After my experience with Failsafe, I was not inclined to give Vault Comics a fair shake. It seems silly to let my read of one book affect another, but when a book like that sees print, it can cast doubt over the standards of the entire line—I feel the same way about Marvel’s continued employment of Greg Land, for instance.
So, I opened the first issue of Alien Bounty Hunter with a deep sense of skepticism. It’s strange sometimes how a title can be a perfectly descriptive summation of a book and yet still turn you off of what is nominally an interesting idea. “Alien Bounty Hunter” is such a phrase for me—it’s apt for the context of the story, but so generic, so bland, that it’s hard to take the book seriously without having read it.
Well, it’s a good thing that my job here is not to write essays about books I didn’t read. Alien Bounty Hunter is good! I’m trying not to make this whole thing comparative, but there are some interesting coincidences providing comparison between this book and Failsafe. Both center ultra-competent male protagonists, but the way in which they frame them is so very, very different. There’s a level of care present here that sets a different tone immediately; the first page centers that protagonist and introduces him as Ben Madsen. He’s featured in bust, with a faint smile, surrounded by an arch featuring more profile shots of various alien characters. It presents what will presumably be the series’ central cast going forward, and it’s done in a very attractive style, against a field of stars.
Like a lot of action-oriented leads, Ben Madsen is introduced en media res, and here writers Adrian Wassel and David Booher show that they understand the context of his actions can help define his character. He’s shown chasing another man, presumably to capture a bounty. When that man cuts through someone’s home, the dialogue cleverly establishes that Ben knows this person, and indeed that he knows the turf overall. Without giving up his chase, he apologizes for the intrusion and promises to send someone to help with the cleanup. It’s an important detail—Ben Madsen isn’t just competent at his job, he’s a man of color engaged with a community of color, and he cares about the residents of that community. After the chase, he sends a local youth who owes him a favor to help with the cleanup, and then we get to meet Ben’s aunt, who he’s taken in and is caring for while she battles cancer.
On that subject, there’s one thing to note: there are only three women with speaking roles in the first issue. The first is some sort of assistant in the opening scene, and the other two are both in a position of being cared for by the lead. The first, the woman whose house is intruded upon, and the second, his aunt, who lives with him due to her illness. Both scenes are nice displays to show how Ben cares, but the lack of a female presence anywhere else in the book is all the more marked because of them. He has no female colleagues or professional acquaintances; he only interacts with women in domestic scenarios. It’s a troubling omission in what is otherwise a very strong first issue.
Regardless, I like Ben Madsen as a character. The art helps with that; there are no strange angles full of oddly static poses. It’s clear and precise, and the book benefits from the linework of Nick Robles, who understands how to draw both action and expressive characters. Throughout the issue he gives us a range of emotions not found in most male leads—we see Ben Madsen in states of amusement, irritation, fear, shock, and each is well-communicated. The color work is well done too—Robles is a painter, and it shows in the way he layers shades with visible strokes. There’s a sense of unity between it and the linework, which really helps the overall package. As the story progresses, Ben changes locales from his known community to the unknown of an abandoned complex, tracking a quarry he has very little information about. The artwork shifts to convey that; the camera pulls back some, giving us open, messy environments, showing off the solitude and the quiet of them. The coloring becomes moody and oppressive; the complex is dark, with only the occasional flickering light, and the choices to center the camera behind Ben instead of on his face only adds to the sense of foreboding; it gives the reader the sense of being a secret, silent follower, another mystery in this strange place, that Ben himself isn’t aware of.
I have some small qualms with the lettering work, though. First, when the characters are speaking a language other than English, the text changes color. Normally this would be fine, but the specific color chosen for Mandarin here is a bit light, making it harder to read. It matches the color tones of the background in the below panel, which adds an extra level of difficulty. Additionally, I was only able to identify the language as Mandarin by zooming in, capturing the characters at the top of the bubble, and running them through an OCR program. They specifically read ‘Mandarin’, but there’s no actual way to know that without either already being able to read Chinese or having access to some sort of translation. It’s a clever look visually, but the problem would’ve been easily mitigated by an English caption at some point that identified the language. After all, plenty of readers might be curious, but not curious enough to put in the work.
The suspense ramps up as Ben nears his quarry, and when the full-page reveal of that creature’s extraterrestrial nature is presented, the payoff comes not just in the creature’s impressive size, but in the utter shock that paralyzes Ben himself. The camera swings around to his face to highlight that shock, showing him limp-armed as the creature leaps from the building’s roof to disappear in the trees. It’s a classic moment in these kinds of stories, and it’s executed perfectly, spiking the ramping tension with a dose of outright weirdness, exposing both Ben and the reader to worlds unknown.
It also serves to make the expository infodump of the next few pages more palatable; we learn that there is a hidden society of aliens, part city and part prison, and a government organization that oversees them; like Men in Black, but with a greater understanding of American society’s natural bent toward imprisoning individuals as a means of order and control. This organization is not benevolent, something the story takes great care to establish; when Ben is spooked, when he wants to drop the contract, he’s threatened with violence immediately, and when that doesn’t entirely sell him, they leverage funding for his cancer-stricken aunt.
We learn that Ben’s quarry has escaped into that alien city, called Lustrum, and that his task is to infiltrate and apprehend. It’s a fun setup; within the first issue, we’ve already been shown how Ben handles things in familiar, populated environments and in empty, strange locales, so the immediate step toward putting him in a place that is both unfamiliar and populated is logical. It’s also interesting, since the pages until now have done such a good job of investing in Ben’s character; as the reader, I want to see how he handles these situations. When the last page ends, with Ben at the gates to this city, unsure what exactly he’ll find on the other side, I want to know and read more. That kind of hunger is exactly what a good comic should leave me with.