Phoenix Without Ashes #1

Written by Harlan Ellison
Art by Alan Robinson
32 pages, color
Published by IDW

Never let it be said that Harlan Ellison allows an idea to go to waste. For those unfamiliar with the television show The Starlost, it aired in the 1970s for a single season, originally created by Ellison. He withdrew from the series before it aired, though, and took his name off it and the pilot that he’d written. Since then, he’s published the script under the title he’d given it, Phoenix Without Ashes. And now, it’s back for a whole new generation who have probably never heard of it, as a comic-book mini-series. Here’s the thing, though: I’m not entirely convinced it needed to come back.

I’d never read the previous publication of Phoenix Without Ashes (or seen The Starlost), so I went the comic with middle-of-the-road expectations on what we’d actually get. And at first, I found myself going along with the story. It’s set in the future but most of the technology is distinctly in the past, bringing to mind Amish farming communities as our lead character Devon begs the preacher that runs the town for permission to marry Rachel, only to be denied because the computer says they aren’t genetically compatible. There are early hints on what’s going on laid out for us, though (mentions of a metal sky in particular), but only when Devon discovers a hatch in the ground at the end of the first issue is it becoming explicitly clear where Devon and the rest of his village really resides.

The problem is, what might have felt fresh and interesting in 1970s television isn’t quite as exciting now. Stories of communities in a larger craft, or other setting, are a dime a dozen. So when Ellison makes his big reveal to the reader, there isn’t the same sort of punch or moment of wonder. It’s a bit more of a "that’s it?" end to the issue, even as you’re fairly certain you know exactly where this is going. It probably doesn’t help matters that the script is somewhat weak; all the "thees" and "thous" from the preacher are trying to set his dialogue apart from Devon, but instead it comes across as a slightly impenetrable slab of words. On the screen this might have worked better, but here it felt like a large stumbling block for the reader’s eyes to slide over.

Alan Robinson draws Phoenix Without Ashes, and in a peculiar way it reminds me of old comics by Evan Dorkin. The characters have thick lines defining their faces, and characters feel slightly stiff and artificial. It’s a problem that Dorkin got over fairly quickly in his career as he continued to draw comics, and with any luck the same will be true for Robinson. Watching a three-panel progression of Devon running towards the church, it looks a little undynamic and posed. I appreciate that he’s trying to show time shift from one image to the next, but for now it’s just not quite there. Hopefully his action sequences, over time, will loosen up. It’s not a bad look overall, but every time motion shows up it’s hard to not see the stiffness in the work.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of Ellison’s writing over the years, but this feels like an odd project to bring to life. I’d rather see something new from Ellison (a big wish, I know), or even some more adaptations of his short stories like we had in the Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor series back in the day. This just doesn’t seem quite like the right project to bring back. Maybe if it continues beyond Ellison’s initial script it will begin to justify its existence, but for now, it just feels too dated to be that exciting.

2 comments to Phoenix Without Ashes #1

  • Well… Ithink it’s very interesting and original series. Even if it based on idea of TV show from ’70. I like it.

  • Dave

    garnir — actually the TV series was based on a story outline of Ellison’s which was then rewritten by Ed Bryant (with Ellison’s permission) as a book called “Phoenix without Ashes”.