Author: Ian Edginton
Artist: I. N. J. Culbard
Ian Edginton and I. N. J. Culbard’s graphic novel Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds is not what you might expect from a 2000AD story. There’s no ultraviolence or grimness, and it’s not really a straight-up SFF or action comic. The blurb describes it as a “clockpunk” book: like steampunk, but with cog-powered machinery instead of a fixation on zepplins. Yet despite these trappings, it feels much more like a fantasy story, with a mysterious religious order, corrupt royalty, and a basic quest narrative. I’m not complaining, though. This mix of elements makes Brass Sun a lot more entertaining to read and means that it builds on the characteristics of its genre rather than being confined by them.
Most importantly, though, Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds is nice.
It’s not a word I would normally use in a review, but it’s so rare to read a comic aimed at adults that treats the idea of having a good heart, changing for the better, and doing the right thing with a complete lack of irony and a restrained approach to the red ink. (This is especially true for 2000AD comics. I love them, but they are full of gore, and many of the protagonists are terrible people and/or very difficult to place morally; they only get to be the good guys because everyone around them is even worse.) When I reached the end of Brass Sun, I felt warmer, a bit better about the world.
Of course, “nice” doesn’t mean “sheltered.” Brass Sun’s characters are playing for extremely high stakes – the survival of the solar system – and the obstacles they face operate on a grand scale.
The events of Brass Sun mostly take place on one planet in the Wheel of Worlds, a real-life version of those metal models of planets orbiting the sun. At the start of the book, entropy has come to the Wheel; it’s winding down, which means the eventual death of all its worlds. Of course, the authorities refuse to believe anything is wrong.
The authorities in this case are the Orthodoxy, a clockwork-oriented religious order: “Praise be to the Cog and the Wheel of Worlds upon which our fate and fortunes are bound, from mewling babe unto our grey dotage!” Their disbelief in the problems of the Wheel mean that everyone is doomed – unless someone can escape them and keep the Wheel of Worlds going.
That someone is Wren, a young woman who, armed with the secrets written in her grandfather’s journal, sets out on a dangerous and epic journey to save the universe. Along the way she picks up an eclectic band of allies: Conductor Seventeen, a young monk who accompanies her on the journey and becomes more than just a traveling companion; Ramkin, a duplicitous servant to an aristocratic family; and Ariel, a butt-kicking airship pilot.
Despite the serious life-and-death nature of their adventures, the protagonists always manage to retain their goodness, never falling into venality; when personality changes do occur, they’re invariably for the better. These are people with whom we can wholeheartedly sympathize, people we can support and believe in.
Culbard’s art helps a lot in this regard. He uses a lot of vivid earth tones, keeping the grimness out and fostering a combined sense of optimism and sobriety. We thus remain aware that the characters are dealing with the potential death of the solar system and bloodthirsty, corrupt enemies (neither of which call for bright primary colors), but that they’re good people. Some more than others, but good people nonetheless.
In keeping with the fusion of medieval-style religious elements with machinery that characterize the plot, the art does something amazing: instead of reducing the wondrous to a pile of gears, it does the opposite and elevates the mechanical to the status of the mystical. Culbard is particularly adept at creating awe-inspiring structures that make the reader stop to stare.
The feeling is that this world is so unimaginably massive and complex that we, as readers, can never hope to fully understand it the way we can with the worlds of other comics. We are simply passengers on Wren’s journey, which is what allows us to gasp in astonishment every time we see another jaw-droppingly beautiful building.
I do have one problem with Brass Sun, but that’s more to do with me than the content of the story. The ending doesn’t provide the level of resolution I wanted for the characters; some villains remain at large, and Wren’s journey is by no means ended. Actually, although the book doesn’t confirm this, I suspect that this story is the lead-in to future graphic novels. If this is the case, the bulk of the problem definitely lies with me. I just want to be secure in the knowledge that Wren and her friends are all right! – which, of course, is a testament to how attached readers can get to these characters. They’re easy to love. So is their story.