"This is a weird story that's incredibly close to our hearts. It's a story about structures and personal mythologies and how little the universe cares about your intentions.
"It's a story about trying to be human." —Ivan Brandon, Issue 1 Afterword
Drifter begins with a spaceship crash-landing, but we're never told what's bringing it down. All that we know is that there's a man in that spaceship, that he's also our narrator, and that he's probably about to die. Somehow, he doesn't, and we are with him on a strange planet that doesn't yet have a name. Our narrator, also nameless, crawls out of the body of water where he landed and tries to breathe. "It isn't easy," he says, "like breathing hot sand." But in the next panel, we discover that "something else is breathing better." That "something else" is an alien, a large, not-quite-humanoid blue creature, and, just one panel after we discover its existence, our narrator has stabbed it in its neck. It's shocking, and even though the narration is in the present tense, there's a sense that our narrator knows it was wrong. Another alien immediately bursts out of the water, but, instead of attacking our narrator in revenge, it moves to the dying alien, hovering over it, seeming to comfort it. Our narrator says, "They don't strike, they don't even look. They conspire just to leave me to my fate." But of course this isn't what's happening at all. The alien is showing compassion towards one of its own; it doesn't care about our narrator, and it has no desire to take revenge upon him. There is no violence, no anger, no malice in these creatures—just sadness.
And then a man with a gas mask comes and shoots our narrator in the back, without any clear reason. But for our narrator (whose name, as we discover at the end of this issue, is Abram Pollux), this is an action that is familiar, even if it's illogical.
We can read these aliens and understand their actions, at least on a basic level, because they act humanely. But Pollux, who is human, misunderstands them because of his own agenda, his own ideas. Drifter is about that type of conflict, about reconstructing your orientation with the world and having to find a new understanding of your own self in the process. This is the "trying to be human" that Brandon talks about in his afterword, I think, and it touches everything in the comic. Drifter follows Pollux's story, but the stories of the other people on Ouro, the planet he's landed on, touch him and reach us.
You can read Drifter over and over again—really, it's hard not to. This is true of each issue by itself, but each issue is really just one nugget in the larger thing that Drifter creates. You read one, and then you're reading the next one all of a sudden, because you want to know what else is out there. This is at least partially because you're only occasionally treated to important plot points. The rest of the time is spent in a sort of wonder, where you want desperately to know how everything you see ties together, but where you're okay with not knowing, because everything you see is compelling on its own. Reading Drifter through helped me to piece things together the first two times I did it, but after that, I'd gotten just about as much information as I could about the plot, and yet the compulsion to spend time in Ouro was still there. Even after we learn the name of Pollux's attacker, and even after we've discovered the big secret behind Ghost Town, the ramshackle human settlement where Pollux is taken after he's been shot, the world maintains its spell. We don't just care about what happens, but why it happens: what about the world—and the people who have to live there—is driving these events?
The story parcels out its bits of information only as fast as Pollux collects them, and every issue gives us a slightly different bit. In each, we experience new glimpses of the rest of the world, but always from a carefully chosen perspective. This question of perspective is one of the things the comic seems to care about most—there are lots of stories being told here, and each of them colors the world, and the other stories in turn. The first comic is almost all Pollux, clamping down hard on his bewilderment. The second goes deeper into Pollux's past, and starts shading in the multiple, fractured groups of living things that make Ouro their home, both human and otherwise. It also gives us a window into Sheriff Lee Carter, the badass—as well as female and black—sheriff who has to make sure Ouro doesn't kill Pollux. Drifter spends far more time with Pollux than with Carter, but by the end of Issue 2, she feels real. We have an understanding of what she struggles with, and how her sense of duty is shaped both by Ouro and by the people she's responsible for (which includes Jonah, the man she seems to love). Each issue of Drifter gives us these foreign, far-off pieces of the world, but it's always through the eyes of the people who have to make Ouro their home, and then, again, through Pollux's eyes.
