“Atriox, the legendary Brute under the command of the alien collective known as the Covenant, leads a Brute assault against a UNSC military outpost. Wave after wave of Brutes are lost attacking the human outpost defended by a group of UNSC marines, the ruthless Atriox soldiers on. As his comrades fall, Atriox’s hatred for the Covenant grows.”
This was something of an impromptu decision because I didn’t really plan to write anything for Rise of Atriox, but it has been a week since the first issue released and… I’m still thinking about it. It has actually stuck with me past the point of turning the final page.
And it’s begging me to write down some thoughts about why it hasn’t simply been a ‘one-and-done’ read for the sake of a monthly fix of background lore.
Be warned, we’re dropping feet first into spoiler territory!Rise of Atriox is a five-part anthology comic series that explores the backstory of Halo Wars 2′s antagonist, Atriox – leader of the newly-introduced Banished faction. While the basics of Atriox’s backstory were covered in the game (through a cutscene and a mini-arc of Phoenix Logs), this anthology series aims to go into more of the specific details around the Jiralhanae warlord’s rise to power.
This first issue follows the final stand of Sergeant Kress, who is, as of several minutes before the beginning of the comic, the highest-ranking individual at a UNSC outpost under siege. Beatrix, the outpost’s damaged AI, informs Kress that she is now in-charge of the fifty-six survivors.
What struck me immediately with this set-up was how it’s presented as a moment out of time. We aren’t told when this battle takes place, what year it’s in; we aren’t told where it takes place, what doomed planet it’s on. We, like Kress, are simply thrown into the thick of it – it could be anywhere, at any time in the Human-Covenant war.
The only real indicator of time is the fact that we see a Type-33 fuel rod gun, which puts it at some point after 2531, according to an old page on bungie.net. But the point is that it’s intentionally nebulous.
In the quiet moments before the next Covenant attack, Kress questions why the Covenant are so intent on sending wave after wave of Jiralhanae against a minimally-occupied outpost of no real importance. Why pointlessly waste lives and resources on them?
Beatrix responds that the Covenant, quite simply, wants them dead.Kress attempts to contact the UNSC for support, but she’s interrupted by one of her fellow Marines informing her that one of the Jiralhanae is – just barely – still alive, and asks whether he should put it out of its misery. Kress notes that the Jiralhanae is bleeding out and they would be better off saving the ammo, and then the Marine notices, with disgust, that the Jiralhanae seems proud.
Beatrix then alerts Kress of a fresh wave of Jiralhanae approaching the base – forty of them, to be exact…
Among their number is Atriox.
“Forty at a time they carelessly sent them in. Forty to break the front lines… forty to die for beliefs not their own. And none ever returned. Until he did.” [Isabel, Halo Wars 2 – A New Enemy]
As the Jiralhanae steamroll their way through the Marines, Beatrix counts down the dwindling numbers of survivors. At this point, all Kress and her Marines can do is try to survive until help arrives, but she’s taken completely aback by the fact that the Jiralhanae rushing at them know they’re going to be shredded to bits… and they don’t care.
Eventually, Kress is one of two Marines left standing.
No message reached command.
No help is on the way.
Kress ponders which of them is truly fighting for nothing as she makes one final ditch attempt to escape with the other survivor, charging the Jiralhanae ranks with a Warthog and, miraculously, seems to escape. They make it out of the outpost. But then Atriox takes a fuel rod gun from one of his brothers and fires on the Warthog – destroying both the vehicle and the driver.
As the last person standing, Kress bravely draws her combat knife and faces Atriox alone, repeating her observation of the Covenant’s behaviour from the start of the issue.
“They keep sending them after us… wave after wave…. wasting them… like they’re just emptying a magazine.
They’ve already won. They tore right through us. But they don’t want to leave anyone alive down here… not our troops… not theirs.
They could glass us from space, but that’s not good enough.
It’s like… they want blood.”
I don’t think I need to tell you what the outcome is…What I really have to praise about this issue is how well it works with the limitations of the format, which is something Halo comics have seriously struggled with over the years.
