The story behind Phoenix Without Ashes is almost as important as the story itself.
In 1973, famed science fiction author Harlan Ellison was hired to write a television series to be called The Starlost. The producers did not stick very closely to Ellison's vision and Ellison ended up taking his name off of the pilot episode. Only 16 episodes of the series were shot, and it disappeared into obscurity.
But Ellison didn't completely let his story die. In 1975, writer Edward Bryant adapted Ellison's original pilot script into a novel called Phoenix Without Ashes. Although it was positioned at the time as book one in a series, no other volumes were ever published.
Flash forward to 2011, and now we have Phoenix Without Ashes, the graphic novel, which adapts Ellison's screenplay and Bryant's novel into comics form. Ellison himself is credited as creator and writer of the graphic novel, although there is nothing to indicate he actually scripted the comic book version. The art chores are handled by Alan Robinson, who provides some lovely layouts and linework, and colorist Kote Carvajal, whose tones make the book shine.
So what's the story of Phoenix Without Ashes? It starts with a young Amish man named Devon, who lives in a tiny community just a few hundred miles wide that no one ever leaves. Devon is in love with a young woman named Rachel and wants to marry her, but the Elders who rule his community have promised her to another. That conflict leads Devon to rebel against his leaders, which puts him on the run as he uncovers a terrible truth: that the machine that supposedly dictates the will of God to the Elders and the community is nothing less than a lie.
As Devon runs, he discovers something else. His community's tiny world is just that—a fake world in a steel bubble, attached by a secret corridor to a large ship (an ark) full of other bubbles (biospheres) carrying other, isolated communities, none of whom know that the larger ship or the other inhabitants even exist.
What's worse, Devon finds that the ship's crew have long since died, their homeworld of Earth has been destroyed by some unknown disaster, and the ship is off course, heading into the heart of a nova that will in a few years destroy all aboard.
It's a well-told story, full of danger and mystery, and unfortunately, that's also the main problem with this book. Since it's adapted from Ellison's original pilot script, which was intended to start a long TV series on its multiseason path, this graphic novel is all setup. It's the beginning of a much larger story intended to go on for many more chapters, if not many more years. All of the conflict is established, but nothing is resolved.
And nearly 40 years after the original airing of The Starlost, it appears that nothing in this story ever will be resolved. IDW published this book in February 2011 (after serializing it in 2010) and has yet to announce a second volume. That's a shame. A lot of work obviously went into Phoenix Without Ashes, and it's a pretty, engaging portion of a story, but it's not a complete book, and probably never will be. Too bad. It would have been nice to see this phoenix finally rise. Alas, it's nothing but a ghost of what could have been.
Reviewed by John R. Platt on July 12, 2012
Phoenix Without Ashes