Sentient by Jeff Lemire & Gabriel Walta: A Superbly Suspenseful Sci-Fi Comic About Maternal Sentient Artificial Intelligence

Sentient by Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Walta is a science-fiction graphic novel that follows a ship in space. When a terrible assault leaves all of the children parentless, it’s up to the on-board AI, Valerie, to raise these kids and help them to survive for as long as possible. I read the trade paperback version, which collects all issues, #1-6.

I knew absolutely nothing about Sentient going into it. What initially drew me to it was the cover and the fact that it was a stand-alone graphic novel. Having had an intense craving for a sci-fi comic, I dove right into it after checking it out from the library. I read it in a single sitting, in the parking lot of the library because I could not put the damn thing down to save my own ass if I had to. It is amazingly suspenseful and headed into a direction I really didn’t expect, particularly given that is centres on sentient artificial intelligence. Between that, the perpendicular panels and exquisitely neat artwork that utilises some classic stylistic drawings and palettes, the pacing, and the comfort of reading it from start to finish due to how balanced and nuanced it is, Sentient is one of those comics that I can’t complain about even if I truly wanted to.

When I began reading, the first couple pages had immediately snared my full attention. We watch as two family units—single mothers and their only child—are getting ready after a sleep cycle to start their normal daily routine. The literal parallel of seeing how these two families interact with one another gives the reader an unnerving chill that something awful is about to occur. When that tragedy does finally strike, it was wonderfully unforeseen and left me with my jaw hanging open. After that, I couldn’t flip through the comic fast enough, hungrily devouring every word and panel as I kept my fingers and toes crossed for these kids’ survival.

Honestly, I was preparing myself for some I, Robot type narrative take with respect to the AI. While in some brief ways, I did get a little taste of that, the bulk of Valerie’s build revolves around their maternal instincts, which I thought was supremely fascinating. I’ve read and seen a bunch of books and films that showcase how artificially intelligent beings develop emotional capacity and how it inevitably leads to their downfall (or ours). When they took on the role of being an adoptive mother to the children, my Alien alarms started to go off. But instead, the relationship they develops with the kids and the manner in which they try to protect them was beautifully unsuspecting and difficult not to connect with empathetically.

Another aspect of Sentient that I thought was rather brilliant is the commentary that when kids are forced to grow up fast, especially ones that are raised in an intellectually stimulating and all-hands-on-deck environment like a spaceship, their capacity to comprehend the myriad shades of grey in between the strict lines of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, can be far more mature than adults ever give them credit for. In the wake of the tragedy, they get split down the middle as to how to proceed with their plight. Some want to take a more roguish and savage approach, others want to avoid brash actions to avoid falling victim to the same impulses that lead to said tragedy, and then there are those kids who are genuinely that, children. They are afraid and want their parents and families and to be back home, wherever that is.

This not only gives the story it’s depth and intrigue, but also works as a driving force in conjunction with Valerie’s presence to build upon a story that is beautifully nuanced with respect to humanity’s never-ending political strife, whether we’re on Earth or in the distant reaches of a galaxy far, far away. Having it portrayed through the lens of a bunch of trauma-shock kids works to amp up the intensity and at-times ignorant audaciousness of the human condition. It’s fabulous.

The artwork is really what brings everything together so phenomenally. I loved how neat and organised all of the panels were. They look so clean and easy to get lost in without a lot of aesthetic clutter. The colours are somewhat subdued giving it a natural look that further emphasises that ease of visual consumption without compromising the world-building and settings. There’s not a heavy hand with the shading and even the superb detail-work is beautifully manageable. The artistic style of the characters, the text boxes, and the scenery of space are all reminiscent of more retro comic stories, akin to the 1990s, but with somewhat of a modern kick. It allows the drawings to complement the dialogue to craft an interactive narrative, similar to that of Black Magick Volume 1. The art pulls the reader into the story as it works to help convey the core of the themes and story’s scope. It’s not there to overshadow it or exaggerate it, but to complement it as an equal.

Overall, Sentient is an excellent science-fiction story with wonderful depth and illustrations. It’s inspired by some classics of the genre but takes those old-school tales and tropes and makes it uniquely its own. I highly recommend this to fans of comics and sci-fi tales, particularly where artificial intelligence is concerned, and readers who delight in doom-and-gloom survivor narratives.

Publication Date: October 2019
Publisher: TKO Studios (ISBN: 9781732748545)
Genre: Comics, Science-Fiction, Suspense
Page Count: 169
Content Warnings: Mass death. Violence including violence against kids. Blood. Mild cursing. Not recommended for folx with astrophobia.
GoodReads: Sentient by Lemire & Walta

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