The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios
With the success of the Halo Graphic Novel, the franchise was destined for further success in the comic book market with Marvel calling dibs on it! Their first outing is the four part mini-series Halo Uprising which we’ll be looking at today as well as the next entry in the seemingly never-ending Halo book series Contact Harvest! Will both of these be an improvement over the LAST Halo Book club we did? Let’s find out!!
Halo Uprising (Comic Book) – 2007
Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev
Published by Marvel Comics
You know, I thought getting the series away from Bungie and laying down a narrative structure instead of letting them try to dictate every aspect of it like they did with the Graphic Novel might have given the series a new perspective and frankly give us a compelling narrative but sadly neither is the case as this short series is just a mess. We cut back and forth between Chief doing something of absolutely no consequence (I’m sure this room full of aliens he killed here will make ALL the difference in the war effort), and an on the ground invasion story as we follow two people who are stuck in Cleveland when The Covenant attack the city looking for some sort of Earth artifact which a captured UNSC officer gave The Covenant bad intel about; assuming that having them tear up one city would keep them too busy from blowing up the entire Earth. His brother Ruwan and a world famous pop star Myras just so happen to be at the same place when the aliens attack and they go all over town looking for the UNSC; not just to save themselves but because Ruwan KNOWS this is a wild goose chase as the artifact they’re looking for is a made up item he and his brother used to use in a role playing game. The book does not shy away from some VERY dark imagery which it handles with all the care and reverence of a grumpy bull in a very cramped china shop. I made allusions to the Thermian argument in my review of Ghost of Onyx to explain why it’s fair game to criticize content within the book despite in-universe justifications, and this comic has a similar issue where it uses an in-universe calamity to justify some rather tasteless swipes at pop culture and pop stars specifically.
Yeah, who wants to take a guess that “real” music is a bunch of old dad stuff; mostly by a bunch of white dude with questionable relationships to women? It all points to a general problem I’ve had with the Halo media I’ve engaged with up to this point which is the constant deferment to military might over every other aspect of humanity. The games leave room for you to imagine the world that they’re fighting for and the people that need to be saved by Master Chief going that extra mile, but then you get to stuff like this that doesn’t seem to WANT a world for the UNSC to be fighting for; they want a world that exists only so the UNSC can fight. Ideally, a war should be fought not to show our power to but to protect our people and to protect their happiness. Humanity should survive to SAVE its frivolity and culture; not IN SPITE of it. You should know that, famous comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis! He’s the only one listed as the writer on these, but who knows what marching orders Bungie was handing out for this series so I’m willing to give him some benefit of the doubt here and it’s not like VIDEO GAME DEVELOPER Bungie has any higher ground to stand on when it comes to pointing and shaming other forms of entertainment. Well now that I’ve got THAT out of my system, the rest of the book doesn’t fare much better. Nothing ticked me off like that one page did, but the rest of the comic is just kind of dour to read and ugly to look at. I can’t put my finger on it, but the deep shadows and constant focus on faces make the characters look like they were rendered with a 3D modeler and then someone drew details on top of it. It’s a disquieting style that plants itself right in the uncanny valley and it never stopped looking weird to me throughout the four issues.
The plot is almost immaterial next to the setting itself which is a very dismal War Is Hell travelogue intercut with boringly violent action scenes from Chief. I don’t find Ruwan or Myras to be particularly compelling characters and their romance feels perfunctory at best; all of which undercut the bittersweet ending they put at the end of this. The Master Chief segments end up being the parts of the book by default but even they aren’t that much to write home about as Chief is as taciturn as ever. Despite the books and comics giving us more opportunities to develop the character, I still think he’s at his best in the games and I don’t know why he’s so blank here. There are quotes from Bendis saying that he scrapped a lot of his Master Chief dialogue during production and add to that the comically long delays between issues (almost a year between two and three and then another year between three and four), so maybe something went TERRIBLY wrong along the way and we’ve got whatever scraps they were able to cobble together. Whatever the case may be, the Chief segments don’t save this series and even if you wanted to skip around and just read those, and he’s in MAYBE a fourth of the pages despite his marketable face being on all of the covers.
