Mars has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to the recent film adaptation of Andy Weir’s acclaimed The Martian and NASA’s monumental discovery of flowing water on the red planet, so now seems like the ideal time to share a webcomic I’ve been sitting on for a while, Der-Shing Helmer’s Mare Internum. Helmer has a science background and it really shows in this sci-fi comic about a team of scientists exploring Mars. It opens on Mike Fisher, who’s trying to off himself when he gets an urgent call from one of his colleagues. A new crew member, Rebekah Egunsola, or Bex, has just arrived, and Mike’s commander wants him to show her his research site. But Mike’s not too eager to help; he’s more interested in finishing the job he started that morning.
There’s something about Bex, though, that compels Mike to take one last trip to his research site. His work involved a LEVi, or “Levitation Imager; an artificially intelligent semi-autonomous geological survey robot,” and his LEVi was mysteriously lost. (As a side note, don’t you just love when a comic comes with a glossary?) Somehow, the loss of his robot seems linked to his emotional breakdown, but Helmer is cleverly keeping that secret for now. Bex, whose research involves farming insects for an efficient source of protein, tells Mike about how fascinated her children are by LEVi, and his work in particular, and that triggers a sudden softness in the gruff man.
They suit up and travel across the barren Martian landscape toward a huge hole in the ground, which leads to a series of underground tunnels. That’s what Mike’s LEVi had been mapping, and as they get deeper into the chasm, Mike begins to unravel. He accuses his commander of spying on him and using LEVi to control his brain. It’s been clear up to this point that Mike is seriously unwell, but this psychotic break is terrifying, and it’s all the more frightening since the source of his breakdown is still vague and shadowy. As his words crowd the panel, it’s easy to forget that they’re deep underground, far away from any help.
But the cavern is about as fragile as Mike’s mental state, and the bottom falls out, plunging the scientist into a deeper tunnel, which turns out to be a reservoir full of water and nearly breathable air. Following a brief, troubling flashback to his childhood, Mike tries in vain to record and transmit his final words, along with his findings, back to the base, but then he discovers he has bigger problems: There’s something down there with him.
Helmer has a fantastic storytelling sense, slowly revealing clues at a tantalizing pace, and her commitment to realistic science will please hard sci-fi fans. In rich, detailed illustrations, she beautifully portrays both the vast openness of the Mars landscape and the claustrophobic tightness of the base, which exist in uncomfortably close proximity. Likewise, optimistic, eager Bex is an ideal contrast to grim, hopeless Mike, and sticking them together makes for some brilliant tension. There’s plenty more yet to be revealed, and with multiple updates a week, readers shouldn’t have to wait too long for the Martian mysteries to unfold.