Ivan Brandon (author) and Nic Klein (illustrator) debuted the eerie sci fi series that is Drifter in November of 2014 on Image Comics. Right from the first issue, I knew that I was going to be in for something spine tingling, thought provoking, and… just all around different, significantly at odds with a large majority of other series in the comics industry in terms of plot structure, tone, and artwork as well. In June, as Drifter came to an absolutely brilliant close with its 19th and final issue, my jaw dropped as I came to the final page and didn’t pick itself back up for a good 5 minutes. I had just finished what is unquestionably one of the most bold, well thought out, and beautifully illustrated series in comic history. If only more people knew about it. If only…
Fellow readers, it is time to give some attention to this wonderful, gorgeous series, how it ended, and what it all means. At the moment, I can’t find any reviews of any issues of Drifter after 16, meaning that other than this article, there isn’t any commentary anywhere about the finale, how everything wrapped up, etc. Cryptic Resonations is more than happy to fill that void.
*SPOILERS AHEAD*: I considered not dropping any, but as it turned out, I just can’t give Drifter a good analysis without describing the intricacies of its plot, choice of setting, and how this translates to my interpretation of the series message. If you don’t mind being spoiled, or have already finished the series yourself, proceed. If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, well… go ahead and start with issue 1 and see what you make of it.
The first issue of Drifter begins with a space ship crashing down onto a mysterious planet, Ouro, in a massive, catastrophic explosion. Shortly thereafter, a survivor, Abram Pollux, rises from a lake where the ship crashed and crawls ashore. Before he knows what even hits him, a man, later introduced as Bell Emmerich, runs up from behind and shoots him in the gut. The motivation behind this attack is, for the moment, left unclear. Pollux blacks out and later wakes up tied to a bed, being rehabilitated by Lee Carter. Carter is a medic, and also the sheriff of “Ghost Town,” a small human community established on the planet. As things proceed from here, Pollux eventually goes looking for his ship, charging into the night of Ouro after getting into a brief bar squabble. Carter runs after him to check on his safety. The two discuss Pollux’s origins, Carter being quite confused about where he may have come from. Pollux is convinced that he has only been on the planet for a few days, and journeys onwards to the ruins of his ship. As both he and Carter come upon the ruins, Carter reveals to Pollux that, contrary to the latter’s belief, the ship actually crashed on Ouro over a year prior to Pollux’s encounter with Carter.
Thus the core mystery of Drifter is introduced with this ending to the first issue. How long has Abram Pollux actually been on the planet Ouro? Why did Bell Emmerich shoot him down shortly after his arrival? Was he somewhere else before he got shot that he simply can’t remember? All of these questions are left unanswered until the final volume of Drifter, a fact that may frustrate many readers, but that does a wonderful job of creating a narrative where suspense continues to build and build until reaching a climax where the veil is finally pulled back and the answers… end up having been right in front of you all along.
The next major event to come into play in Drifter is the introduction of “the Wheelers.” These beings are indigenous to the planet Ouro, and resemble skeletal humanoids, with glowing, yellow eyes and inhuman strength said to be equal to or even greater than the strength of five grown men combined. Pollux first encounters them while taking a temporary mining job, and it’s quickly made clear that in the hierarchy of life on the planet, they are above humans, and will cut down any who impede their utilitarian sense of “progress.” This is demonstrated when, while working in the mines, a Wheeler breaks the hands of one of Pollux’s friends who was also working with him, due to the friend standing in its way.
When Pollux retaliates to this attack by attacking (and presumably killing) a wandering Wheeler with a shovel a bit later, he is forced to have a discussion with the enigmatic “Man in the Dark,” a shadowy character who seems to always reside in an upstairs room in the bar in Ghost Town, and who, it is implied, is the leader of the Wheelers. This character, when first introduced, says many vague and cryptic things that do reveal information, without revealing too much. He (it?) mentions that “the victim [the Wheeler Pollux killed]… we are different versions of the same design,” and that “we have no name for ourselves, but we are always together. Below and above, different sides of a single purpose: to bring balance.” Pollux is left with this to consider, and then dismissed from The Man in the Dark’s presence.
Much more happens in the plot of Drifter from here that only serves to intensify the sense of intrigue, a puzzle to be solved, and an overall feeling of “just what is going on here?” At the end of the first volume, Pollux finds a dug out grave with a tombstone that has his name on it. At the end of volume 2 a Wheeler, being controlled by the Man in the Dark, destroys the still intact engine of Pollux’s ship that crashed, causing a huge explosion that litters the sky of Ouro with ash, creating a nuclear winter type of effect. Bell Emmerich, the man who shot Pollux down after his arrival in issue 1, is shown in a flashback to have been on the same ship that Pollux crashed down onto Ouro on. And further still, a mysterious, masked figure lurks here and there in the shadows, moving his own plans along.
As it is eventually revealed, Abram Pollux was the command pilot of the ship that crash landed onto Ouro, which did crash a year prior to where the series begins. Emmerich was on the ship as well, as were all the citizens of Ghost Town, in cryo sleeping pods. Something (what exactly is never explained) eventually happens to send the ship into a state of instant system collapse, causing everything to burn. Pollux, madly in love with his wife Virginia (“Ginny”), chooses to escape from the ship with her in an escape pod as opposed to saving the rest of the crew. Emmerich condemns him for his cowardice and selfishness, and issues one final report to the ship logs before the craft crashes into the ground of Ouro as was shown in the first issue.
Ouro, it is revealed in a conversation between Emmerich and a girl named Lima, who was also on the ship, is a very special, unique planet home to a phenomenon known as “reflections.” Essentially, whenever any being on the planet is in a state of severe distress, either physical or mental, the planet sends out a perfect copy of that being, a “reflection,” to nurse it back to health. But once these reflections have served their purpose and the master copy is better, Ouro sends out red, malevolent copies of the being to “clean up,” or, put simply, to destroy the reflections. These are the Wheelers.
