The Otherknown (2015-present), an ongoing sci fi webcomic by Lora Merriman, is a fun and engaging read with a surprising amount going on under the surface. Now wrapping up its 3rd chapter, it’s established its main players and is poised for a high stakes collision, making now the perfect opportunity for new readers to jump in and devour this first, well-paced chunk in one go. I’ve avoided the biggest twists for new readers to discover on their own, but this analysis will contain some spoilers for Chapters 1-2, so read on at your own risk!
We begin the story from the point of view of Chandra, a young girl traveling with her aunt, the intergalactically famous jewelry magnate Ajupris Lerazmine, as they arrive at an isolated mining facility on the moon of DH-6. As Ajupris joins the overseer Steward Demeck in negotiations over mining rights for half of the globe, Chandra gets the rare chance to spend time with another child: the excitable Reed Windsome, who leads her on a tour of the facility with his father. Through their conversations we learn that this particular mine has uncovered chronotite, a rare iridescent mineral with the ability to disrupt the fabric of space-time and so is used to power spaceships. And while the land Ajupris seeks has a “statistically zero” chance of containing chronotite, she seems almost eerily focused on acquiring it – as if she knows something Demeck does not. When the ending of Chapter 1 reveals the answer to this mystery, it only plunges us into a larger enigma that’s both more complex and darker than these opening pages might first suggest.
Our main protagonist Chandra is a goofy, curious, and intensely lonely girl who was orphaned at a young age and only recently taken in by Ajupris. She finds it easy to empathize with everyone she crosses paths with (especially if they humor her jokes), in contrast to her aloof and glamorous aunt who remains always focused on her mysterious mission. Chandra’s youthful outlook colors our first impression of the narrative, before the story widens in its scope. The tangled plotlines leap around in a future universe that’s only recently escaped war with a technologically advanced species, and one where most people’s lives are run by the whims of corporations – whether it’s ones like Ajupris Lerazmine’s family dynasty or the mobster-run A.I.D.E., which owns and runs the mining facility on DH-6.
The narrative marks A.I.D.E. member Demeck straightaway as a slimebag villain, from his imposing and weasel-like character design to his condescending, unctuous way of speaking, peppered with bursts of temper. Beside him, Ajupris seems cool-headed and elegant, and caring towards her niece if somewhat distant, and Merriman encourages us to root for her to pull off this mining deal without even knowing what it is she is trying to achieve. But the characters of The Otherknown are far more than two-dimensional archetypes, and as the story continues Merriman chooses to portray them as morally complex and sympathetic people, and to challenge the reader to dig deeper than labels of “good guys” and “bad guys.”
Merriman uses a clean, dynamic digital art style with a lot of variety in character designs and settings. Her characters are from a range of cultural backgrounds, suggested through clothing and environmental details, and feature characters of different skin tones as members of both upper and lower classes. This is a welcome aspect to her sci fi setting and one sadly lacking in most media, though I did notice that so far that it seems the most morally dubious characters have darker ranges of skin tones (which is something to keep an eye on as the story continues).
The varying weight and color of Merriman’s lineart, as well as a selective application of blur effects, help to open up the space of the panels and to determine where characters and objects are staged in relationship to each other. The Otherknown doesn’t neglect environments either, featuring a variety of spaces (many industrial) with a level of detail that is engaging without overwhelming the characters. Merriman’s coloring tends to flat shapes balanced with soft, digitally-painterly textures for shading, and amps up big emotional moments with flashes of neon and high-saturation color. She also uses color schemes and characters’ changing hair and clothing to denote when a panel has changed location or become a flashback, which is a great help at the more confusing moments. Her stylistic quirk of drawing iris’ with tiny spirals for pupils in close-ups is one I’ve never seen before, and while somewhat distracting adds a little more life to already springy expressions.
Word balloons with zippy tails lead your eye across the airy page layouts, making for a quick and easy reading experience (though their placement sometimes clouds who is saying what). Merriman doesn’t make the mistake a lot of digitally-drawn comics make by overloading the panels and bubbles with text – after she hits her stride each line of dialogue is surrounded by a cushion of white space that provides excellent readability. It’s one of those aspects of comics where you largely don’t notice when creators are doing things right, and in rereading The Otherknown I gained a lot of appreciation for how much room Merriman’s willing to leave for her pages to breathe! Her writing style also avoids info-dumps in favor of dropping plot information and world building through natural conversations, and moves the story along at a brisk clip. Light-hearted infographics and textual asides (including a skeptical note from the “editor”) and some cartoonishly exaggerated facial expressions here and there keep the overall tone from diving too deeply into grimness even as the story heads to darker territory.
