In Eric Heisserer and Felipe Massafera’s “Shaper” #1, the Shapers — an alien species able to change their forms — haven’t been seen in so long that many have started to question whether they ever existed at all — or if they are just the stuff that role playing games are made of. It’s a game that gifted but troubled student Spry plays well, and he is a fan to the point that he wishes to join the Caliphate, the galaxy’s military branch that had once hunted down the Shapers. When a secret kept from him his whole life is eventually revealed to him, the issue comes together nicely and in a mildly surprising manner by the issue’s end.
Heisserer’s concept evokes a bit of a “Starship Troopers” vibe here, most notably on Massafera’s attractively painted cover, although more so with broad strokes than with the details. Shapeshifters are nothing new in sci-fi, of course, but Heisserer immediately establishes that their abilities are both genetic and evolution-based, implying that each generation could be more advanced than the last. It’s a clever notion that plays into the common belief about the race’s legendary status and strongly hints that they could be closer than anyone might imagine. This, in turn, poetically plays into Spry’s revelation later on and goes a long way towards lending credibility towards his apparent shift in attitude as the issue draws to a close.
Spry’s character is well-defined by Heisserer within the span of this single issue. Seemingly orphaned, he longs for a sense of family and belonging and sees the military as a ticket to that end. Heisserer also plays up Spry’s inner geek, whose fascination with the “Heroes of the Caliphate” game goes a long way towards shaping his character (pun intended) and whose explanation of said game to a friend also serves as a well encapsulated parallel that brings readers up to speed as the issue begins. Spry’s interaction with his school advisor Niva also reveals a young man who is far more than the slacker he might seem. Heisserer immediately makes Niva a likeable character because of her understanding of and sympathy for Spry, for reasons which become very clear later on.
Massafera, along with colorist Wes Dzioba, illustrates a very lush and detailed world to house Heisserer’s story. Spry’s environment looks simultaneously homey and alien; hedges adorn the brick-like faÃ§ade of his school, yet the round, bulbous windows are unlike anything seen on a campus in these parts. The armored, bug-eyed Caliphate ground troops are imposingly designed, although they only make a brief appearance in this issue, and — despite being an alien — Niva comes across as a maternal school staffer who’s genuinely interested in Spry’s well-being.
Throughout the issue, Massafera and Dzioba provide a rich and colorful background for every scene that beautifully accentuates Massafera’s characters and subjects. One stunning example of this is Spry’s world’s version of mass transit, which has the typical dichotomy that combines decidedly otherworldly transportation with something so seemingly pedestrian as a traffic light (albeit a floating one). Dzioba leaves no corner of any page uncolored; his attention to detail is as excruciating as Massafera’s and every page of the story benefits from it.
“Shaper” #1 is a very strong start to the series with unique twists given to familiar ideas, good characterization and lavish art that makes this world seem a little closer to home. The expository setup is far more enjoyable than many such stories, boding well for next issue.