The fourth issue of “Caliban” is thrilling and disappointing in equal measure. Ennis and Percio are masters of atmosphere, and the book feels claustrophobic, dark and ominous. The survival scenario is intelligently imagined, and the characters are relatable and likeable. However, the series isn’t yet capitalizing fully on its premise, and the “Alien”-inspired elements begin to wax generic. Still, it’s absolutely worth sticking around for — I just hope it grows over the next few issues.
Issue #4 reveals some of what’s gone wrong with Karien and why he’s behaving the way he is, but it’s mostly about problem solving. With the captain devastated by NAEM’s death, the other crew members must take on leadership roles. Ennis is refreshingly subtle about the team dynamics; instead of resorting to tiresome power struggles, he has everyone in the group contribute questions, ideas and concerns.
What I appreciate most about Ennis’ script, however, is the intelligence of the characters. It’s a well-worn (and sometimes unfair) trope that the characters in horror fiction are often unbelievably dumb, failing to make basic logical leaps or ask the obvious questions. Ennis’ crew is believably sharp. The only impulsive, somewhat idiotic move in this issue is both emotionally and logically credible. I could tell it was a bad idea, but it was a bad idea that an adult human could definitely have.
I enjoy Percio’s art, but his faces do lack nuance. The characters are either blank or terrified — a perfectly acceptable approach when the action is heating up, but it becomes noticeable when the characters dive into discussions. That aside, he and colorist Cabrera establish a tense, eerie atmosphere that doesn’t feel overdone. There’s something clinical about Percio’s acts of violence that makes them infinitely creepier and more memorable. I especially liked the use of the unseen in this issue, especially on the opening page and during Karien’s self-augmentation.
“Caliban” does move a bit expectedly. When the team leaves the safety of the bridge, there’s no question that something awful will happen to them. Karien’s species optimization is something I’ve seen before, and there are a few members of the crew who are obvious Redshirts. As always with this type of criticism, it’s true that these plot pieces are so well-used because they work so well, but the lack of a unique thematic take on them is what keeps “Caliban” at enjoyable rather than exceptional.
There is also a remarkable amount of communication by headset. Logically, it makes a whole lot of sense, but it gives letterer Kurt Hathaway an unenviable job. Hathaway’s text treatment for headset versus in-person is admittedly sharp and subtle, and it would have worked wonderfully in a series that didn’t put so much pressure on headset communication. But in “Caliban,” it can make the conversations difficult to follow. Clearer delineation might make things more readable going forward.
With so many things going for it, “Caliban” is still a series to watch, but I’m hoping it has an ace up its sleeve going forward. I like tense science fiction, but I love tense science fiction with a strong viewpoint.