Starship Down #1: Something Old and Something New

Cover of issue 1 of Starship Down by Andrea Mutti

Starship Down #1 explores how aliens may have influenced the evolution of humans. Which would be more exciting for me if everyone hadn’t already done this. From comics, to movies, to TV shows, to conspiracy YouTubers, basically all mediums have explored the question of aliens and human evolution. So what does Starship Down have that others don’t?

Starship Down #1

Justin Giampaoli (story), Andrea Mutti (art and cover), Vladimir Popov (colors), Sal Cipriano (letters)
Dark Horse
18 March 2020

Cover of issue 1 of Starship Down by Andrea Mutti

Well, the main character is, um, a cultural anthropologist. Which, as an archaeologist, is cool and confusing. Why? Well the United States, where our main character Dr. Jocelyn Young of Duke University comes from, divides anthropology into four-fields or sub-fields: cultural, biological, linguistic, and archaeology. Although this series’ premise touches on all four-fields, the creators specifically have a cultural anthropologist.

My question is, why? Cultural anthropologists generally study the present. The story focuses on a discovery, described as being from the late Pleistocene. This era is usually the realm of archaeologists and physical or biological anthropologists. There’s nothing in this first issue that suggests a cultural anthropologist would make most sense. This is only issue #1, so hopefully there’s more.

If they stick with this, I hope that the coming issues develop why a cultural anthropologist because right now it seems out of place. It’s like saying a mechanical engineer is building a bridge. Yes that person is an engineer but that’s not their realm of knowledge. In the same way, cultural anthropologists have a different approach to the when and why of cultural practices.

Furthermore, they have Dr. Young, say things like “peer reviewed proof”. I don’t go to Duke but I have never heard a cultural anthropologist mention peer review. This comes after an interaction that puts Dr. Young at odds with Cardinal Dominik Arns and apparently the entire Vatican. The most revered eminences he says “You cultural anthropologists are the worst breed of scientist” and that specifically Dr. Young “doesn’t account for belief” in her work.

So I’m left with serious confusion about what the hell this cultural anthropologist does. Culture is all about beliefs and believing. How can she not account for that in her work? If she was a physical anthropologist, I would totally get it. Their main operator is evolution in the past an and present but a cultural anthropologist? I really need to see Dr. Young’s curriculum vitae.

While this sets the series apart from other anthropologists in comics, I’m not sold on the series. Why more aliens? Why are humans, evolving on Earth, so much less interesting to comics creators? Well, if you’ve read anything on here about archaeology, the answer almost always has underlying racist elements. Like seriously folks, actual humans, your ancestors, did cool stuff, please let them do it in comics.

And while the combination of details makes this series unique, the individual elements feel drawn from a variety of other similar media. The starship buried under ice feels like Man of Steel and a dark haired light skinned anthropologist in a Siberian setting feels lifted from Rise of the Tomb Raider. This is just Lara Croft but American and with a PhD.

These aside, the comic does some great visual storytelling. Specifically, I appreciate Andrea Mutti’s work on the reconstruction of the Neandertals. Although frozen in odd poses, they are humanized, an atypical choice for how artists in comics depict our ancestors. They look like variations on people we might know. They have personal adornments, their hair is well kept, and they have clothing. It took a long time for anthropological depiction to do that and I’m pleased to see that this has filtered into comics.

Additionally, there is an excellent use of page turns for advancing surprises in the story. I particularly enjoyed the reveal of the size and scope of the starship. The combination of the previous page having an inset of the next full page was an excellent way to compare the scales of work. Especially, in combination with a page turn. It gave a cool change in perspective from the smallness of the rock art, the focus of the previous page, to the enormity of the starship. Convincingly selling the awesome nature of the find.

The story intrigues me. I want to see where it will go once we find out more about the starship, which we assume is aliens but could also be time traveling humans (a variation on this idea I haven’t seen yet). Starship Down fits nicely within the pseudoarchaeology realm and as long as you are a reader familiar with the negatives of that sub-genre of science fiction it seems like it might be a fun ride.

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina (aka @punuckish) is a Filipine-Polish archaeologist and anthropology graduate student who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and loves comics and pop culture. Her academic work focuses on how buildings and landscapes aid or impede the learning of culture by children. In general, she is an over-educated fan of things; primarily comics, comics-related properties, cartoons, science-fiction, and fantasy. This means she takes what she knows and uses it to critique what she loves. Recently, she has brought such discussions to the public by organizing and moderating panels at comic cons centered on anthropology/culture related topics.