Review: They’re Not Like Us Volume 1: Black Holes for the Young

Phillip Morgan ‘18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

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Image Credit: Image Comics

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a bunch of teenagers exhibit signs of certain abilities atypical of human biology. Further study reveals this is due to a mutation in their genes. As a result they’re feared, suppressed, and even hated by most people who know of their condition, and so they try to maintain as much anonymity as possible. They live in constant fear of discovery and subsequent rejection/persecution until a kind but mysterious man –who may or may not be in a wheelchair– approaches them, revealing he has gifts of his own. He offers them a safe haven from mainstream society via his colossal mansion where they can live and peace and―ok yeah, we’re pretty sure you get it by now.

Aside from the lack of wheelchair accessibility and yellow-and-blue spandex, They’re Not Like Us follows quite a few of the same beats as X-Men. The story begins with a young girl whose unstable telepathic powers have driven her to suicide. She’s stopped an enigmatic figure in a dapper suit, who uses his own psychic abilities as well as assistance from his associates to spirit her away to his secluded sanctuary for those with special talents.

On the way to the sanctuary, he elbows a nurse’s head into the wall, leaves her bleeding on the floor, and steals a wheelchair. Then later some of the other young residents beat a man within an inch of his life and steal all his money and vintage headphones, on the extremely watertight pretense that he was going to graffiti part of the house later.

It’s clear from the get-go that writer Eric Stephenson isn’t interested in creating a diverse cast of fun, relatable characters. The people in these annexed San Francisco mansions clearly have all suffered due to their powers, but that hasn’t stopped them from dealing out their own brand of societal punishment. The man in the suit, known only as The Voice, has convinced them that since their loved ones have either shunned or extorted them because of their abilities they will never truly fit in the world, and so they must act above it. And by “above it,” he means “take whatever you want and crush anyone who gets in your way, because who can stop you?”

 They're Not Like Us #1. Image credit: Image Comics
They’re Not Like Us #1. Image credit: Image Comics

After The Voice’s frank explanation of their ideals to newcomer Syd, it’d be pretty easy to hate everyone involved, but Stephenson makes sure to hammer in their insecurities to remind you they’re just as unstable as the premise that they operate on. Blurgirl’s parents capitalized on her superspeed to guilt her into committing crimes for them. Maisie almost committed suicide because she couldn’t control her precognition. The Voice probably has the most tragic backstory of all, but none of it can fully disguise how twisted his ideology is. Plus, barring their violent activities, the residents of The Voice’s house live a pretty nice life of luxury, all the while learning how to control their powers and use them to their fullest potential, making Syd’s conflict over whether or not to stay feel genuine. The house may feel off and she may not agree with their morals, but it’s the closest she’s ever come to feeling better.

Yet as her control of her abilities improves with help from the mute psychic Gruff, so grows her awareness of The Voice’s manipulations and the glaring hypocrisy of his house’s rules. The Voice preaches that the house is a place where they can be free from societal constraints and be themselves, but only as long as you follow his strict dress code, don’t question his judgments, and let go of all your tethers to the outside world. That last part includes submitting to The Voice’s total mental dominance. He erases his student’s memories of their former identities and kills their families to ensure no one comes looking for them. His psychic prowess and nefarious intentions are by far the most disturbing element of the story. He could’ve had Syd and the gang committing mass murder and theft all over San Francisco and nobody would remember a second of it–and some of them probably wouldn’t even care.

Sadly, the Syd/Voice dynamic covers so much of the story that we don’t spend as much time with each of the residents as we would’ve liked. There are some powerful, even heart-breaking conversations between Syd and Maisie, Lithe, Blurgirl, and Fagen, but the rest feel either half-developed or not explored at all, with characters Loog and Runt still very much blank slates. The same goes for Gruff, whose relationship with Syd as he coaches her through her powers looked primed to take off but got sidetracked by everything else happening. Moon’s gift for illusion casting is heavily explored in the story, along with its dark consequences, but we still don’t know that much about her other than she has no problem being whatever others need or want her to be. But if any character is bursting with untapped potential, it’s the empath known as Misery Kid. His scene in the hospital with Syd’s parents is downright chilling, and side conversations coupled with his violent outburst at the story’s climax hint that there is much more to this kid than meets the eye. Anyone whose sudden disappearance has The Voice visibly worried is definitely worth exploring, and we can only hope to see more of his creepy machinations next time TNLU is on the shelves.

They're Not Like Us #1 variant cover. Image credit: Image Comics
They’re Not Like Us #1 variant cover. Image credit: Image Comics

But the biggest pitfall of Black Holes for the Young by far is the art. It’s not technically bad; artist Simon Gane does a solid job of creating a unique aesthetic for TNLU that resembles a sort of distorted version of traditional cartooning that fits in pretty well with the story’s grand vision. No, where he stumbles is the portrayal of these characters as “not like us,” with the exception of Syd. The scenes depicting how she processes her telepathy give us an unfiltered view into how quickly her powers can consume her as well as the serenity that comes with mastering them, and moments where Gane finds himself telling character history through nightmarish imagery are downright genius, but it never transfers to the other characters. Every time Moon casts an illusion, we see it from an outsider’s perspective, which is cool but leaves us wondering what it’s like on her end. Meanwhile, we don’t really see anyone else’s powers in action at all, and in a series that constantly hammers in that “they’re not like us” the lack of illustration of their unique abilities feels like a colossal missed opportunity.

Its visual flaws aside, Black Holes for the Young is an excellent introduction to the world of They’re Not Like Us, and definitely worth your time if you’re looking for a superhero yarn with a mature edge that doesn’t come off as a cheap gimmick or overly cynical and uninterested in its own premise. Sure, it borrows a great deal from the X-Men comics, but TNLU has plenty of its own ideas about accepting yourself for what you are in a contemporary society that actively represses straying from the mold. It doesn’t care one bit if you find its cast unsympathetic or their ideology corrupt. They’re Not Like Us demands to be read, and if Gane and Stephenson can overcome their opening growing pains, there’s potential for this to become the next great indie superhero comic. Just don’t get between them and a pair of vintage headphones.

Final Score: 8/10

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