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Things continue to get weird for Alex Braith during Image Comics’ Southern Cross #5 from writer Becky Cloonan and artist Andy Belanger. What started as a relatively straight-forward space adventure during the first couple of issues has quickly become a trippy Jodorowsky-style visual feast meets a “locked room” murder mystery. It’s also a ghost horror story, so there is a lot going on in Southern Cross and while it’s hard at times to follow exactly what’s happening, it’s pretty compelling anyway.
At the start of the issue, Alex (who is aboard the space freighter Southern Cross trying to head to the moon Titan to find out what happened to her deceased sister) is on the prowl for answers. She has just overcome an attack by Dr. Wells and then determines that the ship’s gravity drive is not malfunctioning, it’s moving the ship towards another energy source with the same readings. Things then go very wrong when Wells shows Alex the animated corpse of her former roommate and then Alex goes into the gravity drive, emerging stunned by having seen her sister. Oh, and then a seemingly-unhinged Wells murders the ship’s pilot.
I realize that story description might not make a whole lot of sense and it can be difficult at times to follow exactly where the plot is going in Southern Cross #5, especially if you haven’t been reading since the beginning. However, that’s not because Cloonan and Belanger are being neglectful. It’s because they’re doing a different kind of story. A ghost-horror story combined with a “whodunit,” both of which work best when information is concealed from the reader. So even when the narrative in Southern Cross #5 is a bit confusing, it seems purposeful and there continues to be interesting progress.
The other element that makes Southern Cross a compelling series even when it is not obvious what is going on is Belanger’s art and Lee Loughridge’s colors. This is a very visually-centered story (more than most mainstream comics) and Cloonan and Belanger have conceived a story where the fantastical is shown often. Belanger and Loughridge have been making stunning, trippy art for the past few issues, with panels and pages that are as incredible as they are weird. They’re also telling a story in a comic book way entirely differently from how the story would work in prose.
The story intersperses these scenes of cosmic craziness with the claustrophobic atmosphere of an old, grungy ship. This contrast works really well in Southern Cross #5, highlighting another strength of this series – mood. The threatening air of unseen and unexplainable horror hangs over the ship and the series, creating a really effective tension in the pages. There aren’t many comics that have developed a creepy mood in the same way that Southern Cross has.
So while many comic books place a great deal of emphasis on story and characterization, Southern Cross is showing that you can create a notable series by highlighting other things. It’s not that the series is lacking in story or characterization, it’s just not the central element the way it is for other comics. Southern Cross #5 is a different kind of comic, and it probably won’t be for everyone, but if readers are open-minded about this series, there are many rewarding and definitely unpredictable moments.