One of the first ways The Otherknown explores this darkness is with the strong undercurrent of class struggles throughout the dramatic action of the plot itself. The introductory setting of the DH-7 facility functions as a microcosm for this future world: “little people” like Judd Winsome who must sign decades of if not all of their lives away to make a living and send money back home, their noveau rich boss Demeck who joined A.I.D.E. to escape poverty and gain power in the middle, and the impossibly wealthy and powerful Ajupris, who casually floats the idea of buying out the contract of Chandra’s new friends as a “birthday present” to her. Demeck’s skill in negotiating a good contract for A.I.D.E. could determine whether he lives or dies – and to complicate matters further, he seems to have a long personal history with his off-planet boss, the charming yet ominous Barthélemy Chenu.
While Ajupris and Demeck may both be above the miners in wealth, they belong to clearly different levels of the “upper class” and clash from the moment they meet. Ajupris looks down on his affectations of class, mocking his interior decoration skills and exaggerated manners as tasteless both directly to his face and to Chandra after they leave. Her wry statement that “those mobsters behind the A.I.D.E. corporation have quite the reputation…But I heard they were at least scoundrels with a veneer of good taste…” may be a joke but it seems at least somewhat serious. To her, the bloody-thirsty corporation’s criminal actions are more acceptable on some level if they act “high class” enough. And when she concludes to Chandra that “I hope you never have to talk to that scum of the Earth again,” she conflates Demeck’s lack of “taste” with the sin of being a member of a murderous organization. Her extreme disgust here proves herself to be just as preoccupied with the concept of membership into the rich ruling class as Demeck is with his various overcompensations – she’s just protective of the status quo while he aspires to join her in that world.
And then there’s Chandra’s friend Reed, who’s currently stuck in a kind of lower-class limbo on the mining facility. As the single child on a compound that has no real structures for education or entertainment, he’s not old enough yet to work (though apparently some compounds are not above abusing children for labor) and therefor can’t be an “employee” under contract to A.I.D.E. DH-7 is clearly not a great environment for a kid, yet Reed’s father Judd can’t bear to send him off-planet and possibly never see him again, so he and his co-workers do their best to raise him on the mining facility. The Otherknown encourages us to ask: what kind of future does Reed have in this world? And would Chandra be in the same position as him if her aunt had never claimed her from an orphanage?
Reed’s lack of filter makes for a fascinating window into the lives of the people on DH-6. He hates Demeck with a roaring passion, because, as he explains to Chandra, it’s the overseer’s fault that Reed’s mother Yulia died from an illness (despite Judd’s earlier insistence that he’s a “decent boss” and “what happened wasn’t his fault in any way”). “If she coulda just gone to a doctor, I know she coulda gotten better…!” he says emotionally, “…he probably just didn’t wanna pay for her to go.” When Judd is later injured on the job, a shaken Chandra confronts Demeck about helping him, declaring that the Winsomes “aren’t…your slaves” – but his reaction to her words is only troubled confusion. “Who gave you that idea?” he asks forcefully, saying “of course” he’ll send for a doctor to treat Judd’s injury. Demeck might be a nasty piece of work, but he seems to be telling the truth here (perhaps due to shock from hearing this strange child’s passionate pleas). This exchange suggests that there’s something more to the circumstances of Yulia’s death that the adults aren’t telling Reed – even if ultimately Demeck might still be responsible for preventing her from leaving the planet – that we have yet to uncover.
Puzzles like these are nestled throughout The Otherknown, though they might be easy to lose track of if you’re following the comic week by week. Returning to reread helps make more subtle connections like this obvious, and is also just plain enjoyable (though sometimes the dialogue lays on the dramatic irony a little thick). Despite the serious themes and often heart-wrenching situations her characters face, Merriman isn’t afraid to hold onto her sense of humor, which I think makes for a stronger whole. The first three chapters of her comic make for a solid, well-told sci fi mystery with plenty of original ideas and questions to chew over as you wait for updates. The Otherknown quickly won me over as a regular reader, and I look forward to seeing where the story takes us!
Laurel Lynn Leake is a white, queer, and mentally ill artist who makes comics and believes in the subversive power of empathy. She graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2013 with her MFA, and lives in Providence, RI. Her work has appeared in Velour: The Drag Magazine, INK BRICK, Maple Key BRICK, Maple Key Comics, and Inaction Comics, and she’s been self-publishing for over a decade. She’s taking care of herself even though it’s hard! You can find her at http://counterintuitivecomics.tumblr.com/