In an interview with Fangoria, writer/creator Garth Ennis (Preacher, The Boys, Judge Dredd) stated, “When I saw Prometheus, I realized they’d gone in a different direction, but I had so many ideas of my own I figured I had enough for something completely new.” Thus was the impetus for Caliban, a seven-issue comic book series from Avatar Press (and later a trade paperback) that originally dropped from April through October 2014 in which Ennis explored those ideas. He was joined by artist Facundo Pericio (Fashion Beast, Anna Mercury, God is Dead) who completed the covers and interiors. It was a well-matched creative team that realized horror of space exploration to a new level, giving nods to familiar tropes of the genre, but also challenging a few, as well.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
Ennis tells the story a space freighter crew in deep space on a mining expedition. While in warp drive, their ship, the Caliban, collides with an alien spacecraft, causing the Caliban to eject most of the miners who are in stasis. The two ships seem to blend together rather than tear each other apart; as a result, many additional crewmembers were caught within the same space as the ships – their deaths are both horrific and tragic.
While the remaining crew of about 15 are trying to figure out how to get home, one of the crewmembers is taken over by an alien form. Soon, the alien is picking off and experimenting with the tolerance level and bodily limits of each human – a deadly game of cat of mouse. A plan is devised to utilize the Caliban’s communications systems with the alien craft’s engines.
As the death toll mounts, the chances of survival dwindle and rest on the shoulders of Sanchita “San” Malik (Her position is unknown, but she’s probably an engineer.), Nomi Gallo (communications), McCartney (engineering), Captain DeLong (commander of the Caliban), and Karien (the navigator who became host to one of the two alien species discovered on the alien ship). After the climatic fight, there is one survivor – and yes, it is a “final girl.”
While Ennis stated he had several ideas for how he would write a space-oriented horror story, he did not stray from some important elements that are critical for a successful horror story. The inclusion of the familiar tropes discussed below will be recognizable from the many space horror films that have come before this comic book, and they go a long way in maintaining the scary aspects of Caliban.
Sense of Isolation
A sea of black with twinkling stars and glowing planets may provide wonder and awe, but after traveling in space for long periods of time, isolation sets in and takes a physical and emotional toll on each person. The sense of isolation is heightened when fear sets in and the characters of the story are facing overwhelming odds of dying by horrific, and often gory, means. And if any good space horror story has taught us, any help will be too far away to be of any assistance, because aliens are always faster at annihilation than one’s rescue or escape. This concept has not been lost on Ennis, and at one point, he even has the Caliban crew acknowledge they are on their own.
Military and/or Corporation Presence
In many space horror films, there is either a military component such as the special elite squad as in Doom (2005, Andrzej Bartkowiak) or the marines in Aliens (1986, James Cameron). Sometimes, it might be a corporate presence such as Weyland-Yutani, which was threaded throughout the Alien franchise. It is the latter that is included in this story. The Caliban crew expresses that there is pressure by an unnamed corporation who expects delivery of resources found, and they state unabashedly that the corporation sees them as expendable, especially if something goes wrong. So, if they are in trouble, they know they are alone. This emphasizes and reinforces the idea of isolation.
High Fatality, Sole Survivor
Caliban starts out with approximately 30 crewmembers, which is a bit of a departure from most films. As many as half die when the ships collide, and more are found in appalling positions trapped in a shared space with the two ships. As a result, one feels sorry because of their tragic situation. As the story progresses, most of the remaining crewmembers are picked off one at a time, which is the more familiar technique found in space horror. The deaths propel the story and provide hints at Karien’s morbid fascination with testing human limits; it's unsettling because he is like a cat playing with a mouse.
Not surprisingly, the presence of aliens is seriously bad for a human’s life expectancy, and it doesn’t take long for the story to arrive at the sole survivor or final girl (a term coined by Carol J. Clover in her book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. The term refers to the last woman alive to confront the killer or escape and to be the one left to tell the story). What’s interesting about Nomi being the sole survivor is that she didn’t fight the alien in a climatic battle and only escaped because of San’s actions. This point of the story is where Ennis moves away from the familiar and into new territory.
In space horror, the crew is too busy trying to stay alive to spend any time trying to make a love connection with another crewmember. If anything, there is a subtle reference to an established relationship between two of the members, such as Shaw and Holloway in Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott). Sometimes, the potential for a relationship will be hinted at – Ripley and Hicks in Aliens or Carolyn and Riddick in Pitch Black (2000, David Twohy). And, crucially here, the relationship will assuredly be between a male and female. Ennis does give us Captain DeLong and his executive officer, Pierce, but there is a more important relationship brewing….
