Diving into a story fit to bursting with vivid imagination and expansive leaps of inspired storytelling is one of life’s great pleasures.
And since Eight Outcast, with story and art by Rafael Albuquerque and script by Mike Johnson, is brilliantly and imaginatively told such that when reading you often gasp at the share cleverness of it all, it by extension becomes an immeasurably pleasurable thing to read.
At its centre sits a tale of time travel but not just any sort of timey-wimey adventures, to borrow from Doctor Who, thank you.
In this extraordinary tale that manages to inhabit the past, present and future and a place outside of time known as the Meld, into which drop all kinds of people and things from a plethora of eras, we are party to a compellingly frantic but nonetheless emotionally resonant narrative that includes a plague, Nazis, ancient animals and humans and a device which allows you to skip from time to time, or away from it, at the flick of a switch.
If that’s not sumptuous enough a banquet of innovatively-used sci-fi tropes, and trust me while many of the elements may be familiar, the way they are employed most certainly is not, the Meld itself is worth the price of admission.
A barren and inhospitable place where a capricious tyrant rules with stunningly immature glee over a people too frightened to say anything, for the most part anyway, the Meld is a place where survival is challenging at best and escape next to near impossible.
While some inhabitants are native to this strange dimensions outside of time and space, such as siblings Nila and Hari, many are not, and they can remember, if only in small fragmented moments, that they used to have a life somewhere else.
But where is that somewhere else, and even if you can remember it, how in the Meld do you get there?
That’s the billion-dollar question, one that preoccupies an understandably rattled chrononaut named Joshua who crashlands in the barren wastes of the Meld with no memory of who he is, why he is there or who can help him.
That would be traumatic enough, and trust us, it pretty much is, but within seconds of falling out of his craft and into the sand that is everywhere around him, Joshua is accosted by warrior like figures with red painted faces, and a small dinosaur who seem none too pleased to see him.
It is all utterly, incredibly alien, and yet there is something oddly familiar about Nila, about the tyrant’s right hand man called the Spear and about many of the memories that come up in small, tattered pieces but which seem determined to resist formation into a useful, coherent whole.
Yes, and Joshua is suitably terrified by it all until parts of his memory does begin to burble to the surface and he begins who he is and why he’s there – well, sort of anyway; enough that he is able to do something to help out the rebels, of which Nila and Hari are a part, to make life in the Meld a little brighter and less oppressively bleak.
If that sounds like too much of the story is being given away, fear not, because Eight Outcast is so multi-layered and stunningly clever, so well-told and so nuanced and character-rich, not to mention visually alive with captivating levels of world building details, that there is a ridiculous amount of fantastically satisfying storytelling left to discover.
So much lies beneath the surface of this tale of good versus evil, of the end of times meeting its beginning, of scientific curiosity come up hard against hard scrabble reality, that you fly through Eight Outcast at a rate of gasp-heavy knots, eager to see where one of the most inventive stories of recent years – the series was released by Dark Horse back in 2015; no sign of a second book in the series, alas – and what will become of a world so different to anything you’ve seen, that it reassures you that there is a great more imaginative storytelling left in the realms of science fiction.
Story aside, what strikes you most is the rich realisation of all the main characters and even some of the supporting players.
While the tyrant, his soldiers and the rebel leadership serve their purpose well as narrative fodder – not in a bad way but they are little more than the sum of their well-written parts – it is people like Joshua, Nila, Hari, and the Spear who bring the story alive so profoundly well that they add, if it possible, even more layers to this endlessly engaging tale.
Albuquerque is wise enough a creator to know that even the most enthralling stories like Eight Outcast can live and die on thrilling premise alone.
It’s important sure, and certainly sets apart Eight Outcast from the genre pack, but what is almost as vital are vividly-realised characters to give the story emotional impact and depth.
All the inevitable oohing and aahing isn’t worth as much without people to give it energy and vigour but it’s not something that Eight Outcast has to worry in the slightest, rich as it is in narrative wonder, luxurious, detailed artwork and characters who come to matter deeply to you in a relatively short span of time and an all too finite number of pages.
As graphic novels go, Eight Outcast is a masterpiece, a standout in a crowded field which tells its story elegantly and well, which remembers people matter even in the most grandiose and stunningly original of settings, and which brings all its invigoratingly good pieces together for a story that stays with you long after you have reluctantly turned that last evocative and gobsmackingly amazing last page.