Grey Area: This Island Earth
Dan Abnett (Writer), Karl Richardson, Lee Carter, Patrick Goddard (Artists), Len O’Grady, Abigail Bulmer (Colourists), Ellie De Ville (Letterer)
11 January 2018
Grey Area started in 2000 AD, after a pilot episode during Prog 2012. It has featured on and off since then, and focuses upon the Exo Transfer Control (E.T.C) squads. Their job is to patrol the eponymous “Grey Area,” a Global Exo Segregation Zone based in Arizona, 2045. It’s a holding area designed to process alien visitors to Earth, and the E.T.C. are essentially immigration cops, ones with a large and bullet-filled arsenal at hand. Grey Area: This Island Earth collects together the first twelve stories about Captain Janzen’s squad, introduced to the reader via brand new recruit, Jana Birdy. These tales may at first seem like disconnected vignettes. However, within them are hints of an emerging arc as the series seeks to establish itself.
There are some cardboard cut-outs in Dan Abnett’s roster of players: the wide-eyed, naive recruit, the grizzled veteran captain, and the kick-ass female fighter, to name a few. There’s even a squad member called Bulliet, which is as far from subtle as you can get. However, slight as the squad is, they are likeable enough as they deal with diplomatic incidents, murderous aliens, and psychotic human terrorists. Along with this, the banter amongst the team sells them as a unit in which you can emotionally invest.
Richardson and Goddard capture the grime and violence enveloping the Grey Area with a grainy art style that matches a disconnected atmosphere. It also evokes Transmetropolitan’s snapshots of a strange new world in its colourful depiction of alien life and customs. In contrast, Carter’s art is at first flat and sanitised, though it does develop over his run.
One odd note is that, in Carter’s contribution, a character’s ethnicity is whitewashed from Richardson’s initial portrayal. Only when Bulmer comes on board to handle colours does Feo, a woman of colour, appear anything like her original incarnation. It’s worth pointing out that Feo is the kickass female fighter mentioned before and, coincidentally, happens to be the only person of colour in the squad. It’s a painfully lazy trope, and her character does not develop much in these stories beyond that.
Themes around race, immigration, and otherness lace through the stories as the characters struggle with their own conflicted feelings about their profession. Add to this a generous helping of right-wing xenophobes trying to close the borders, and the series seems more politically relevant than ever. Besides this, Abnett’s Grey Area contains some imaginative and creative touches, including the tragedy behind the Gifted, humans carrying the lifelong effects of an alien encounter. Such world-building cements the believable bureaucracy of dealing with alien races once the novelty of first contact has worn off.
The complicated nature of the Grey Area and human/alien relations is established early on in enjoyable tales. “Meet and Greet” shows this complexity as the team handle an incident with more depth than first apparent. Its tragic conclusion is thankfully not exploited for cheap titillation.
Unfortunately, “Personal Space” undermines this tone. This may well be a result of Carter’s compositional decisions or wanting to cater to their target audience. Whilst looking at the sometimes absurd situations the E.T.C can find themselves in, the reader is treated to some gratuitous female nudity, presumably for the viewer’s pleasure. In this story, Jana Birdy (vulnerable and not completely in control of her actions) is naked for a long period whilst with a male member of the squad. This is then used as a basis for further developing an emotional relationship, which is jarring to say the least. The eye-rolling obviousness of Birdy’s nudity reminds the reader with whose gaze the creators are concerned.
Despite this disconcerting interval, Abnett solidifies his storytelling as the series progresses. Even as one arc pulls its punches, further stories contain some genuinely interesting twists. It was pleasing to see one particular plot development establish itself, and for the series to accept the ramifications of it. By the end of the collection, Abnett has found his feet. “All God’s Children” allows the reader to consider just how cultural differences between aliens and humans might manifest, even if it does feature some heavy-handed characterisation. “Rates of Exchange,” the final story, is a fun, action-packed jaunt, with more than a nod towards Aliens.
Grey Area: This Island Earth is a mixed bag, possibly the result of the creators trying to find their place. There are intriguing elements throughout the stories and overall a lot to like; it is refreshing to see a writer make a dramatic change without pulling a bait and switch, building a narrative that hints at long-term consequences. Just prepare yourself for wading through a few uneven plots in order to get there.