Twenty Years of Halo: The Halo Graphic Novel & Ghost of Onyx

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

So with fans having played their way through Halo 2 and chomping at the bit for the next one, Bungie and Microsoft had to find a way to satiate fans until the next console generation and they couldn’t rely on Rooster Teeth to doing it on their own.  So like with every other franchise that gets sufficiently popular the world of comics came a calling, and they also have that novel series that churns out entries at a reliable rate, all of which means it’s time once again for the Halo book club!  Let’s get started!!

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The Halo Graphic Novel – 2006

Published by Marvel Comics

The story of this graphic novel is kind of an interesting one as Microsoft bigwig Eric Trautmann was the one to come up with the idea of expanding the Halo brand into comics, but Bungie jumped in and started stirring the pot pretty much immediately.  Sure, you don’t want to IGNORE the company that’s making you successful video games, but when Trautmann brought on industry mainstays John Ney Rieber and Adi Granov to work on a comic, Bungie was not impressed and their art director Lorraine McLees even went so far as to call their pitch “a lump of coal”.  Instead, Bungie insisted on getting their OWN team of comic book veterans to work on it and Trautmann relented as long as Bungie was willing to finance it all on their own before submitting it to publishers.  Just to get an idea of where their heads were at, two of the names they wanted to get were sixty year industry veteran Joe Kubert, and of all people Alan freaking Moore.  Can you imagine a bunch of Bungie execs going to cranky ol’ Alan Moore and ask him to write a comic about their silly space marine nonsense; ESPECIALLY one that’s THIS un-ironically jingoistic?  Obviously they didn’t EITHER of them but they managed to snag a few names like Jean “Moebius” Giraud and the book was released in 2006 as a collection of vignettes exploring the Halo universe.  Did Bungie’s insistence for creative control and top tier comic book talent lead to a fascinating book that expands our understanding of the franchise?  Let’s take find out!!

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Last Voyage of the Infinite Succor

Lee Hammock and Simon Bisley

The Covenant are SO much more interesting than the humans as they’re written to be flawed bad guys instead of one dimensional macho bad asses, so the beefiest story in the entire graphic novel is devoted to a Flood outbreak that occurred on one of their ships during the event of the first game.  Sadly the Flood does to storylines what they do to everything else, and pretty much ruins it from the inside out because I found this to be rather lackluster and kind of ugly honestly.  I like the colors, but the character designs are wonky as heck and the flood is EXTRA disgusting in ways that never came across in the games.  It unfortunately reminds me of that westernized Song of Saya comic and while the writing doesn’t revolt me as much I find that it’s not enough to overcome the deeply unpleasant artwork.  It’ just another zombie story no matter how many Klingon-lite warrior dudes you through into it, and it frankly plays out more like a level in a video game than anything else; a REALLY gross and tediously structured one on top of that.

It’s like looking through H R Giger’s septic tank…

It’s also supposed to be something of an origin story for Rtas ‘Vadum, the Elite with part of his face cut off that helps The Arbiter in Halo 2.  I mean I guess I don’t have any reason to question the author’s notes, but I read this entire thing twice and couldn’t tell which one he is nor did I see where someone who could have plausibly survived this got his distinctive injury.  All the Elites look alike and they only refer to each other by rank instead of name so I couldn’t tell you which one was supposed to be Rtas, and I the only one who gets injured is the commander who threw the ship into the sun to destroy The Flood with him still aboard it.  If HE’S supposed to be Rtas, then the more interesting story is how he got out of that little pickle!

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Armor Testing

Jay Faerber, Ed Lee, and Andrew Robinson

Thankfully things improve significantly with this story that is much simpler, much shorter, and much more appealing artwork.  It’s just a training mission to test out the MJOLNIR armor, but there are a lot of fun details scattered throughout.  Our Spartan makes their jump from orbit like it’s the opening of Heavy Metal, and they even manage to snipe a few targets on the way down.  Said targets by the way are standees of Elites which I just found funny for some reason.  Once the Spartan lands, they start shooting live targets with paint ball guns before infiltrating a building ad taking everyone out single handedly.  If you hadn’t read the books which cover stuff like this in more extensive detail, then this is a nice way of getting across just how tough the Spartans are and how strong their armor is.  In a video game you always assume that you’re the biggest baddest mo-fo in the general area because you are the player character, so this adds a bit of dimension to the lore as The Spartan program really is the last Hail Mary attempt by humanity to fight off their own annihilation and this shows a piece of that story.  It’s also the first time we’ve done a SURPRISE WOMAN SPARTAN twist which I think they did like three times in the Halo Legends movie, but if you’ve read the books then that’s not much of a twist.  I’d say the gender split is pretty much down the middle which MIGHT just be the most progressive aspect of those books.

