Collecting the entirety of Kit Roebuck‘s webcomic into two print novels, Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life mostly works as a tangible product. That said, it does lose a bit of lustre without the infinite canvas it was originally projected on, and some of the comic’s faults are much more noticeable in this more traditional form.
Back in the halcyon days of the early 2000s, webcomics were a strange commodity. Extremely niche, barely visible in mainstream media, and insanely hard to build a successful career on. Fast forward to 2018, and not much has changed. Although graphic novels have come into their own, their online counterparts are, ironically, still very much an undervalued market. Though a few stars have managed to break out in the past half-decade, their longevity is about that of any other relatable meme, and the highly critical nature of social media means the creators tend to burn out pretty quickly.
Narrative-based comics are about as successful as they’ve always been, servicing very targeted segments of the online audience. In a completely counter-intuitive turn of events, graphic novels are a far more successful venture.
So it’s a smart move for those who had a webcomic to transfer their work to print, at least for the moment. There’s an air of validity that comes with having something you can hold to show off. In some cases though, things get lost in translation. Such is the case with Kit Roebuck‘s Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life, whose infinite canvas gimmick set it apart from its peers in the 2000s, and added a sense of discovery completely apropos of the subject matter.
Now that you’re turning pages like a Luddite, the scale of the comic is brought back down to Earth, and there are a few issues that stand out.
The art vacillates between wonderfully intricate, deceptively simple, and just plain sloppy. It’s this inconsistency that can be forgiven in an innovative format, but will jump out at you in a regular old book. The speech bubbles in particular are distracting; so much space is wasted with the extra padding around the text.
The story itself also becomes a little lean upon scrutiny: two robots travel across the solar system in search of a new meaning for their lives. One (Chris) is based in the existential sad-sack archetype, the other (Ben) is the mellow goofball along for the ride. They have various misadventures on each planet, with an extended sojourn in the asteroid belt splitting the two volumes of the story. Some of these misadventures are fleshed out, others are bare sketches. There’s a moment towards the start of their journey where Chris tries to feel a spiritual connection to the husk of an ancient robot and feels nothing. This was prime material to weave into the running theme of soul-searching, and it’s not revisited at all. There’s a barely explained subplot between Ben and his ex-wife, who is inexplicably “transitioning” into a human?
On that note, there’s very little separating all the robots in this story from humans. There are some rules set out at the outset, but they’re all thrown out over the course of the story. Apparently robots don’t “engage in physical violence” or “exchange currency”…but both of these things are done by robots. They eat, drink, gain weight, dream, get stiff backs- they’re all basically humans who don’t age and can survive in space.
All that aside, these are still pretty good comics. The execution is solid and there is some really great character development. There are some forward-thinking concepts in here, like the way that humans go extinct, or the plutocratic society on Neptune’s moon.
There’s also an achingly (and inexplicably) sad ending that doesn’t rely on tropes like death or sacrifice or romance. It’s difficult to explain without spoilers, but there’s an irresolution to the final panels that sticks with you.
This review’s been highly critical, but the truth is that it’s simply the nature of the medium that hinders the work as a graphic novel. It’s like trying to convert a TV show into a movie, or vice versa. Some things work best in specific formats, and changing the comic even more to fit a print novel format would have been incredibly taxing for Roebuck. While it could have been a little longer, it’s still a decent rumination on the nature of friendships over the course of time.
Final Grade: B+