This is only twenty pages long, yet it packs in such a rich amount of detail for the kind of story it is telling – Cullen Bunn, the writer of this issue, is clearly adept with a ‘less is more’ approach to writing which really shines here. Where the majority of the Escalation comics were so frustratingly bloated with superfluous nonsense, this first issue of Rise of Atriox comes out of the gate knowing exactly what it’s going for.
It’s a completely self-contained prologue to this anthology that serves as more of a tonal introduction to the kind of setting that birthed Atriox than something that just front-loads a series of plot points and exposition at you without any substance – any meat – or taking a moment to let any aspect of the story breathe.
“Some horror elements rear their ugly heads in this story. This is absolutely a story about the horrors of war, about staring into the face of hopelessness. There were parameters to follow for sure. This had to fit into the tone of the Halo mythos, and it had to fit smoothly into the history of Atriox, but I feel as though I was still able to tell my kind of story. It’s dark and cruel and vicious.” [Cullen Bunn, ‘Angry Atriox Brings Hell To Halo’ (17/6/17)]
This first issue of Rise of Atriox is a gratuitous display of some of the worst, most pointless and senseless violence that occurred in the Human-Covenant war. This is the background that Atriox rose from, a background where survival isn’t a choice you make or a reward you earn. Survival is achieved by being the last one standing as you climb atop the mountain of corpses you piled up to get there.
It calls to mind the chaos and horror depicted in Halo 3‘s much-revered (dare I say ‘iconic’) Believe advertisement.
Another thing that is brought up by Bunn and Vince Bersio (the interviewer) is the idea of what makes a “good soldier”.
Vince Bersio: “Saying one is a ‘good soldier’ is a loaded term, and subjective. It could mean the individual follows orders religiously, despite their weight and repercussions. It could also mean the individual adheres to the ‘code,’ and looks out for his peers on the battlefield, and will readily choose death before he leaves a fellow solider to die alone. But a good soldier can also mean the individual is a whirlwind of pain. The rider on the pale horse. Death on two legs. It might mean Atriox. In Halo: Rise of Atriox #1, writer Cullen Bunn explains that Atriox will exemplify the meaning of a good soldier who exists for only one purpose: to destroy any and all opposition, and to never stop. To stop for nothing.”
Cullen Bunn: “I was given a lot of reference in regards to Atriox, but he was still a bit of an enigma. To dig into his brain, I had to consider the purpose he was supposed to serve. Atriox was thrown into battle again and again, and he was never expected to return. He was the picture of expendable, and his masters genuinely tried to expend him, to waste him, to use him up. He saw so many of his comrades-in-arms die for no real reason, and it started to weigh on him. It created a chip on his shoulder. It set a flame of seething anger burning inside of him. He’s conditioned for war, taught to be a good soldier, but he is so, so angry.” [‘Angry Atriox Brings Hell To Halo’]
And, of course, the first thing that comes to mind when considering this particular theme is the dialogue between John and Lasky in Halo 4‘s epilogue.
John: “Our duty, as soldiers, is to protect humanity. Whatever the cost…”
Lasky: “You say that like soldiers and humanity are two different things. Soldiers aren’t machines. We’re just people.” [Halo 4, Epilogue]
It is this combination of idea that has led to me finally ‘getting’ Atriox.
Atriox is Thel ‘Vadam who ‘went the other way’.
Both of them were ‘good soldiers’ for the Covenant, tools used by the Prophets (Thel for his prestige, Atriox – and his brothers – for their brutality), and were sent on suicide missions, and both broke free of the Covenant to reclaim their respective identities – or, if you prefer, build new ones.
Thel wants to make the galaxy a better place (in Escalation, he is described by Lasky as “a symbol of what the galaxy could one day become”), he cares about his people and he has a considerable position of power and privilege as both a kaidon and as ‘The Arbiter’, a cultural icon of his people, with all the historical baggage that comes with that rank and role.
Thel has always been somebody (the king)… whereas Atriox was a nobody (the pawn).Rise of Atriox illustrates the sheer uncaring brutality (heh) of the life Atriox lived – “staring into the face of hopelessness,” as Bunn put it. He was thrown into suicide missions time and time again where nobody expected him to survive, and certainly nobody cared whether he did or not.
