Having tested the waters with Marvel’s “Black Panther” property, Nnedi Okorafor lunges full-force into the comics industry with “LaGuardia” #1. The latest from Berger Books sees the acclaimed writer team up with artists Tana Ford and James Devlin to tell a sci-fi tale about an alien presence in Nigeria. Let’s take a look at how the team lands it.
Written by Nnedi Okorafor
Illustrated by Tana Ford
Colored by James Devlin
Lettered by Sal Cipriano
Set in an alternative world where aliens have come to Earth and integrated with society, LaGuardia revolves around a pregnant Nigerian-American doctor, Future Nwafor Chukwuebuka who has just returned to NYC under mysterious conditions. After smuggling an illegal alien plant named “Letme Live” through LaGuardia International and Interstellar Airport’s customs and security, she arrives at her grandmother’s tenement, the New Hope Apartments in the South Bronx. There, she and Letme become part of a growing population of mostly African and shape-shifting alien immigrants, battling against interrogation, discrimination and travel bans, as they try to make it in a new land. But, as the birth of her child nears, Future begins to change. What dark secret is she hiding? Written by Nnedi Okorafor, Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award winner (Who Fears Death, Binti, Akata series) and illustrated by Tana Ford (Silk, Duck!), the team behind Black Panther: Long Live the King #6.
The core concept of this series is already a lot of fun if you take it at a purely conceptual level. Having Nigeria act as the first contact of alien species and become supremely diverse on Earth makes sense on a few levels, and makes for some fantastic worldbuilding. Having the teacher Citizen house plant-based alien life in his house and becoming increasingly tired of it is a lot of fun and super interesting to read.
When you introduce the core conflict of this series, that Nigeria and to some extent, the rest of the world, is fighting for “purity”, Okorafor’s story becomes even more interesting. When we see Citizen trying to get to the university to teach a class, but is sidelined by protesting students and an interrogating police force, we see that there is a political conflict between the humans and aliens that feels like what movies like District 9 did but on a much larger scale. It makes for interesting real-world parallels and raises some serious questions about the ethics and difficulties of outsiders co-existing with natives in their homeland. The airport sequence in which Future gets disturbed by a kid is a great example of this. It takes a relatively mundane situation like a disruptive child in an airport who’s intrigued by a woman seemingly talking to her unborn child and sets it against a backdrop where there are so many other crazy ongoings like a giant, shelled insectoid with a purse, or large opal-colored cylinders emitting gas every few seconds.
In the midst of this fantastic storytelling, Okorafor has given us some really solid characters to focalize on. Future is an immediately likable protagonist and Okorafor capitalizes on this, as we’re shown her charming and endearing sides contrasted with more subtly tragic details. We see a wry side to her during her scene with the child in the airport, which evolves as we see her go toe-to-toe with a customs officer regarding her immigration to LaGuardia airport, earning her the readers’ respect. We see Future then taking care of an alien plant, self-named Letme Live, showing us that she’s got more secrets than we know but that she seems to be siding with the plants on the political debate rather than siding with purity. However, then we see the reverse as we hear from Future’s grandmother about her parents’ passing some time ago, and we see a moment of tenderness as she silently mourns them. Contrasted to this fantastic protagonist, Okorafor presents us with the relatively murkier Citizen. He’s got a great scene watering his alien plant-life at the start that seems to place him on Future’s political side. Later on, however, after being interrogated by the university policing force, the story seems to imply that he’s with the side of the purists, or at the very least complicating what the political sides represent so early in the story. He’s endearing enough, but Okorafor makes it hard for us to support him by seemingly aligning him with different factions.Continued below
Tana Ford does some great classical looking sci-fi art in this issue, coming up with the fantastical worlds dreamed up by Okorafor. There are so much fantastic little details on every page here that makes it feel truly otherworldly and futuristic. From the first scene showing Citizen tending to his alien plant residents, Ford renders each of them with unique and strange contorted limbs, making each feel physically and look like an individual being. It’s also impressive that a few pages later, Ford can create an establishing shot of Nigeria as a city that feels grand and all-encompassing, yet only takes up one panel stretching a third of the page. From there, you have to admire the effort the Ford puts into populating this comic with so much interesting alien fauna. Having a tiny aircraft land on the ground with a TINK and watching little amoeba-like beings emerge from it doing human activities like playing with smartphones at the same time hilarious and inventive. Ford also makes sure to let loose with diversifying the line for the LaGuardia customs office as much as possible. In one panel, we get a queue with Buddhist monks, a giant dog/bat creature, a blue devil-faced humanoid wearing a sweater vest, and a large cucumber-like entity with a bird beak and pointy elfish ears. Ford goes nuts with what Okorafor has given her in this setting, and it’s a pleasure to take in.
The facial language here is really intricate and subtle, with Ford baking every character in this, human or otherwise, super believable. We get everything from the comedic, to the commonplace, and all the way to the tragic with Ford’s simple yet clean-lined style. Watching Citizen tend to his plant citizens, he wears a stoic face of resigned skepticism with a healthy raised eyebrow. Moving over to Future, we see her move from worried concern in the airport to sudden aggravation when the kid tugs her hair, to sly success when she receives the compliment from the child’s mother. She’s a complex yet fun character, and Ford emphasizes it. Smaller, unnamed characters aren’t even left out from this detailed emotive work. The university interrogation guard that questions Citizen starts off with a harried face of anger, before moving to sudden concern and letting Citizen go off with hesitant resolve. What I love, however, is the human and endearing the plant alien Letme looks. From showing Letme shaking its limbs with joy as it arrives in Future’s car saying “Oh happy day!”, to watching it drop its eyes and retract its tentacled limbs, revealing that Letme needs to ‘root’ to stay alive, Ford makes sure this little plant is one of the most charming of the entire cast.
The sci-fi tone of this book calls for some pretty bright and stark coloring from James Devlin, who handily supplies a solid palette. The most striking use of Devlin’s work is the vibrant colors of the different races of alien life, from the bright greens, blues, and reds of the flora aliens, to the aquamarine gradients of the amoeba-people. However, the bright colors can feel a little cluttered in some scenes, especially in the airport sequence where there is already multiple rainbow colored objects in the background that stand out than most of the foreground. Devlin’s shading is solid too, in most parts, giving a cartoon/digitally painted hybrid style, although it can look a little plastic in some instances, and end up offputting.
“LaGuardia” #1 is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking sci-fi debuts as of late. Okorafor conjures up a weird and fantastic world in which extraterrestrial racial problems run rampant, yet a little sentient plant can still steal your heart away. Tana Ford renders it all to life with incredible detail, and Devlin brings it to the next vibrant level, although it can clash a bit too harshly at times. This is definitely a high-concept tale worth checking out.
Final Score: 8.2 – “LaGuardia” #1 is classic speculative fiction at its best, coupled with an endearing protagonist, and a vibrant, living sci-fi world rendered by a fantastic art team.