And here the mystery at the heart of Drifter begins to unravel, as the series nears its end. As it turns out, in reality Abram Pollux landed on Ouro after the explosion of his ship with his wife, Ginny, still asleep in the cryo pod. He was not shot by Emmerich immediately after arriving. After taking care of a few mechanical issues, he finally awakens Ginny out of her pod. But upon discussing the ship crash with her and how they are now on another planet, and also mentioning that he only saved himself and Ginny in the crash because “there was no time for the others,” Ginny is thoroughly disgusted, and abandons Pollux. This devastates Pollux to the point that Ouro sends out one of its reflections to assist. This reflection is the Abram Pollux that readers are introduced to in the very first issue of Drifter. He is merely a reflection, and the mysterious masked character who has been moving in and out of the plot is the real Abram Pollux.
When these two finally meet, the real Pollux is not in a state of good health, and dies shortly after, with the reflection Pollux and all the other citizens of Ghost Town (themselves reflections as well) burying him. Now in an existential crisis due to the shocking revelation, the reflection Pollux falls into a somber state of questioning his own existence. Eventually he pulls himself out of it and comes to the decision that, since Emmerich is the only human on Ouro who isn’t a reflection, he should do his best to get him home. The reflection Pollux dons a space suit and flies Emmerich above Ouro in a tiny escape pod, sending a distress signal out into space for any passing ships to potentially pick up. This version of Pollux marvels at the vast expanse of space, which he has never seen before, before vanishing, leaving only the spacesuit he put on, as well as Emmerich, now in a sleeping pod, on the spacecraft. And here is where the story of Drifter ends.
For a moment, after finishing this final issue of Drifter, I didn’t quite know what to think. In a way I almost felt as though it was anticlimactic, as though it hadn’t ended on a seriously chaotic note that shook everything up. Then I realized that such a moment had already come in the 17th issue, where the nature of Ouro’s reflections is revealed, and that the ending of issue 19 is actually surprisingly poignant and beautiful when the entire series is taken into consideration.
The real Abram Pollux was motivated primarily by love, love for his wife Ginny. But it was a selfish love, a love that caused him to forsake his responsibility for the crew of his ship as a command pilot and flee the burning craft, focusing only on the safety of himself and Ginny. I can’t but help be reminded of Buddhist philosophy here in a way, the teaching that human suffering results from our over-attachment to material things, to excessive craving and desire. Reading the final few issues of Drifter I felt as though they were a warning, a caution about the potential results of over-attachment to anything that could cause one to lose focus of the perceived “greater good.”
The reflection of the real Abram Pollux was motivated by a sense of revenge, wanting to get even with Emmerich after being shot, and wanting to get answers about just what was happening to the reflections on Ouro, what the Wheelers were planning, and so forth. In a way, one could interpret his actions in the plot of Drifter as being more ethical, driven more by a sense of wanting to set things right and bring the right of information to the citizens of Ghost Town than for his own selfish purposes. However, due to the fact that Wheelers eventually destroying reflections is the procedure on Ouro, it is highly implied throughout Drifter that this reflection version of Pollux is only serving to disrupt the natural order of things at the end of the day, that instead of fitting in and finding his established purpose, he is fighting a useless battle, a battle in which his only enemy… is himself. What this all means is not answered clearly. It could be author Ivan Brandon suggesting that it’s best to go with the flow and not fight against the way life proceeds too much. It could be the opposite, Brandon advocating resistance and thinking for yourself regardless of what the status quo may be. But part of the beauty of Drifter is that this issue is left being so ambiguous even when the series ends. Readers are left to discern the meaning for themselves.
If the impression hasn’t already been given, allow me to say that Drifter is anything but typical. The plot is nonlinear, highly poetic and dreamlike with its word choice, revolves around a mystery that really isn’t solved until its penultimate issue, and is also extremely unique merely in terms of plot and setting. A planet that sends out a clone of beings in a state of distress to help the original copy? A gritty fusion of sci fi, Western, and even a splash of horror? Can you think of anything else like that in the comic world, or even the film world or novel worlds? I sure can’t. And while I’ve mainly been talking about the plot of Drifter, its tone, and its theme here, let’s also not forget about the artwork. Nic Klein’s work on this series is some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen in the comics medium, almost photographic in its sense of detail and realism. He ended up winning a Spectrum Award for it last year, and the award is anything but undeserved.
Due to its high idiosyncracy and downright puzzling plot line, Drifter will in all likelihood remain a woefully underrated and unknown series in comic book history. But for those who have read all through it, it will hopefully leave a powerful impression upon them of being a series that dared to go for something extremely unusual and otherwordly, that succeeded in that goal, and ended on a very, very high note.
If interested even after being spoiled with all the above plot detail, I would definitely recommend checking out Volume 1 of Drifter to see how you feel about the series and if you feel you’re down for the long haul from there. As a fair warning, all questions will not be answered immediately. Most answers will only yield more questions. The series does not hold your hand or spoon feed you information. But there are, of course, many more series out there that do. The fact that Drifter stands in disalignment to this prevailing trend and carves its own distinct mark is as good a testament as any to its allure and the powerful impression it leaves.
-Ravana, July 2017.
Ravana, your host here at Cryptic Resonations, is an avid fan of experimentalism in any and all art forms, residing somewhere deep in the swamps of Southern Florida. He particularly enjoys black metal, drone, hip hop, surrealist film, and transcendentalist poetry, and is also a Staffer over at Metalstorm.net.