Your Spaceships do What? Webcomics and FTL Travel

So, I’ve been catching up on Dave Kellet’s excellent sci-fi webcomic, Drive. Trawling back through the archive not only reminded me how much I love the universe Kellett has invented, but also how unparalleled webcomics are at ‘driving’ innovations in storytelling and genre. In this case, bringing ever new and unique takes to the ubiquitous faster-than-light travel of Space Opera.

If you’re unfamiliar with Drive (pretty mild spoilers ahead, but be warned nonetheless!), Kellett’s FTL technology follows some pretty familiar concepts – on the surface. Each of the starships that use the drive technology are fitted with a ‘drive ring’, the unseen technology inside which is used to manipulate gravity fields. By doing so, the rings create singularities through which “pinches” space, therefore allowing FTL speeds. Where it gets interesting, though, is that Kellett implies the technology in humanity’s drive rings may be sentient. And that little development becomes the driving force behind the conflict in his plot – because the alien race that invented the technology which humans copied view it’s budding sentience as an abomination, and take exception to our using it to forge our empire.

It speaks to the value of webcomics – and sequential art in general – that Kellett is able to develop and explore the implications behind this technology, and spin an entire galaxy-spanning plot around it. And he’s not alone. Longtime webcomic fans will recognise the parallels found in Kris Straub’s Starslip and Howard Tayler’s (recently mentioned) Schlock Mercenary. These classic webcomic space operas also spend a great deal of time and plot centrality focusing on FTL technologies – much more than you get in other forms of storytelling (such as film or television). For example, the hyperdrive of Star Wars is certainly used as a plot device, but the way in which it actually operates is barely mentioned. Neither is the warp drive of Star Trek central to the development of plots in the movies or the TV series’ – it’s just a device to get you to the place where the story happens, or break along the way so the characters have something to do.

By contrast, the crisis that resulted from using Starslip engines to jump between parallel universes was the whole focus of the original series’ plot – and marked the separation between original narrative arc and the new focus of time travel in the soft reboot. In a similar way, the invention, spread and subsequent ubiquity of the the teraport drove the plot of Schlock Mercenary’s first two books, the ripples of which still play out in the background of the series.

It’s an approach you can only get from webcomics – taking the time allowed by months and years of updates to develop the narrative around these technologies and make them more than simple window dressing in the background. Even better, by having the time to play around with new things, webcomics get to invent the sort of complex and weird technologies that you couldn’t get through to the audience of a movie. Or which end up getting TV series cancelled. Kellett, in Drive, is taking full advantage of the format and the creative freedom it allows. And even if it’s a little frustrating to wait soooo long for the answers we’re slowly getting, it’s still thrilling to watch him spend the time to really develop and explore his technology and from that fabric, weave his grand narrative.

What do you think? Do you know any other space-sailing webcomics with a unique take on FTL travel? Or is our interest in this getting lost in space? Let us know in the comments!

And until next time, remember – don’t eat the clickbait!

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