The third issue may be the one that does this best, because it's the one where Ouro hurts someone else. Pollux tries to settle into life on Ouro, which means joining some people from Ghost Town in their work—mining the feces of a giant, underground worm. Pollux doesn't know about the worm shit until he's already stuck underground, and there's a nice moment of humor that comes from his disgust and the resigned cheer of Charlie and Della, his two married companions. But this immediately flips into horror. There are other creatures after the worm, skeletal-looking things called Wheelers that the humans have to avoid. They don't mine worm feces, because, as Charlie says, "that's a human job, they're higher up the chain than that." Here, we bear witness—as does Pollux—to something utterly alien and unique to Ouro, but that comes along with a perspective that colors in the humans who must somehow cope with it: Charlie saves Pollux from the Wheelers at the expense of his own fingers (which a Wheeler burns off); as Della and Pollux carry Charlie above ground, Della sings to him. Pollux, narrating, tells us that "She sings soft all the way to the top. Her breath comes in and out like waves that crack as she whispers. . . . She sings 'til she's gasping for air, choking." This is about as close as Drifter brings us to whatever's at Ouro's core, but we get there via the people who are forced to be part of Ouro, too. Being "human" on Ouro means something that it doesn't mean anywhere else, and yet we still recognize it, and the comic makes us feel it.
But Pollux isn't just a human on Ouro—he has his own, unique set of questions. Underlying everything in Drifter are Pollux's questions about what happened to him, and why Ouro feels so wrong to him. These mysteries are far from being solved at the end of its first five issues, soon to be collected in trade paperback as Volume One; the closest we get is a clearer delineation of the mysteries. The first, and probably most central, mystery is this: after Pollux gets shot, he blacks out. Carter tells him that he was out for three days, but he later learns that his ship crashed a year earlier. No one Pollux talks to understands what this means, and even at the end of the fifth issue, we're only left with hints at what might have happened. The man who shot Pollux gets a name—Bell Emmerich—and, at the end of Issue 2, he saves Pollux's life. But the two of them never quite have a conversation, and we never learn why Emmerich shot Pollux or what he knows about the temporal discrepancy. The question of what Emmerich knows, then, is always there.
The other mystery that lies at the bottom of the plot is the question of what Ouro's dominant species really is, and what they want. In Issue 4 of Drifter, we discover that Ghost Town is ruled by aliens that seem to somehow be related to the Wheelers. These aliens harm people if they don't act according to their wishes: Pollux doesn't, and he is told that this is why Charlie lost his fingers. The world, and those native to it, are against the people who live there. Pollux, however, is foreign both to the world and to the people who live there, and this means that the type of understanding he requires is one that he must construct for himself. We share in this and watch him construct it, a strange, haphazard comprehension that belongs nowhere in the world of Ouro. But it is at the heart of the world of Drifter, which is really a combination of Ouro itself and Pollux's sense of it.
In Issue 5, Pollux is separated from the rest of the human characters, both by time and place—he's up in the mountains, and we don't know exactly when he's there in relationship to the main narrative. He narrates the issue in sentence fragments that come in short beats, sparse and haunting. It's done in the same style as the rest of his narration, but the beats are shorter, and they feel only partly thought-out, as if he's really explaining something to himself. Here, we remember that there's Ouro, there's the people who have to live in Ouro, and then there's Pollux. He tells us that "The place is wrong. The world itself." But, a panel later, he adds,"We that infest it." If you're human, you don't belong in Ouro. Pollux belongs there less than anyone else, but that means he has a category all his own. He isn't trying to build a relationship with Ouro, unsteady and laced with a constant threat of betrayal, of death. Pollux fights the world even before he knows it, and the world fights right back. There's some kind of order being imposed by the creatures that do belong there, something brutal and unfeeling, at least from a human perspective. It's alien. But everything on Ouro seems to be alien to everything else, which means that everyone who lives there must constantly reformulate what they think is true and what matters to them. Drifter rarely takes sides, but it gives its characters a chance to work through those different sides.
Pollux infests Ouro, then, but his infestation is separate. He has his own set of memories and needs—he's late to wherever his ship was going, he has to find the man who shot him, and he has to get back to the girl he loves—which means that he deals with Ouro on very different terms. He shares nothing with it; he is at war with it, but he is also terrified of it, bewildered by it. Whatever power he wields has lost its moral alignment, and the only way for Pollux to figure out what it means on Ouro is to make mistakes, to do things that are drastic and nonsensical—this is why Charlie loses his fingers. It's not quite clear who Pollux was before he landed on Ouro, but there's something about his relationship to the people he finds there, whom he joins there, that shades in his inner life and turns him into a real person. Pollux could easily have been made into someone infuriating, an action hero with whom we're meant to sympathize. Instead, Pollux is humanized. But this doesn't happen in an easy way, where, because Pollux is vulnerable, all of his secrets and thoughts are suddenly lucid to us. Pollux remains almost as mysterious as Ouro does, in terms of his specific history. But he becomes familiar to us. He can be kind of a jerk, and we aren't asked to forgive him. He has moments of raw emotion, whose sources we're only partially aware of, but about which we still care. We know that he misses his girl, and that he has to get to her. We don't know why that is, yet we feel for Pollux anyway. And we don't feel for Pollux as if he's a surrogate for ourselves, lost in a foreign world, but as if he's a friend. The ability to feel emotions for another without entirely being that other person, while still being separate from them—that's a crucial part of what humans have to do on Ouro, and it's how Drifter lets us see Pollux.
A lot of this is because of how Pollux actually thinks—the way the narration is written and paced. In a lesser story, Pollux's narration could fall into cliché—it's short, and gruff, and often comes in sentence fragments. But this hard-bitten delivery doesn't fall into predictable tough-guy talk, for a few reasons. We care about where it's coming from, first of all. Pollux isn't just talking like this to sound good, or as a way for Brandon and Klein to create atmosphere (even though that's part of it): Pollux is telling this story to himself. He has to figure out what's happened to him, what this world means. He has to create his own "personal mythology," and the fragments of his speech are a lot like the fragments of Ouro, and of his own memory, that he has to work with and piece together. The sorts of things Pollux says that make sense to him, but that sound almost wrong to us, somehow distant and mystical, define his world. These are phrases like, "The things I don't know multiplying," which runs through Issue 4, and the lines that end Issue 5 (and all of Drifter so far): "The new day lit a whole world dead . . . and then that light itself was gone." The narration has a sort of desperate quality to it. Pollux comes off sounding tough and capable, but there's a dull terror behind what he says, always. The desperation isn't the point, however—at least not entirely. Pollux's narration also allows us to see him changing the way he thinks, his ideas changing to incorporate both the fact of this world, and that he wants to fight against it (including the people there who nevertheless touch him.)
The final aspect of Drifter is its art. The writing is excellent on its own, and I think I would love Drifter if it were just a prose story, but the art pushes it into a new place. It's lushly colored, and full of detail, with equal care given to the landscape of Ouro and to the creatures, human and alien, who live there. It's easy to spend significant periods of time just drinking in the art, thinking about where it is that the comic has brought us. That's really why the art matters so much. Because Drifter is a comic, there's a sort of split: we get Pollux's view of the world, at least to a certain degree, through the narration, but we also get to view the world for ourselves, because we can see it and form our own impressions of it. So we get an extra chance to understand and care about what Pollux is trying to do, because we're not limited just to his perspective. Ouro is larger than Pollux, and Drifter always remembers that. But we also have to deal with Ouro because Pollux does. Through his voice, we hear the voices of everyone else, and through his attempts to answer his own questions about who this new place has made him, a new thing, a new story about "trying to be human," is made. I'm eagerly awaiting more, and there will be many re-readings in the meantime.
Phoebe Salzman-Cohen is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where she reads a lot of fantasy, a lot of comics, and a lot of Homeric Greek. She likes writing weird stories about fireworks and magical taco trucks, and is in charge of making up storylines for UChicago's games of Humans versus Zombies. You can contact her at email@example.com.