Element of Romance
What sets Caliban apart from other space horrors is the developing relationship between main female characters San and Nomi because a same-sex union is highly unusual in space horror. About halfway through issue two, when Nomi is overwhelmed by a tentacled creature and its sperm-looking babies, the audience witnesses the first hint of San’s interest in Nomi. San spoons Nomi in her arms and lap and calls her “my girl.” During issue three, one of the crewmembers refers to San and Nomi as “dykes.” A short time later, Nomi asks San about the comment. San admits that she is most of the time, and since she and Nomi get along, the assumption is made that Nomi is gay, as well. Nomi said she did not know. San replies that she didn’t say anything, because she didn’t want to freak out Nomi and, given the situation they were now finding themselves in, she regretted having not said anything.
As things become dire for the remaining crew, one member mentions that San will protect Nomi more vehemently than anyone else – eluding to San’s strong attachment to Nomi. Later, the Captain tells Nomi to appreciate the love that San has for her. Nomi asks San if she is in love with her. San is evasive and says that the Captain “overstated the case.” But then San admits she doesn’t know if it is love, and she reveals she never made a move on Nomi because she was scared that Nomi would not feel the same way. Unfortunately, it is too late for them; San realizes that in order to keep her promise to Nomi to keep her safe, she knocks out Nomi, puts her in an escape pod, and ejects her into space, knowing that her pod beacon will eventually lead to her being saved.
Not the Usual Final Girl
As mentioned earlier, Caliban concludes with a “final girl.” According to Clover, she is the main character of the story and is the only one developed in any psychological detail. In addition, she is the most rational and resourceful. She will likely have an ambiguous name that could refer to either gender, and she will hold a position typically held by men. In Caliban, San and Nomi could mirror the two female characters from Alien – Ripley and Lambert. Like Ripley, San is intelligent and able to think on her feet. San is often the voice of logic and reason, pointing out the need to stay focused on the tasks that would allow them to survive. They both hold positions that were probably be held by men, and they both had ambiguous names. San and Ripley fight and defeat their respective aliens, destroying their spacecrafts in the process; however, Ripley (and Jonesy) survive, but San does not.
In contrast, Nomi is the communications specialist, and she seems to lack technical expertise and the appropriate jargon to match with the others on the ship. San even mentions that she has to translate Nomi’s references to “this thingie” and “that thingie.” Nomi and Lambert are both very feminine in appearance and display a fearful demeanor. At every scary moment, Nomi is wide-eyed and holds her hands over her gaping mouth as though she is going to – and often does – freak out. Lambert is one of the last victims of the alien. Nomi, as the weakest of the Caliban crew, survives. But, her survival has been completely pinned on San’s promise to not let anything happen to her, and, as far as we know, San kept her promise.
It’s important to mention here that Ennis also took the time to strengthen the female portrayal of San and Nomi by creating men who are very flawed. For instance, when the captain’s lover is killed, he becomes a broken man, unable to engage with the remaining crew and unable to lead, leaving those duties to San. McCartney is the only member to throw up after the ships collide, and he does so right in front of San and Nomi. Later, McCartney becomes the captain’s caretaker, which we would usually see fall to a woman to handle. And in the climatic fight between San and Karien, she explains to the alien that the man he selected is only as strong as Karien the human is – and we know that he was not respected, considered weak, and used his position to push others around.
In most space horror stories, aliens are the “other.” They have no voice; they are just representative of an extremely violent, terrifying evil presence in the story that just wants everyone dead. Caliban gives voice to two different alien species. Both are at opposite ends of the spectrum regarding their approach to life. Ennis spends a majority of two issues describing the “owners.” The “owners” explain in their recorded message that they have found balance and function. They explain, "Ours is the maintenance for use;” however when they found their first biosphere that was dead and consumed beyond need – the result of the alien parasite inhabiting Karien – they state, “This is the use for ruin.” It’s very black and white. While the “owners” are extinct and are only give voice from recorded messages, the destructive parasite is given voice through its host, Karien. The alien explains that Karien the human is still in the body and has enjoyed the short time in which he has bested all of the crew, embracing the enhancements the alien has made. It’s as though Ennis has spun a futurist space horror tale reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915) or what would be categorized as “body horror.”
Ennis made a closing comment in the Fangoria interview: “I wanted to do my take on the story where the vast spaceship rumbles its way through the stars, we track down endless empty corridors, the crew tap listlessly at their consoles…and then the shit hits the fan.” It did. Ennis provided a fascinating space horror story, and along the way, he affirms some familiar space horror tropes, but he also challenged and tread new ground in the concept of space love with a same-sex relationship, a twist to the final girl, and closed the gap on the alien as the other, in which they were allowed a voice that would have, in most other space horror stories, been silent. As a result, Caliban is unique space horror story that is at turns scary and riveting.