I finally realized what the Astral trilogy is about. I had to read about two-thirds of the way through Astral Evolution to get it, but I finally understand: the Astral series is what 90s comics would be if 90s comics were good.
Astral Evolution is a love letter to the pulpy comics of the 90s, yet the book surpasses its inspiration. Writers Jay Magnum and Brian Augustyn have improved upon the ridiculous formula in every way. Ariel Medel’s intricate art is just as solid as it was in Astral Genesis.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved comics in the 90s. They were colorful, exaggerated, and ruthless. The grim-and-gritty ultraviolence against spandex-clad heroes was rampant. Remember when Bane snapped Batman’s back over his knee, or when Superman was beaten to death? Those were good times. And every main character in the 90s was put through the wringer until they were miserable. Remember when Spider-Man was stalked by a super-powered serial killer who turned out to be his clone, and then Spider-Man was revealed to be a clone, too? Again, good times. Astral Evolution does just this: it puts its heroes through unnecessarily-high risks to deliver over-the-top rewards to its readers, and my inner teenager couldn’t be more pleasantly satisfied.
Astral Evolution picks up right where Astral Genesis left off. Well, after a quick flashback to Ancient Egypt, anyway. Lila, the powerful alien-hybrid Astral, is still pondering her mysterious origins, and she still has no pants. She is watched over by Jeannie Lewis, the supermodel-doctor-combat specialist who is also an astronaut. Dr. Lewis joins our hero, grumpy badass Colonel Jonathan DeVane, as they head to a fancy gala to meet the shadowy benefactors behind their space operations.
But all is not what it seems. The wealthy philanthropists have their own secret agenda – one that will take DeVane and friends to the ends of the Earth and beyond to save humanity – again!
Astral Evolution is the solid second chapter in the Astral trilogy. The book is every bit as awesome as it is ridiculous, and it knows it. Astral Evolution races from one plot and locale to the next at breakneck speed, dramatically escalating the tension and absurdity with every new nefarious twist. If there was ever a book that could be described in sound effects, this would be it. And I couldn’t be happier with it. The formula is the same as in the previous book. Astral Evolution starts off with a big hook and picks up from there. On the first page of Astral Genesis, the moon blew up. What’s cooler than blowing up the moon on the first page? Traveling back in time to Ancient Egypt to witness an intergalactic murder, that’s what!
This book is all over the place, and I mean that literally. Medel seems to revel in the strengths of the comic book medium, showcasing what would be nearly impossible in other visual media thanks to budget constraints. The reader is yanked to a dozen different locations throughout the book, including ancient Egypt; The National Smithsonian museum of Natural History; a secret, quasi-governmental headquarters in Annapolis, Maryland; that same organization’s astrocartography lab; The Galactix Spaceport in Black Ridge, Virginia; and, finally, the North Pole. All of this takes place within the first 20 pages. Astral Evolution is a trip!
Astral Evolution is also quite brutal. There’s a lot more blood in this chapter than in the last one, which is great. Comics are at their best when they are over the top. It makes the reader feel like a kid again, creating epic battles by gleefully smashing their toys together. I won’t spoil anything here, but antagonist Chase Rockman’s interaction with “Rob” is a perfect example of a classic, villainous dick move, and I loved it.
The villains in this book are perfect. And they better be, because they take center stage in this chapter. Their motivations arguably may be noble, but their methods are harsh and perhaps sadistic. I love the hierarchical structure of their powerful organization – and the infighting that threatens to usurp that hierarchy. What’s more, I love that this struggle still manages to keep the story tightly focused on the characters, their story arcs, and on the main storyline, itself. None of the side plots (and there are numerous ones) ever bog down the action. Astral Evolution’s pacing is superb.
The other characters are just as compelling, even though they lack nuance. Protagonist Colonel DeVane is as curmudgeonly as ever. Don’t be fooled by the image crop though, he’s still a decent person. He’s really chucking that cigar into the trash.
Lila the Astral is as formidable as ever. Both her weird arm cannon thing and her feats of strength get more and more ridiculous as the plot demands. It’s an interesting asymmetry then, that she’s also the most vulnerable cast member – just like in Astral Genesis. For a benevolent, all-powerful member of a highly-advanced alien race, Lila sure does take a lot of punishment.
It’s worth mentioning that each of the characters has their own unique appearance, too, which is not something that can be said for all comics lining the shelves today. It’s a testament to Ariel Medel’s pencils that, even though this book has about a dozen prominent characters in it, each one is thankfully unique and easily-identifiable. The clean lines and bright colors ensure each character differentiates from the next in looks as strongly as they do in spirit. The art is also refreshingly consistent. Inconsistent art is a problem that plagues comic books to this day, but not the Astral series. For example, Lila stays the same imposing eight-foot-tall Amazon warrior throughout the book, and, in contrast, “Rob” is always the same small, skinny teenager.
The humor in this book is also top-notch. No spoilers, but Page 60, in particular, made me chuckle like three times in a row. Heroes using the villains’ catchphrases against them is something which will never get stale. Even the most minor bureaucratic lackeys have their moments to shine, showing themselves to be likeable, relatable characters.
The ending raised many questions while also upping the stakes for our heroes. I really want to talk about it (join me on Discord!), but to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that it left me quite satisfied and ready for the third and final chapter.
Astral Evolution continues the saga of infighting humans struggling to best determine how to protect themselves against an impending alien conflict. It’s the story equivalent of an idea so crazy it just might work. And it works very, very well.
Thanks to Pet Piranha Entertainment for providing The Geekly Grind with a digital review copy in exchange for our honest review!