It’s now over forty years since the debut of Ridley Scott’s seminal film ALIEN, but to date there have been few attempts to follow up on the movie’s ironic transformation of the space opera. Most stories about galactic empires pursued the swashbuckling model of STAR WARS, to say nothing of distant ancestors from the prose pages of Hamilton, Brackett and Anderson. Ernie Colon’s one-shot graphic novel THE MEDUSA CHAIN appeared four years after ALIEN, but by design or accident, Colon emulated one major aspect of Scott’s work, that of using the space opera not for high adventure but to evoke tedium and tragedy.
The “chain” of the title refers to a cargo-chain, comprised of a ship, designated Medusa, that takes a full six years to trek from the colony world Homeland to the penal planet Annanda-Tor. By this trope alone, Colon establishes that this is not a universe where the heroes zoom through the immensities of outer space without any regard for physical limits. No one in the story comments as to why the ship sports the name “Medusa,” though it might have something to do with the origin of the mythic maiden, transformed against her will from a beauty to a monster—much as the genre of the space opera gets turned into a monstrous form by Colon. It may be just a coincidence that the ship, named for a being with snakes for hair, is voyaging to a world whose name slightly resembles that of the Hinda “Ananta Sesha,” a serpentine deity.
As we meet the story’s hero, he’s about to be sent to Annanda-Tor to serve a year-long sentence for “conspiracy and murder.” This doesn’t sound like a very severe penalty, except that the hero has to labor on the ship for six years to get to the penal planet, and then another six years in space when he returns to Homeland. But then, the crime of Chon Adams isn’t an ordinary murder case.
The hero’s name seems to be a slight exoticization of the mundane modern cognomen “John Adams,” and so is probably not a reference to anything along the lines of the second U.S. President. We know nothing of Chon’s background beyond the fact that he’s a skilled technician— “tec” for short. When cops bring him aboard the Medusa to begin his sentence, he sees a crew made up of grotesque mutants. (In MEDUSA mutants take the place of aliens, since this particular galactic empire doesn’t seem to include anyone but human beings and variations thereon.) As soon as Chon meets his new captain, the sinuous Commander Kilg-9, he makes a belated attempt to escape. Kilg-9 uses her special power (also a mutant skill?) to stun Chon, and then tells him to get to his berth for takeoff. Reaching his quarters, Chon takes out his ire on his new roomie, slugging the heavyset, unspeaking fellow designated Sixty-Six. Immediately afterward, Chon is obliged to demonstrate his buried good-guy nature by keeping his unconscious crewmate from being killed during the takeoff.
Chon’s essential heroism is then explicated by a long flashback. He and some friends sign on to a cargo run sponsored by an oily-looking rich guy named Messberg. While out in space, Chon and his buddies learn that they’ve been set up. The ship has been given inadequate rations so that everyone will starve in space and so that the ship will be lost, thus allowing Messberg to collect a hefty insurance payout. Chon immediately reverses the ship’s course, but the rations are still inadequate for everyone on board. The only solution to get around the “cold equations” of space is to dump all of the “unessential personnel,” allowing Chon and his friends to survive on their paltry rations long enough to reach Homeland and to expose Messberg’s perfidy. Chon shows himself to be the only kind of hero that can exist in this ironic existence: he takes sole responsibility for wiping out the other crewmembers, and he personally hunts down and kills Messberg to make certain the plutocrat can’t buy his way out of the charges. This may be the reason that Chon only gets a year-long sentence for his crime, though Colon does not say so.
Back in real time, Chon then endeavors to resign himself to his fate. The other crewmen, particularly the hulking Basenga, take a dislike to him and plan a dastardly fate for him. In addition, Chon finds out that the Medusa has a unique cargo: a chemical substance called TNC-00, which once destroyed the planet on which it was invented. Chon confronts Kilg-9, who admits that her real mission is to not to deliver him to Annanta-Tor, but to destroy their ancestral planet Earth. His response: “It’s about goddamn time, Madam.”
By this point in the story it’s obvious that the narrative isn’t going to follow the Medusa’s course for the next six years. Chon sorts out his nasty crewmen—only to find himself sympathizing with Basenga after the latter suffers an insidious punishment—and then Chon relates the story of Earth’s utter corruption. Though the planet was once the cradle of human evolution, an element called a “dioxinate” mutates into a virulent poison. The humans who escape to other worlds are the lucky ones. All who remain on Earth mutate into neotenous, sexless creatures called “Earthians,” encased in carapaces and wielding formidable psychic powers.
Kilg-9 hopes to get close enough to Earth to destroy the planet and its inhabitants with her cargo, but she has no more luck than anyone else in the story. The Earthians fly out into deep space to attack the Medusa, and it’s soon obvious that the crewmen have no chance. Kilg-9 is wounded, so that Chon is forced to take command, at which point he learns that the Earthians aren’t just defending themselves. Having been nurtured on one poison, the creatures desire to take possession of the TNC-00, believing that they can assimilate the element’s power in some way. Once again Chon, despite having a heroic mentality, is forced to act expediently: he lets the monsters have what they want. “What of those,” Kilg asks, “who will have to face that power in future?” Chon replies, “I don’t give a shit.” But he does know duty to the people in his own life. Kilg gets him to continue captaining the ship to its original destination, the penal planet. Chon’s last words in the story are “It’s a long, long way to Annanda-Tor.”
Colon mentioned in an AMAZING HEROES interview that he had plans for a sequel, but DC declined to contract for that work. In all likelihood, Chon would not have simply gone meekly to serve out his prison-term. Rather, Colon almost certainly would have had his hero butting heads with more assholes. Still, the notion that he honors his commitment to his captain (and romantic interest) even though it might mean imprisonment is a fitting ironic capper to Chon’s saga. The author does introduce one possible subplot in the last pages of MEDUSA CHAIN, when Sixty-Six reveals that he was always capable of speech but remained silent because he’s a priest who had been observing a “vow of silence” during a “pilgrimage.” Perhaps the nature of Sixty-Six’s pilgrimage would have been integral to Chon’s never-to-be-chronicled second adventure, and it’s intriguing to wonder how Colon would have portrayed any form of religion in a universe apparently dominated by ruthless contingency.