“Well if OSI likes the results we’ll send it to the Master Chief.  Otherwise, we’ve got this guy who’ll take it off our hands; under the table hush-hush stuff.  Calls himself Doom Slayer in the e-mails, so probably some punk kid with too much money to burn.”

I don’t recall this particular Spartan in anything else I’ve read, but what I find the most interesting is the idea of a “retired” Spartan.  There’s mention of some sort of “legal Recourse” Spartans can take in Conversations from the Universe, but as far as I could tell you either died a Spartan, or… well that’s about it.  There were washouts to be sure who didn’t make it to the end, but that was just a euphemism for being murdered by unethical medical experiments, and if I LOVE BEES is to be canon (which it kinda is I think?) then the whole Spartan thing is kept pretty under wraps with some from the first program (the Spartans we know of are from the Spartan II program) hiding out from the UNSC.  In any case, I liked this story quite a bit and enjoyed the utter mundanity with which it plays out.  Halo can take itself WAY too seriously at times, and it’s nice to see something a little less intense.

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Breaking Quarantine

Tsutomu Nihei

If you played Halo: Combat Evolved and jumped straight to Halo 2 without reading the in-between novel First Strike, you’d probably have no idea how Sargent Johnson managed to survive against The Flood on Halo; especially since Cortana said at the end of the first game that she didn’t sense any other survivors.  They cheekily reference this at the start of the second game where soldiers want to know how he did it, but the short version is that a few survivors got away from Halo in a pelican and Johnson specifically has a very unique medical condition that made him immune to The Flood.   This comic answers the much more mundane question of how he escaped from Installation 04 after encountering The Flood.  Turns out that he fought his way out of there which we could all pretty much assume but this issue shows us in graphic silent detail the exact steps he took.

“These shotgun shells work REALLY well in this handgun! Why didn’t anyone think of this before!?”

It’s frankly SO much better than Last Voyage as the art style doesn’t make me sick to my stomach and they kept it short and sweet instead of dragging out a very straightforward story for fifty pages, but it’s very insubstantial which is a shame considering the vibrant personality that Johnson has.  You couldn’t give him ONE badass action hero one liner!?

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Second Sunrise Over New Mombasa

Brett Lewis and Moebius

One of the things that’s inextricably tied to Halo is that it came out smack in the middle of the War on Terror.  True the first game was in development for years before it got released in 2001, but Bush era politics are definitely present throughout the series.  Whether the franchise feels one way or the other about some of these politics is either coyly held back or not consistent enough to get a real bead on it, but stuff like fighting the terrorist over there so we don’t have to fight them here (essentially the Cole Protocol), an entire religion being portrayed as fanatic zealots with false prophets, and as is covered in this story, the media apparatus being used by the military to project an image of strength and success in the war while covering up overwhelming failures; though I guess the failures here are more like getting blown up by plasma bombs rather than shooting innocent civilians.

“If we can dub over them so they can say ‘We hate them for their freedom’, that would REALLY help a bunch!”

That’s kind of the problem with ANY stab at relevant or even left leaning commentary within this franchise.  The games so purposely distance themselves from ANYTHING the slightest bit political (which is itself a political action) that none of the themes in this one story or the few similar ideas that were brought up in other pieces of media like the novels or I LOVE BEES seem to have any weight and simply feel like the franchise is trying to have its shooty bang-bang cake and eat it too.  The story ends with the invasion of New Mombasa by The Covenant, but I never got the idea that the citizens were any less prepared for the attack because of the disinformation campaign, and once again the Covenant are so cartoonishly evil with their total and utter disregard for civilian life that it jumps right into heroic combat mode.  It’s like if the ending of Watchmen where New York got attacked by the space squid was a genuine moment to show humanity rising above adversity instead of a bleak condemnation of our inability to work together and the tyrannical forces behind the scenes imposing their will upon the masses.

