Review: Orphan Black: Helsinki #1

I’m told the sport of fishing is merely a means to accomplish quiet self-contemplation, occasionally involving a brief struggle against some floppy animal. That’s this book; a stretch of skillful character portrait, abruptly interrupted by its own premise. I went into this, the first issue of Orphan Black: Helsinki, with very little knowledge of the book's source material. I knew it was a television show and also... no, that's it. So, Orphan Black fans, try to understand my point-of-view while I describe (without giving away anything plot-relevant) my reading experience.

With little fanfare we're thrown into the frantic mind of the book's cover girl Veera. She's having problems some might expect any other seventeen-year-old girl to have: trouble at home, a general lack of confidence, and insecurities about her mysterious facial burn. There’s a brief use of dreams as a medium for interacting with reality. But the moment passes with little mention. Maybe the nightmare is just that: a nightmare. Physical evidence says otherwise. It’s subtle and creepy, introducing the ideas of violation and a lack of control that will escalate in the coming pages. Veera starts to question her memories, her hold on reality. So she turns to compulsive pill-taking to dull the edge of dread. A nice detail worth noting -- an overheard, hushed conversation is printed in barely coherent sentence fragments. Our protagonist’s eavesdropping only reveals pieces of a puzzle. Increasing that dread. Again, subtle. And it feeds into the air of paranoia that surrounds Veera.

OBHelsinki01-coverI should say I really enjoy the way Veera is presented. With little exposition I get a clear profile of the girl: she's an isolated, detail-oriented, painfully self-aware kid. But there's something else there, a strange intensity. She’s poorly socialized, analyzing behaviors to learn how to act by rote. Veera navigates every situation with exacting purpose, but her words and her people skills often fail her. We see her driven by a very serious concern for not just her safety, but the punishment of an apparent fiend of an uncle. Her cause is righteous and the potential costs are dire. Yet we watch her stumble along the incredibly mundane social structures of high school through much of this issue. Because high school is an awful ordeal, especially if you're not prepared for it. Introverts in the reading audience might find their own thoughts given voice by Veera here. It’s actually a wonder she’s so clearly characterized.

The listing of four writers in a book’s credits can be a red flag most of the time. However, the “too many cooks” principle ignores an occasional need to put fresh eyes and varied personalities on a project. Complex narratives may need many creative minds.  I wish I could see that complexity on display here. My affection for the character work is severely dampened by poor pacing and structure. The book begins, flashes to an A Nightmare on Elm Street-style dream, then to a proper flashback to set up Veera's motivation, then forward to pick up after the opening action. While I appreciate a modern comic actually packing its pages with narrative, I wish the writers of this issue felt they could slow down and build upon that earlier tension.

The art is all over the place. I initially thought there were multiple people on art duty, alternating pages. But, no. It's somehow all one person. See, Alan Quah’s work starts with a somewhat clean and inked traditional look. Then the illustrations shift, during the single-page dream sequence, into a more rugged and inkless style. I get Bill Sienkiewicz vibes. Then the style switches back to its initial look in the waking world. Sort of. Sometimes the art looks like the opacity of a Photoshop layer is being set too low. Sometimes the line work is bold and thick. Other times their lines look preliminary and tentative. Is it a recurring motif or just an inconsistent artist? I genuinely can’t tell.

Orphan Black: Helsinki isn’t creative enough with the show’s premise (I looked it up, after the fact) out of the gate. As much as I like Veera as a protagonist, the army of writers seems somewhat more interested in expanding their mythos than in lingering on their lead character. The solid middle of this issue is written well and illustrated adequately, presenting the awkwardness and pain of being a teenager through the prism of a teen who is legitimately different from most others. Then the book kind of fumbles, rushing into its final moments. And that rush seems to be in service of an ending that I won't discuss other than to say, you'll see it coming and it isn't especially intriguing compared to the teen drama preceding it. I guess, with four writers, I was kind of hoping for an overall more interesting or inventive plot. A comic book within a meta-series needs to use the start of a new arc to ease readers into the fiction a bit. I’m intrigued, but not enough recommend rushing out to pick up this comic.

Score: 2/5

Orphan Black: Helsinki #1 Writer: John Fawcett, Graeme Manson, Heli Kennedy, and Denton J. Tipton Artist: Alan Quah Colorist: Chris Fenoglio Publisher: IDW Publishing Price: $3.99 Release Date: 11/18/15 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital