Graphic novel ‘Ancient Astronauts’ overpacks complex story despite beautiful artwork

Black Panel Press/Courtesy

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It took artist-novelist Vincent Pompetti nearly a decade to watercolor every panel of “Ancient Astronauts” by hand, and it shows.

Much like the every-frame-painted film “Loving Vincent,” “Ancient Astronauts” is a great example of how translating one form to another can have rich visual dividends — but this story doesn’t necessarily match up to its art.

The graphic novel follows Onys, an archer and daughter to the ruling Di Chieti family on her home planet. But we open with her, in fact, on a different planet-nation — Plaine, where she has escaped the overbearing hand of her father, who attempted to marry her off. When goons come to capture her, her sister is killed, and a mysterious figure, Yulunga, demonstrates that within the goons is a creature known as a “tracker,” which latches onto base, dark human emotions such as anger and fear.

What follows is an adventure that weaves together threads of shamanistic spirituality and growth, the geopolitics of several warring nations, a murder investigation and families at odds. If that sounds like a lot of plot for a 168-page graphic novel, that’s because it is.

Pompetti has obviously thought deeply about the world his characters exist in over the 10 years of this novel’s development — it’s evident in the richly realized scenes, but also in the post-novel pages of lore and character studies. Unfortunately, the graphic novel format provides little space to successfully integrate that backstory into the fast-paced plot, leaving much of it flying over the reader’s head.

Even the threads of the plot itself begin to seem overstuffed in the space provided; they seem to be asking for a series of comics or a more depthfully textual adaptation, a novel perhaps. As the story progresses, the inciting push (the murder of Onys’ sister) is forgotten as the ancient astronaut Yulunga leads an expedition to Onys’ planet to combat the tracker by getting the warring countries there to calm down a bit. A small aside to Onys’ father feels out of place, and some of the plot at this point strains credulity — the group begins building an embassy at the border between the factions actively in combat, while neither side seems to note the random building cropping up in their militarized border. Perhaps it all makes sense to Pompetti, but it often doesn’t to us.

The complexities of the story, which require several readings to tease out — though the watercolor art makes the exercise more enjoyable — also rob time from Onys to grow as a protagonist throughout the novel. She spends time expanding her mind, following Yulunga’s guidance, but much of what could’ve been a strong character arc is lost in a plot that largely pulls Onys along with it; she makes few, if any, plot-driving decisions.

This slight subversion of her protagonist role is mirrored, in the North American version, by what may be an imperfect translation on the part of Andrew Benteau (also the founder of Black Panel Press, on which the novel is published), leaving her and other characters’ dialogues oddly stilted and marred by superfluous punctuation.

Furthermore, Onys’s garb reveals itself to be the product of the male gaze — for the majority of the novel, she wears a normal top accompanied only by a loincloth. Perhaps more strangely, this does not seem worked into the lore of the universe. She is the only character in the novel with this type of outfit — Yulunga wears long, flowing robes, and the men (and at times, Onys) wear pants normally. The end notes, which illustrate the dress code of the Asturian people of which she is a member, indicate an entirely different female attire (one pronouncedly more appropriate), so the lack of explanation for her unique shortage of leg coverage is a little fishy.

Ancient Astronauts

Black Panel Press/Courtesy

The plot itself never makes Onys the subject of explicit sexualization, but ultimately, Pompetti does — it is his decision to draw her, and only her, in a loincloth, and then to select poses and angles which highlight and accentuate that decision.

Given her lack of demonstrated agency to drive the narrative, upskirt viewing angles and skimpy garb in poorer taste than is appropriate, the graphic novel’s interesting, though convoluted plot results in a sense of dissatisfaction.

Ultimately, “Ancient Astronauts” has some interesting philosophical ideas and a rich environment to draw from, but in pursuing an overworked story, it leaves behind readers, and the main character — doing both a disservice in the process.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.