The crew of the spaceship Cortes, a salvage vessel, land on a planet known as Lonely Orphan. It got this name for being a planet floating through space, not tied to any star. The crew believes that there’s a treasure on the planet that will finally get them out of debt and leave them set for life. However, they discover that there’s something there that threatens to make their deepest nightmares come true.
When I was in elementary school, I really enjoyed reading Choose Your Own Adventure books. Especially science fiction ones. I also enjoyed making intentionally wrong decisions in them to see the various bad endings. One that stuck with me was about two astronauts attempting to fly into a black hole. One bad ending was accompanied by a drawing of the two astronauts reduced to skeletons while still in their suits. That the cover of Rogue Planet invoked a reminder image endeared me to it right away.
One of the first things I noticed while reading Rogue Planet was how much it’s reminiscent of not just well-known science fiction horror like Alien and Event Horizon, but of pulpy tropes as well. The aliens native to Lonely Orphan are essentially the classic “little green men” design. The treasure hunting thread that kicks off the plot, the aliens being a primitive society that uses spears as weapons, and their attempts to capture the crew of the Cortes for a sacrifice read very much like something out of a Golden Age sci-fi story.
The horror in the book, on the other hand, is heavily based on body horror and surreal images. Several members of the crew find themselves stalked by a giant blob-like creature which seems to be a mix of muscle tissue, organs, and torn flesh. At one point it leaves behind a group of walking spacesuits with its appendages sticking out where a head should be, the crew surmising that they’re a sort of “scarecrow” to drive them away. In one of the most creative scenes, the skeleton and muscle of one of the dead crew mates twists itself into a giant scorpion-like creature that attacks the remaining members. It leaves the reader off-kilter as here doesn’t seem to be a consistent through line of the various terrors, but it drops enough hints that tie together at the end.
The artwork by Andy MacDonald is excellent, beautifully rendering the horrific imagery while hitting the right mix of colourful, surreal, and dark. While the aliens of Lonely Orphan aren’t the most creatively designed, the artist conveys their emotions as well as the humans. Where the art really shines for me are the parts where the crew of the Cortes are boxed in by the various horrors on the planet. The sense of claustrophobic terror from the detail of everything on the page works very well.
The story by Cullen Bunn is a fun, fast-paced read. When I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down until I finished it. One of the most admirable parts is that it avoided making the aliens a simple group of savages, giving a good explanation for violent behaviour. The cause of the horrors on Lonely Orphan, which I won’t spoil, makes for a creative twist.
To its credit, while Rogue Planet occasionally wears its influences on its sleeve but doesn’t engage in any winking or irony. Putting aside how it would break the mood and tension of the book, I can imagine another author trying to be too clever about using alien designs that are, in many places, a thing of parody and a logo for psychedelic t-shirts. Instead, it plays them straight and makes it work with an engaging story.
My biggest critique of the story is that the crew of the Cortes is pretty underdeveloped. The personalities of each member isn’t all that unique. It especially makes them hard to tell apart when they’re wearing spacesuits that cover their faces. For example, one of the crewmen who stays behind at the ship is attacked by a deformed doppelganger of their partner back home. It’s a scene that would have been far more effective had the story had more time to develop them and their relationship. Also, given what the twist at the end reveals, I believe their were opportunities for more creative horrors.
One of the differences often noted between the Golden Age science fiction of the 40s and 50s and the New Wave of the 60s and 70s was that the former focused on exploration of outer space, while the latter focused on the exploration of “inner” space. The ending of Rogue Planet showed the book as having more potential for the looking into inner space of the crew members. While it has the usual cosmic horror idea of the mysteries of the unknown and the cold indifference of the universe, it also tries to look how one’s fears of it could be just as, if not more, destructive. However, it ends up under cooking this part of the narrative.
This is a solid work of sci-fi horror. Many will recognize the tropes and ideas that have been embedded in the culture, but Rogue Planet takes them in a unique direction. It speaks well of a work when the main criticism one has of it is that it could have had more and stretched its concept further. Horror and science fiction fans will certainly get a lot of out of this graphic novel.
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