There is a noted hypocrisy in how Atriox broke free of the Covenant’s oppression, only for the Banished to demonstrate the exact same kind of ruthless ambivalence towards their own people. But I think there’s a good case to be made for there being no ‘lesson’ for Atriox to learn from his experience with the Covenant.
In order for him to learn something, I think there would have to have been a point to the things the Prophets made him do, and, as this first issue of Rise of Atriox makes disturbingly clear, there wasn’t.
Atriox was thrown into a pit of needless, senseless slaughter – and that’s the kind of mimetic violence he projects back at everyone else. He doesn’t have any high aspirations of improving the galaxy like Thel does.
To Atriox, life is war. It’s all there is.
To live is to struggle. You survive by being the biggest and the baddest, which is why he went to the Ark, to get his hands on the biggest and baddest weapons of all – the Halos.
Bunn, again, demonstrates his understanding of this aspect of Atriox’s character, when asked what Atriox would say to the Marines he and his thirty-nine other brothers are made to fight in this issue.
Vince Brusio: “If all shackles were dropped, and you could allow Atriox to speak freely, what would he say directly to the soldiers stationed at the UNSC military outpost? Imagine his thoughts are projected in a pirate broadcast that the marines could hear at the base. What would Atriox say?”
Cullen Bunn: “He would tell the soldiers that they, too, are nothing but expendable. They are nothing more than cannon fodder to be thrown at their enemies. He would tell them that he doesn’t blame them for what they are. He bears them no malice. But he would also tell them that he offers no mercy. They have a role to play, just as he does, and that means that he must kill them all.” [‘Angry Atriox Brings Hell To Halo’]
Some of the criticisms I’ve seen of this issue are directed at how little this does to flesh Atriox out as a character, since he doesn’t talk and we don’t necessarily learn anything new about him. But, as I’ve (hopefully) illustrated in the points I made above, that couldn’t be further from the truth in my eyes, and I think it’s reflective of people going into this story expecting the wrong thing.
This is a standalone thematic prologue to the more character-driven instalments yet to come – that much is made evident by the official summaries for them, which tell of Atriox confronting the Sangheili Executioner, recruiting the likes of Decimus and Let ‘Volir, dealing with Kig-Yar scientists and tension over personal loyalties. They promise more character-driven narratives for Atriox and the Banished.
This introductory issue, though, is entirely about showing rather than telling.
Instead of telling us about the pointless suicide missions that the Covenant sent Atriox on, as Halo Wars 2‘s expository cutscene with Isabel does, it has us join him on one – but through the lens of a group of UNSC survivors helplessly holding out against this unstoppable force.
It shows us what that was like, which may not tell us anything new, but it absolutely substantiates the context.
And the extent to which this is verbally punctuated through dialogue isn’t through clumsily delivered exposition, but through the repetition of Kress’ “It’s like they want blood” speech at the start and end of the issue. It really hammers in the horror and hopelessness of the situation by working with Bunn’s minimalist storytelling style.Suffice to say, I really enjoyed this opening issue. I went in with minimal expectations, I was fully prepared for another let-down, as Escalation and Tales From Slipspace have been for me. Instead, it looks like somebody finally got the memo regarding all the community criticism directed at these projects and they actually made a concerted effort to do something about it.
The artwork is a big step up, too. The colours really stand out with the simple-yet-effective contrast between orange and blue, but the line-work and detail is far closer to the likes of Halo: Uprising and Helljumpers than some of the abominable nightmare fuel we saw from 2013-15 in Initiation and Escalation.
Likewise, I like the subtle reference to the Halo Graphic Novel and Uprising by showing Atriox’s speech as Covenant glyphs. There’s some nice little details in there that make it very easy for me to appreciate this first issue and to get excited for where it’s going over the next few months.
To bring this to a close, I heartily recommend purchasing Rise of Atriox #1 and showing support for this notable improvement in the quality of Halo comics. I hope that the rest of the anthology follows through on this promising start!
You can purchase Rise of Atriox #1 on Dark Horse’s site here (there’s a free preview too if you’re not entirely convinced).