Perhaps the only saving grace of this comic is that there’s no way it’s a part of the canon considering they kill the Prophet of Truth at the end of it who doesn’t ACTUALLY die until Halo 3, so I guess we can add this alongside Odd Man Out as one of the few things Bungie signed off on that isn’t actually part of their convoluted lore. Just as well because, unlike Odd Man Out, I simply didn’t enjoy this at all. This is DEFINITELY an easy skip from me, though perhaps you won’t be as bothered by some the choices they made in this.
Contact Harvest (Novel) – 2007
Written by Joseph Staten
I have been extraordinarily critical of almost everything Halo related that hasn’t been the games, so for a while there I was worried that this entire retrospective would be far too negative. I doubt we’re done with the stuff that isn’t great about this series, but I’ve got to say that this book is a definite highlight for me. It’s not the best of the books as I still think First Strike has the better action and overall has fewer flaws than this one, but it finally tells a story that feels like its occupied by flawed humans we’re supposed to identify with rather than stock cardboard cutouts and super powered weirdos in power armor. It admittedly starts off a bit rocky as the books are still going all in on The Insurrectionists being the bad guys despite them being the side fighting for their independence (the prologue of the book involves Insurrectionist suicide bombers) but it does introduce us to a young Avery Johnson who is probably the third most recognizable face of the franchise and follows him on his journey to the planet Harvest where the first battle of the Covenant War took place. After some harsh missions that left him scarred and a personal tragedy that left him without an emotional fallback in his life, Johnson gets himself transported to the seemingly innocuous colony planet to train the locals as a militia who will hopefully fend off any Insurrectionists attacks. This is all just a ploy however by the Office of Naval Intelligence (the quote-unquote “GRAY” area of the UNSC that deals with spy stuff) who want someone with his decorated past to investigate a series of destroyed transporter ships that were supposed to bring crucial supplies to the planets, and when he and an old colleague spring a trap on a decoy ship they find themselves in First Contact with an alien race; a Covenant ship supposedly there for the purpose of spreading the word of the Covenant and looking for Forerunner artifacts, but were moonlighting as SPACE PIRATES!
The Covenant portions of the book are perhaps the best that we’ve gotten so far. I’m a bit disappointed that there are no Elites, but I guess they’ve hogged the spotlight long enough and all the other races have a strong story to tell. You’ve got the aforementioned Jackals who we learn are pirate folk, and stumble their way into first contact with humanity and are cut down rather ruthlessly by Johnson and his pal in a trap laid for whoever it was that was attacking the transport ships. We’ve got a clan of Brutes who essentially are the first to declare war on humanity on behalf of The Covenant, and unlike the games they get some genuine characterization here instead of just being a convenient (and one dimensional) replacement for the Elites once they defect. They have a warrior code similar to the Elites, but one that falls more in line with barbarians and they even have an old school FEASTING HALL on their hyper advanced ship just to remind them of where they come from and the rigid place that everyone on their ship occupies. And of course you have Dadab and Lighter Than Some; the former being a Grunt Deacon for The Covenant (one of the highest positions a grunt can have) and the latter one of those tentacle engineer creatures that didn’t show up in the games until Halo Wars. And yes, he does have a silly name. For whatever reason Halo LOVES to use small phrases for names of things, and I never understood it. It makes a LITTLE bit more sense for ships, but even they are hilariously overthought such as This End Up, National Holiday, Rapid Conversion, and Bulk Discount. In any case, the friendship of these two aliens and the constant tension between them with Dadab being pragmatic and cautious while Lighter Than Some being idealist and naïve is perhaps the most interesting dynamic in the whole book. Dadab’s sense of purpose as one of the GOOD Grunts in this caste system is constantly tested by the disrespect he’s given by the others in The Covenant and the guiding example of Lighter Than Some that ultimately puts everyone in danger. As the journey goes on and on, and things escalate between the Brutes and the humans, it becomes harder for him to keep his soul and his own safety at the same time. He tries to be the best deacon that he can for his fellow grunts and to keep Lighter Than Some out of danger, but in the end he has to pick a side and it really does resonate when it gets to the climax of his story. That’s not even getting into the conflict back on the Covenant home base High Charity which plays out like a genuine political thriller as the discovery of the humans throws everything into chaos for the political elite and a select few take the opportunity to rise in the ranks and become the Prophets we know in the game; Regret, Truth, and Mercy. It also answers something of a burning question in the games which is why they are at WAR with the humans and there was no attempt to convert them. The three soon to be Prophets learn that the humans are the decedents of The Forerunners (the ancient aliens The Covenant worship) and so eradicating them would prevent them from completely upending the delicate balance of power that the Covenant needs to maintain for all the various races to continue to work together. It’s all very interesting stuff and frankly more fun to read than the human drama… but there is ONE issue that I had with it which is that… well… it’s kinda gross. Previous books did indulge in a bit of gore from time to time, but this one takes great pains to go into alien biology in a way that I frankly didn’t want this series to. We’ve got horny aliens having secret affairs (with all the biological descriptions you never wanted to hear) , there’s poop in an early scene for some reason, and I don’t think I will ever forget the chapter where one alien is eating another aliens farts.
