles are available in multiple formats (digital, single issue, or trade paperback), and the first issue is free to read at their website… There’s no reason not to check out some of these outstanding books.

Final Score: 10+

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