“I’ve been training for this day since 1978.  LET’S SEE WHAT YOU’VE GOT, YOU SPACE INVADING BASTARDS!!”

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Mostly, this book is just fluff; a lot of badass action panels that begrudgingly have a few stories around them as well.  The one that did try to give us something more by giving us a peek of Earth society during the war ultimately falls short as it’s just a taste of what COULD be an interesting idea but I highly doubt that the rest of the franchise will want to go in that direction.  I mean there are a lot of novels left for me to read, and sometimes they bring up ethical quandaries for The Chief to puzzle his brain over, but how many of them are going to be at the civilian level which is where the real consequences of the UNSC’s actions take place?  I guess I should be more appreciative of I LOVE BEES because it DID try to do just that, but honestly it was so meandering and padded that I think I got more of this fourteen page story than I did that entire five hour radio drama.  We’re gonna get SO many more comics out of this franchise so I’ll no doubt get more than my fair share of plots to complain about, but aside from the first story which is genuinely unpleasant, the book is perfectly serviceable for those who want to immerse themselves more in this world but there is a bit of irony here in that Bungie was SO committed to making this their vision and it turns out to be rather shallow and kinda meh.

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Ghost of Onyx (Novel) – 2006

Written by Eric Nylund

Hope you hadn’t got your fill of politics just yet because this book is the first one in the series that REALLY irritated me.  Sure, The Flood has some pacing issues and The Fall of Reach didn’t do nearly enough to make John 117 the least bit interesting, but where I was kinda hoping that the series would eventually gravitate away from its more pernicious issues, we’ve got Eric Nylund busily doubling down on it in this third crack at this series.   Halo’s starting point is the Spartan II program which was this super-secret operation where children were kidnapped and only a few survived the rigorous training and genetic engineering to become unflappable bad ass warriors who can do the jobs that no one else can do; a premise that definitely has its shady implications and dubious tastefulness, but Nylund and Bungie at least tried to impart it with a sense of gravitas befitting of the intergalactic war they were fighting so I just rolled my eyes and moved on.  THIS book however introduces us to the Spartan III program where they figured the best way to improve on their super solider program is to make it even MORE nightmarish by kidnapping children as young as four years old and tossing them out of airplanes; hoping that they can figure out how pull the ripcords and that those who DIDN’T don’t leave too big of a mess.

Jeez… R Lee Ermey would tell them to tone it down a notch.

Onyx is the planet that these Spartans are trained on, and they have been trained by a hereto unknown  Spartan from the second program named Kurt who went missing on a mission a dozen or so years before the events of The Fall of Reach and was actually kidnapped by the UNSC to run the program.  I guess the answer to the question HOW DO WE WRITE A NOVEL BETWEEN HALO 2 AND HALO 3 is that you don’t because half of it is flashbacks and the other have happens concurrently with the second game which means that Chief is barely even in this.  The first half with the flashbacks as we see the training program in earnest is the most despicable part as the first crop of Spartan III’s, totaling about three hundred, are sent on a suicide mission to blow up a Covenant manufacturing planet or something and there are no survivors.  Oh, and in case you were wondering, the Spartans are twelve years old at this point; all sent out on a mission by the Earth’s military that they were fully expecting them to die on.

It’s like if the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance from Hot Fuzz was a department in Space Force

Bungie decided that they would create a universe that justifies and valorizes the use of child soldiers, and while I was mostly rolling my eyes at it in the first few books it’s REALLY starting to bum me out reading this at just how hardcore they are going with this concept.  Whether or not Eric Nylund or Bungie came up with the story of this book, it is an official piece of Halo canon and so Microsoft cannot separate itself from this book that has children as young as FOUR YEARS OLD being conscripted to military service and are then sent at twelve years old to go on a suicide mission; all of which is seen as TRAGIC, but MORALLY JUSTIFIABLE because that’s the world they crafted.   If the question is how else do you defeat The Covenant and prevent the utter destruction of humanity, well the only answer is that you don’t because The Covenant doesn’t exist.  The creators of this franchise crafted a scenario for which child soldiers can be a core aspect of its lore; something that’s gonna seem THAT much more ludicrous when the UNSC joins forces with The Covenant in what, two or three years in the canon?