I mean it’s not BAD as this definitely serves the purpose of cementing the bond between Dadab and Lighter Than Some, but… you know… eating farts. It’s also not the only part of the book that overshares a tad as we have two AIs in here with a very 90s style sexual tension (the man keeps badgering the girl and we’re supposed to think it’s cute) where the descriptions get a bit silly to say the least.
Aside from the bizarrely specific descriptions throughout most of the book, there’s not much more to complain about in this novel. I think the action is a bit humdrum compared to what we got with the Spartans in previous books, but it’s also a much more human story about flawed individuals so it’s something of an even tradeoff to have more compelling characters at the expense of bombastic violence. It’s also a bit disappointing that Avery Johnson isn’t written in here like he is in the games, a boisterous over the top commander with a hot temper and a wicked tongue, but again it’s balanced out by the fact that this is a prequel and that we are dealing with a younger Avery who hasn’t grown into himself yet. I actually didn’t even realize that the Covenant War had gone on for twenty seven years as this takes place in 2525 while the original Halo trilogy takes place in 2552, so Avery being a bit more taciturn and kind of wet blanket is understandable if a TINY bit disappointing. The opening conflict of the war, as well as the novel, ends with Harvest being invaded by The Brutes but not without heavy losses on their end and a good chunk of the colonists escaping the planet. I’m curious if future books will cover the time between then and The Fall of Reach, but if this was a one and done (presumably so they don’t have to muck with the timeline between Halo 2 and 3) then it was one of the better entries we have so far. It still has some of the problematic content with just how vilified the Insurrectionists are and how valorized military service is, but the writing definitely frames it all in less black and white terms with flawed people making up the bulk of the narrative. Chief is a fun character to play as and he has some AWESOME moments throughout the series, but the lack of humanity to his actions has always left his stories feeling a bit cold while the story here definitely fills in that gap.
For the most part this is a solid book that didn’t really do anything to tick me off which is a DEFINITE change of pace from the previous ones. Sure it had some bizarre indulgences in alien physiology and silly AI descriptions, but it told a complete story of how humanity went from petty squabbles on the surface to joining together against a force beyond the stars; almost like Watchman I guess only the fake squid monster are VERY real alien bad guys. Still, while it gave me what I knew I needed out of a Halo book, it also lacked what I didn’t realize I wanted all this time. The lack of Spartans is definitely felt here as the action never really feels as adventurous as other books have managed, but at least for this entry in the series the tradeoff is worth it and I would recommend seeking it out if you have any interest in the franchise. It’s in a unique position as it’s a prequel that doesn’t require any knowledge from the previous books or even all THAT much about the games themselves, but it still proves an invaluable resource for fleshing out the world that the games take place in. Sometimes you DON’T have to rely on convoluted and deeply interwoven lore to make someone care about this series! Who knew!?
That’ll do it for now and we’ve only got one more stop before we dive head first into Halo 3! Just like with the release of Halo 2, Bungie and Microsoft released an ARG in anticipation of the next entry in the series! Join me next time as we look at the second ARG in the Halo franchise; Halo Iris!