John Bruno is a name that might be familiar to some film buffs, especially those who have a thing for special effects and the work of James Cameron. Bruno has worked on films for decades, helping to provide the visual effects for films such as Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Titanic, Aliens vs. Predator, and Kingsman: The Secret Service.
He’s also directed effects heavy pieces such as a few episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, the film Virus (which was based on a Dark Horse comic), and James Cameron’s dive down into the Titanic in Deepsea Challenge 3D. With that in mind, it’s not at all surprising that his new graphic novel, Navigator, would be the kind of story that would be a special effects extravaganza if it were on the big screen.
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Navigator begins taking a little inspiration from Bruno’s time with Cameron in the depths of the ocean, with a team of scientists on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, taking a submersible down beneath the thick layers of ice to see if they can find life on this distant satellite. And they do, they discover that an entire ecosystem of plants and marine creatures exists beneath the surface, proving for the first time that humanity isn’t alone in the universe. However, when the submersible discovers a completely unknown ship under the ice, near a strange beacon-like object, their simple study gets thrown on its head. The beacon activates, and seems to summon alien life to it, as a ship appears in the skies over the Europa base.
First contact does not go well, and several members of the expedition are killed before one of the aliens inside the ship turns against his compatriots and kills his fellow soldiers. With the mission ruined, personnel dead, and a living alien on their hands, the expedition packs up and starts to head home.
Along the way the alien wakes and tells them that he’s from a race that has been enslaved by parasitic creatures that attach themselves to beings’ necks and take control of them, and that the primary entity in control is looking for an ancient device that has long since been scattered across the known universe. Once gathered together, this device will give the parasite supreme, god-like powers. The beacon the Europa team found indicated that the device is near, likely on Earth, and that an alien armada will soon be coming for humanity. Agreeing to work with the humans, the Navigator gives them technology to help prepare for the coming invasion.
That’s the basic set-up for Navigator, and the bulk of the story will jump forward five years to the point when the promised alien invasion actually occurs, giving humanity time to use the technology and aid from the Navigator to jump their technology forward hundreds of years. When the aliens arrive the story becomes a mix of a race-against-time treasure hunt, and Independence Day, as the planet fights back against a technologically and numerically superior force bent on their destruction.
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Once the time jump happens, and the alien invasion starts, the book moves at an incredibly brisk pace, almost not allowing the reader a chance to take a breather and collect their thoughts before the next disaster hits, or the next battle begins. The book tries to sell the scope of the invasion this way, by having an almost constant barrage of fighting and destruction that showcases how bloodthirsty and destructive the parasite’s forces are. Its goal of obtaining the lost device are all that compel it, and humanity are little more than insects beneath it ready to be crushed. This also means that there are several characters that the book will introduce you to along the journey, but thanks to the constant barrage of alien soldiers shooting at anything in their way there is a bit of turn over in the cast of characters as they die and get replaced.
There is, however, a core contingent of characters to follow over the course of the story. The Navigator, who gets named Roy, is there throughout, as is the leader of the Europa expedition; a grizzled solider who gave up on his wife and prematurely born daughter to head into space for five years. It’s when the invasion begins, eight years after he abandoned his family, that he gets reunited with both of them as his daughter, Amy, becomes a key player in the adventure.
Their family unit is the human heart of the story, and in bad Hollywood tradition the absent father who left his wife and sick child and never once tried to contact them, gets to be the romantic lead as he and his wife reconnect and become a couple again. It’s incredibly cliched, and it’s one of the weaker parts of the book. It’s like Cynthia is given no personality beyond mother and wife, and that without her husband around she’s been in a holding pattern, waiting for him to come back to her. The fact that she immediately falls back in love with the man who walked out on her and her sick baby really robs her of any kind of agency or character strength, and feels like a huge misstep.
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Thanks in part to Bruno’s work on big budget sci-fi movies, the book has a blockbuster feel to it. Everything seems to be designed to look cool, from the aliens, to their ships, and even the human technology developed to fight them. A lot of attention has been given over to the design side of things, and as such the book does have several striking moments when the two opposing forces end up clashing in battle.
There are some issues, however, as sometimes it does feel like there’s a little too much going on, and some of the larger moments end up becoming a bit muddied and messy. There’s no real distinct ‘heroes’ to follow in these moments either, and we take a more removed overview of the battle. This results in us never really feeling attached to the fight as we follow a character, but just watch as cool looking ships fight other cool looking ships at a distance.
The feeling kind of echoes in the later stages of the story too. Things happen in Navigator because the story needs them to. Technology designed to counter the alien invaders won’t work as planned because it’s dramatic for it not to, until the right moment when it’s needed to turn the tide, then it just starts working right. The alien invaders need to get the upper hand, so they have technology that allows them to teleport their ships in, but only towards the end when it becomes dramatic, and not five years earlier when they started on their way to Earth. A group of characters look doomed to time, until a magical alien entity wishes them to safety because the book needs a happy ending. A lot of stuff just happens in Navigator. And in the moment, when things are fast paced and you’re moving from one plot point to another you don’t have time to think about it, but when looking back at it you realise there is a sore lack of explanations, and that the universe of Navigator seems to operate under ‘rule of cool’ rather than any kind of logic.
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That being said, if you switch your brain off and just go with it Navigator is a fun enough book. The art, by Jordi Armengol, is really good throughout, and there were never really any moments where it felt like the book didn’t look right, or was off in any way. The story is a visual treat, even if the plot at times isn’t quite firing on all cylinders. So if you’re looking for the graphic novel equivalent of a big, bombastic, high budget sci-fi action movie, Navigator is probably one of the closest you’re ever going to get to capturing that feel.
Navigator is out now in Hardcover, and available on Kindle on 6th June.