Forget R Lee Ermey!  RAMBO would be cringing at this!  Okay, MAYBE not the Rambo from Last Blood.

Now if you were wondering if The Ghost of Onyx was some clever allusion to the moral degradation and the unwashable stain upon humanity that this program has left, then you will be as disappointed as I was because The Ghost in this case is that the planet is another secret Forerunner construction in some way linked to the Halos; something I figured the UNSC would have looked for when figuring out what planet to put their super-secret child solider program on, but I guess the Forerunners’ technology was SO advanced that none were the wiser.  Still, this is where the book gets back to what this franchise is good at and that’s straightforward adventure narratives as the new fresh crop of Spartan III’s (the previous ones having been vaporized on that aforementioned suicide mission), are stuck on a planet where hostile Sentinels have started coming out of nowhere and they have to work with their trainer Kurt as well as Officer Mendez (the Spartan II trainer in The Fall of Reach) to figure out who these hostile forces are and how to stop them.  They are soon joined by Dr. Halsey and Kelly (the latter of whom having been kidnapped by the former towards the end of Fist Strike) as well as Blue Team (Fred, Will, and Linda, who along with Kelly, Kurt, and Chief are the only known surviving Spartans) and they have to fend off these Sentinels while also the impending threat of a Covenant invasion of the planet as they want whatever Forerunner technology could be inside.  The Covenant definitely have a smaller presence here than they’ve had in the previous books and they simply don’t feel as overwhelming of a threat as they did in The Fall of Reach or First Strike, but once again Nylund manages to wring a lot of legitimate drama and characterization from them; especially the Elite Commander of the week Voro ’Mantakree.  He’s kind of like the Arbiter if he was still a jerk; disillusioned with The Covenant after the Prophets initiated their ethnic cleansing to be replaced by The Brutes but still with that fervent zealotry about his own race’s superiority over humanity.  I’m a bit confused about the time frame here though as I believe The Elites DID join with the UNSC by the start of Halo 3 which is… I don’t know a few days at most from when this story takes place?  I could be wrong about that as I haven’t gotten to that game as part of my retrospective so the details are very foggy, and in any case The Covenant continue to be the most interesting aspect of these books.

Hey, say what you will about the guy, AT LEAST HE’S NOT TRAINING TODDLERS TO FIRE GUNS!!

The second half of the book really does give me what I want from these books which is a sense of adventure among a tight-knit group of people facing off against impossible odds and finding a way to overcome.  It’s ALMOST enough to balance out the utter disdain I have for the first half and the endless justifications for the use of children to fight our wars, but I really needed there to be at least some acknowledgement of such by the end of the book and it never really came.  The closest we got is with Dr. Halsey who we learn stole the ship and kidnapped Kelly for the expressed purpose of saving these kids from the war, but it’s a bit hazy how much she objects to them being taken, broken, and genetically modified as much as it’s her pessimism that the war is even winnable (keep them safe to fight another day and all that), and the end of the book feels a bit… disconnected from all that I guess.  No one really has to make a decision one way or the other as they find a middle ground that at least provides an intriguing starting point for future books, but also pretty effectively removed these characters from ANYTHING that the Master Chief is doing which I guess is one solution for preventing future plot holes if everything is supposed to be in one big continuity.  I don’t know that I’d recommend this book despite the solid second half and the always fun Covenant scenes, but for what it’s worth if you can look past the rather gross first half it does eventually become a fun action story with an interesting ending, and I can only hope that the events here have effectively closed the book on further child army programs from the UNSC.

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Sadly today’s crop of stories have proved to be rather disappointing which is a shame because I really DO want some fun and engaging storylines set in this universe but the more story heavy we get the less I seem to like it.  The games so far have done the best job of managing the tone I can appreciate which is funny considering how much the narrative in those games just swam right past me the first time around, but we’re still VERY early in this retrospective and there is plenty of time (as well as plenty of books) for someone to figure out what works about this universe and what REALLY doesn’t.  In any case, we move on from official Halo canon to once again take a look at Red vs Blue which is about to go in some VERY interesting directions!  Join me next time as we look at Season 5 as well as the mini-series Out of Mind and Recovery One!

Next: Red Vs Blue Season 5, Out of Mind, and Recovery One
Previous: Red vs Blue Season 4 & Halo Zero

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